Golf | 24 Mar 2017 | By Michael Vlismas
Thomas Aiken’s Beautiful Mind for Golf
| Photo by Grant Leversha
A discussion with Thomas Aiken about golf is one of the great pleasures you can afford yourself in this game. Aiken has long been South Africa’s own Bryson DeChambeau. He is a golfer who thinks differently about the game, and who will readily use mathematical equations and even philosophy to make his point.
These are the best conversations. I often find that the real value for me in the word “professional” is not how they hit the ball better than most of us, but rather the way they think and approach this game.
And there are those professional golfers who can talk with you about things beyond golf. Like listening to one of our top professionals give his thoughts on Christianity. Or another who educated me on the bonding properties of certain metals (there was a very lengthy hold-up on a par-three on a golf course in the bushveld, ok?
Nothing else was exactly jumping to the top of the attention leaderboard at that moment). There was the one pro who tried to talk me through how you rebuild a car’s engine, but he lost me somewhere between the manifold and gaskets.
But in this general sense, Aiken is golf’s version of that stimulating after-dinner conversation and debate.
And as we stood next to the putting green at a major tournament recently, Aiken said something that hit me like a two iron between the eyes.
"The biggest problem is that golf is becoming a little bit boring."
I was surprised to hear this from one of the most passionate golfers you can find. Aiken loves this game to its core. He breathes its history and lives everything it stands for. And he is fanatically proud about representing South Africa as a golfer.
This is perhaps why he makes such a valid point.
“Golf is in a decline at the moment. We are not getting as many golfers as we used to and not as many are playing. But I don’t think it’s necessarily format that is the cause of that,” he said as we discussed the European Tour’s new initiatives to shake things up with a bit of match play here and there.
“I’m saying this as a passionate golfer who loves the game and what the game used to be. I think the modern golf ball goes too straight.”
This I found particularly interesting. You see, it’s man’s desire to try and make everything easier in the belief that easier makes for a better life. But the reality is that the odd bit of chaos and unpredictability is what truly makes for a stimulating life.
It’s the same in golf. The mere fact that we still cannot hit the perfect shot everytime in golf is what has kept this game so interesting for hundreds of years. And even a professional like Thomas Aiken feels the same.
“The old wound balls, if you mishit them they went skew, and that was an element of the game that made a big difference,” he said.
“You used to be able to manoeuvre the old ball. As a kid I used to hit the biggest shapes I could because it was fun to see the ball fly. Now every shot looks the same. We need to make golf fun again.”
Thomas Aiken is not the first to suggest a dial back of the technology in golf balls. Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player have spent years calling for this. But it’s strange that nobody seems to be hearing them. We’re banning certain clubs, we’re making certain ways of putting illegal, we’re lengthening golf courses, we’re dope testing players, but we’re not touching the golf ball.
“The golf ball is vastly different, and that’s where the biggest technology change has come in. Titleist has done an amazing job developing an unbelievable golf ball, but it’s too good. And it’s not their fault.
“When I started playing golf, the Tour Balata was an unbelievable golf ball. They did a good job then and they’re still being allowed to do an ever better job now. I think that is definitely an aspect the R&A needs to look at going forward.
“You see, a few years ago golf courses didn’t need to be that long because the ball didn’t go that far, but it was harder to hit straight. Now you’re seeing these really long golf courses that are expensive to maintain. You have to buy more land, you have to use more water – and these are resources that the world just doesn’t have at the moment. I think that’s why you see golf course design on the decline because it’s just too expensive to build golf courses. From that perspective it’s a shame the game has evolved the way it has.”
Thomas Aiken has a fascinating take on golf equipment as a whole.
For a start, he is one of the few top professionals who does not have an equipment contract, purely because he plays such a mixed bag of clubs he feels are best suited to his game.
“Golf clubs actually haven’t changed much. My irons still look like a 1976 blade iron. There is no difference in the design. My shafts were designed in 1979. That was the first year that my shaft came out, and I’m still using it today.
“Yes, woods have changed. They’re bigger, they’re easier to make contact with. But if I take the old wood and hit a modern golf ball, the wooden ones are within 20 yards and the metal ones are within 10 yards between those clubs and the modern clubs of today.
“Manufacturers sometimes give me hell for being difficult because I don’t go into new equipment that easily. But what people don’t understand is that as a professional you hit a lot of golf balls and the club becomes an appendage to your body. When you’re used to playing with that club all the time it feels like your arm. You put a new club in your hand and it feels different. It takes time to work on that.
“Yes, everybody can work their way into a new club. But my point is, I won’t change a club unless it’s proven on the golf course to go better. Not just the same. If it’s the same why must I change? It must go better.
“I might change my lob wedge but by change I mean using the same lob wedge as before, but with fresher grooves. The performance is better because the grooves are fresher. There is a definite difference.
"I’m one of those players that has chosen not to be paid by a manufacturer from a club perspective because I want to use what I want to use."
That’s why Aiken was genuinely astounded by how many of his fellow professionals who had previously played with Nike clubs switched equipment as soon as the company announced their exit from clubmaking.
“If you are changing your clubs, and so many of them are doing so, then you couldn’t have been using what’s best for you. I’ve still got about 11 Nike clubs in my bag still. They’ve left that business but it’s still good for me. Sure, you get paid to use certain clubs. But I feel you make most of your money on the golf course, unless you are a Major winner. So I’ve always found the best is to just be honest with yourself and use what suits you. It’s like life in general.
“I’m a big believer in there being many ways to do something. Just look at mathematics, there are many ways to solve an equation.”
Perhaps, I suggest, we get Aiken and DeChambreu in a room together to brainstorm golf, and mathematics, and philosophy, and who knows what else may come of such a fruitful bonding of minds. And I suggest we do it at your place in the Bahamas. I’ll moderate. While we go fishing. Or snorkelling.