THE 13TH hole at Augusta National, named Azalea after the riotous pink blooms behind the green, is one of golf’s most celebrated par-fives. Its fairway turns sharply left after 275 yards, still 235 short of the flag. Most recreational players need three strokes to reach that azalea-fringed green—which is protected by a creek at the front and four bunkers at the back. Yet several competitors at this year’s Masters tournament, which starts at Augusta on April 8th, will expect to be on it in two.

Among them will be Bryson DeChambeau. Thanks to data analysis, more powerful clubs, more muscle and better technique, golf’s biggest hitters are driving the ball farther than ever, and the Californian farther than anyone. Last year Mr DeChambeau put on 40lb and a few yards. In September he won the US Open. And in November, at the Masters, bookmakers predicted he would triumph again, thanks to his ability to bomb the ball 350 yards or more and reach the greens on par-fives with just a drive and a short, lofted iron. On the final day, he holed out in a mere three shots on the 13th. (Alas, he hit some wild shots into the bushes, too, so he did not come close to winning the tournament. Another mighty hitter, Dustin Johnson, did.)

The defanging of golf’s most fearsome courses encapsulates a problem facing authorities in several sports. How should they respond when better technology, allied with improved physique and technique, lets players take a leap forward? Do they weigh them down again, or let them soar?

Thirty years ago, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) was facing a similar conundrum. Players were getting stronger and wielding more powerful rackets. Games were dominated by big serves and shorter, less entertaining rallies: “Just boom, boom, boom; bang, bang, bang,” shrugged Jimmy Connors, winner of eight Grand Slam tournaments in the 1970s and 1980s. According to Jeff Sackmann, a tennis analyst, the average length of a point in men’s singles finals at Wimbledon fell from just under three shots (ie, serve, return, winner) in 1981-85 to just above 1.5 (serve, returned half the time) by the end of the 1990s. On his way to the title in 2001 Goran Ivanisevic blasted 213 aces.

The ITF, with the organisers of the four Grand Slams, took action. Balls were made bigger and fluffier, so they travelled through the air more slowly. Courts were relaid with different materials to encourage bounce; at Wimbledon, different grass was sown. It worked: Mr Sackmann calculates that in 2011-15 the average point length at Wimbledon was up to more than four shots. Points got longer at the Australian and US Opens, too.

All the while, players have adapted, both to power and to changing conditions. Mark Kovacs, a tennis coach, says that having grown up facing big serves, the generation of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal not only served well themselves but became better than their predecessors at returning the ball. And Mr Kovacs expects “a big increase in the next five years in the power and speed of tennis players’ shots” as the game makes fuller use of sports science. This could in turn prompt the authorities to act again if power becomes too dominant once more.
In athletics and swimming, technology poses governing bodies a different problem. Runners and swimmers battle not only their opponents and the elements, but also the clock. Great rivalries and fierce championship races are thrilling—but doubly so when records are broken.

Several studies have suggested that humans are approaching the physical limits of how fast they can run and swim. On the track and in the pool, the progression of world records has slowed dramatically. In the 1960s seven men lowered the record for the 400 metres by a combined 1.3 seconds. In the next 50 years it was broken only thrice more, by a total of 0.8 seconds. Several marks in women’s sprinting have stood for more than 30 years. In 2008 Mark Denny, a Stanford biologist, estimated the fastest possible times for a range of races. So far, all but one of his predictions have held up. Even the mighty Usain Bolt failed to break the Denny barrier, despite setting records for the men’s 100 and 200 metres (9.58 and 19.19 seconds, both at the world championships in Berlin in 2009).

But lately, technology—in the shape of the newest running shoes—has helped athletes start smashing world records again, at least at longer distances. At the same meeting in October 2020, runners wearing Nike shoes cropped four seconds from the best time for the women’s 5,000 metres, which had stood for 12 years, and six from for the men’s 10,000 metres record, after 15.

Unlike the tennis authorities in the boom-boom years, World Athletics has taken a broadly permissive view. It has updated its guidelines, but the new rules would still allow almost all of the record-breaking shoes to be worn at the Olympics due to take place in Tokyo this summer. “It is a very difficult line to tread,” says Gareth Balch of Two Circles, a sports marketing agency. “You want to balance being modern and relevant with being contextual and traditional. The shoes are right on the line.”

A blanket ban on next-generation shoes would open World Athletics to accusations of obstructing innovation. But if it does nothing, record times could become so quick that modern, tech-powered athletics becomes shorn from glorious achievements in the past. Swimming offers a cautionary tale. Its governing body, FINA, permitted drag-reducing all-in-one polyurethane suits before the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Twenty-five world records were set, 23 of them by swimmers wearing all-in-ones. The suits became almost a requirement for winning a gold medal. FINA banned them the following year, but has been left with a group of records that subsequent swimmers have struggled to break. Instead, competition pools have been deepened and drainage improved to encourage faster times.

At Augusta golf’s rulemakers (the USGA in America and Mexico; the R&A elsewhere) will watch the tee shots with more than just the usual appreciative eye. In recent years they have become more concerned by the lengths that elite golfers are driving. One could make golf courses longer to accommodate big hitters, but that is expensive, since it typically requires more land. So this year the R&A and USGA published a report making the case for new regulations on clubs and balls. Outlawing new equipment would annoy its manufacturers—who spend a lot of money on sponsorships and advertising. And many players chafe at putative restrictions on their driving power.

Any changes would need to be phased in slowly, so whoever dons the winner’s green jacket at this year’s Masters will probably be a big hitter. But afterwards golf’s authorities are likely to look to the example of tennis, and tilt the balance of the sport back in favour of its most demanding holes and away from its power-hitting players.