Bernard Gallacher has been a professional golfer for almost 50 years. He’s played on eight Ryder Cup sides and was captain of the European Ryder Cup teams of 1991, 93 and 95. Over his years in the sport, he’s seen the game change hugely – courses have lengthened, players have become fitter and equipment technology has advanced considerably.
In this exclusive interview on the eve of the 2014 Ryder Cup, Bernard talks about the changes he’s witnessed in the game since he first captained Europe in the Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island in 1991. He gives his thoughts on equipment, the swing, player fitness and physique.
What are the most significant equipment advances since 1991?
The two big changes have been the driver and the golf ball. The introduction of titanium so that driver heads could be much larger and easier to play, but not heavy, has made a huge difference. It’s made golf more enjoyable, made it easier to hit the driver. And this is not just for the pros but, probably more importantly, for the amateurs.
Also there have been improvements in the graphite shaft. At first the graphite shaft was difficult to control because of the torque. Now, it’s actually a very easy shaft to control, in fact it’s much easier than steel.
The golf ball definitely goes much further than it used to and it’s more consistent. Modern golf balls are magnificently engineered and manufactured pieces of equipment, and I think that’s helped the game in general.
How would today’s top players get on with 1991 equipment? – The persimmon-headed woods, bladed irons and balata balls…
Well, I think it’s still about the swing. I think they would struggle at first, but they would practise and eventually they would get used to it.
But what they’d notice is the ball wouldn’t go as far, and it wouldn’t go so straight. The softer balata ball used to spin more, and so they would have to change their strategy.
That’s why the old professionals used to either hit it left to right or right to left, all the time. They could shape the ball a lot easier with the old equipment. Now the ball definitely does go in more of a straight line and, of course, if you’ve been brought up with that then that’s how you play. Any change from that would, inevitably, be challenging.
How have things changed on the greens?
Today’s greens are magnificent – the quality is so high on all of the greens the players putt on and they tend to be extremely fast. In the past, the greens might have been slightly slower and players used a different technique as a result.
It’s certainly more of a stroke on the greens now. In my days as a player you had to give the ball a real hit with the putter. At that time there was more wrist action involved. Now wrist action has been cut out and that’s why you see players using these larger grips – to cut the wrists out of it. And, until the rules change in 2016, that’s why players have moved to the belly, or broom-handle style putters.
What about other elements of the game? How have things changed in terms of player preparation and fitness?
It’s more of a package for the professional golfer now. And, yes, fitness is a very important part of that package. We used to think that Gary Player was a bit eccentric really: The way he used to do all these exercises for golf. But, as it turned out, he was the one who was right and everybody else was wrong.
I think that if I were playing at the top level today, I would definitely spend more time on my fitness than I did when I was younger. Improved fitness enables these young guys to hit the ball huge distances. Also, their stamina has improved and they can keep going in the top gear right through a tournament.
But, even though these guys at the top level are proper athletes, one of the beauties of golf is that it’s still enjoyable as you get older. Golfers across the whole age and fitness spectrum can get out there and have fun on the course – that’s what makes this sport so great.