NASSAU, Bahamas – Remember a simpler time in golf? When bona fide controversies didn’t involve another country’s sovereign wealth fund, mounting lawsuits or generational consequences?
Remember when the only time math was an issue when someone signed an incorrect scorecard and the world ranking, although a historically malignant concept, wasn’t considered “laughable?”
Remember when a player’s “impact” was measured by instinct and intuition, not algorithms and Q-Scores?
Well, the simple days are here again, at least for a moment, thanks to the most basic of pro golf controversies: mud balls.
That’s right, Day 3 at the Hero World Challenge was marred by the most innocent of issues; officials decided to let the rub of the green have its way after playing the ball “up” for the first two rounds.
That’s where the outrage began.
Every player had a tale to tell Saturday. For Collin Morikawa, his “mud” moment came at the par-4 fourth hole, where a year earlier his title hopes unraveled when he found a bush left of the green on his approach.
“That immediately crept into my head, because I had mud on [the right side of his golf ball], which means the ball’s going left,” Morikawa explained, “Problem is the wind’s going right, so now I have no clue where to aim, and I ended up aiming straight in the bush and, thankfully, it kind of went with the wind at the end. Not a good feeling.”
For Justin Thomas, the most challenging moment came on the par-5 third hole. It’s normally a two-shot hole for JT, but that changed when his tee shot found the fairway and a large clump of mud.
“I had a lot of mud on the front of the ball, but it wasn’t really in enough of one side to have any idea where it was going to go to be honest,” he said. “With the big crosswind, I thought there was a little more on the left, but I couldn’t aim it left of the green so I just tried to kind of punch a 5-wood and it didn’t work out for me. ”
If the uncertainty of a full shot with a mud ball is concerning, then the anxiety is elevated even more with the delicate shots that are required around the greens. The closely mown Bermuda grass collection areas at Albany are already some of the most challenging on Tour, and adding mud to the mix only complicates things.
For the perfectionist in every top player, it can be a bit much.
“It’s infuriating,” said Scottie Scheffler, who is alone in second place at 10 under and three shots behind front-runner Viktor Hovland. “It’s frustrating; you spend so much time trying to learn how to control your golf ball, and then you’re in the middle of the fairway and you have no idea where the ball’s going to go.”
To be fair, players acknowledged that everyone was dealing with the same mud, and with a 20-man field at an unofficial event, this probably isn’t a reason to get too worked up. In fact, Thomas said it wasn’t even close to his worst experience with mud balls on tour. That came during the canceled 2020 Players Championship.
“I just remember at The Players that day was so muddy, and I got so many mud balls. I got a mud ball so bad I took my phone out of my bag and took a picture because I can’t even describe this to people how bad it is — they have to see it,” Thomas laughed. “I hit this shot that literally went 10 feet off the ground and hooked like 100 yards into a bush. Clearly, I remember that; that was a really bad one.”
By comparison, Saturday at Albany Resort was better, but it was far from easy.
It’s predictable to dismiss the complaints about mud balls as the rantings of pampered professionals, but the truth is, there’s nothing more uncommonly cruel for a tour type than a mud ball.
For an athlete who has worked his entire life to remove the variables in a game ruled by variables, the mud ball introduces an exorbitant amount of uncertainty.
“It’s a guess — it’s an absolute guess, and it sucks,” Morikawa said.
As controversies go in 2022 — the most contentious year in modern professional golf — an unpopular decision by rules officials to play the ball “down” might seem trivial, silly even, but it does help bring the game back to a simpler time when mud was a reason to get worked up.