Nothing is happening right away. Thomas Pagel, the chief governance officer of the USGA, wanted to make that clear.
“The most important thing to note is that we’re not proposing anything today,” Pagel said Wednesday morning when the USGA put out a notice to manufacturers announcing new areas of interest.
“We’re resetting the area of interest to say, we threw a lot at you last year,” Pagel said. “We issued an area of interest to manufacturers that had a whole lot of topics to explore as it relates to this cycle of increased hitting distances. As we did our research last year and worked with manufacturers, we continued to refine our focus. Now we want to narrow our focus and research these specific topics and have conversations before we get to the point of proposing anything.
“It’s really in two spots: the first is golf balls and the overall distance standard, which is how we measure the distance a golf ball travels. That test, that was originally created in 1976, was intended to use test conditions that replicated the longest-hitting golfers at the time. So, we started with a clubhead speed of 109 mph, and we also looked at different spin and launch rates.
“That test has been updated over the last 40 years. It was updated in 1986 and, most recently, in 2004. In that last revision, we realized that in reality, 109 mph clubhead speed is not fast enough. At that point we revised it to 120 mph. And as we sit here today, we ask ourselves, is the test still replicating the longest-hitting golfers? And the answer is, no. The longest-hitting golfers have clubhead speeds in excess of 120 mph.
“We’re not proposing change. We’re just interested in exploring what a test would look like if we changed the conditions, including clubhead speed, to be more reflective of today’s longest-hitting golfers.”
“We’re concerned about courses becoming obsolete. Certainly at the elite level, there are a number of courses that don’t present the challenge that the architect originally intended.” – Thomas Pagel
The 109-mph standard of 1976 and the 120-mph standard of 2004 were no doubt based on the most accurate data at the time. But if you look at videos from the 1950s and 1960s, you find it hard to believe Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer weren’t swinging faster than that. Technology has made the numbers more precise. Whether the athletes are 15 percent faster is an open question.
So, that’s the rollback portion. If you increase the swing speed you are using as a baseline and keep the same overall distance standard, you can effectively rule that the balls go too far.
The second bucket the USGA is considering is a local rule on drivers, which is, by another name, bifurcation.
“We’re interested in continuing to look at the potential for a model local rule where the driver has less spring-like effect, and less moment of inertia, in essence a smaller sweet spot,” Pagel said. “That would only be by local rule only, and we would suggest that it be used only in the elite game. If you start messing with moment of inertia as a rule across the game, that would have a disproportional impact on the recreational game for those of us who don’t hit the sweet spot.”
At the center of all these tests, strategies and conversations is a basic premise, one that has been in place since 1976 and that was reprinted and italicized in Monday’s notice from the USGA. It reads:
“Through developments in both the ball and the club over the years, many courses are becoming obsolete and further developments affecting the distance a ball could travel would continue this trend which the [Governing Bodies] considers unhealthy for the expansion of the game – and in fact its survival as a game that can be enjoyed by people of all economic levels.”
When asked, Pagel would not name a course that has become obsolete since the balata age when Jerry Pate stuffed a 5-iron to win the U.S. Open at Atlanta Athletic Club from a spot where most members couldn’t reach the green with a hybrid and a wedge.
“We’re concerned about courses becoming obsolete,” he said. “Certainly at the elite level, there are a number of courses that don’t present the challenge that the architect originally intended. Some of those courses have made modifications to continue to present what they believe to be the challenge.
“But as we approach this work, we don’t just think of it in terms of today. We think about the game 10 years from now, 20 years from now, 50 years from now. And the trend is clear. You look at the data, you see that hitting distance has increased for the last 100 years and continues to go up. If that were to continue, what would it mean for golf? And is it sustainable long term?
“That’s the entire reason we stepped into this process. But this is not a quick fix. We’re into this for the long term.
“Nothing is going to change for the recreational golfer this year, next year, or probably the year after that. We want to take the time to make sure whatever we do is thoughtful, consistent with our process and good for the long-term health of the game.”
Shorter courses still hold up, although places such as Myopia Hunt Club and Prestwick are no longer major-championship venues. The TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course maxes out at 7,245 and is rarely played from that distance. Nobody has made it obsolete.
“That’s the problem with looking at one datapoint,” Pagel said. “We have to examine data over time and look at the bigger picture, historically.”
Historical transitions in equipment have always impacted distance – the steel shaft, the Haskell ball, metal woods. No one questions that the development of the Pro V1 brought on a revolutionary increase in driving distance. But with it came revolutionary interest in the game. Many golf course operators are finally seeing growth in their rounds and memberships after a decade of narrowing margins and waning participation. Nothing would smother the patient quicker than shortening the golf ball.
“That recreational player is at the forefront of our thinking every single day,” Pagel said. “This is not about making the game harder or less enjoyable. If you look at what we’re exploring here, that player is not affected by what we’re thinking about with the (proposed) driver (change). That driver would never be in (the recreational golfer’s) hands. The driver that player goes out and buys next week will continue to be his driver.
“From a golf ball perspective, the biggest impact will be players with the highest swing speeds. We believe it will have little or no impact on recreational golfers, those golfers with lower clubhead speeds. In fact, we’ve contemplated removing the initial velocity standard, which would open up an area of innovation for manufacturers to work on softer golf balls that perhaps would get a little more speed off the clubheads of slower swing-speed players.”
The longest players, even on the women’s side, would see a change. So if Bianca Pagdanganan, the longest hitter on the LPGA Tour, wants to achieve her dream of becoming the first LPGA Tour player to average 300 yards off the tee, she’d better do it quickly.
“With the launch conditions that the female LPGA tour players hit, they will lose 35 percent less distance than the elite male PGA Tour player,” said John Spitzer, managing director of equipment standards at the USGA. “The elite female amateur would lose about 75 percent less than the elite male amateur. So, depending on her launch conditions (Bianca) might see very low double digit or even single digit reductions (in yardages).”
“One of the myths is that all of this will make the game more challenging, less enjoyable to play, and less enjoyable to watch,” Pagel said. “Certainly you have players at the elite level of the women’s game who would have some distance reduction. I would argue, however, that one of the reasons the women’s game is so enjoyable to watch is because their games are not just about distance. …
“A little bit of distance reduction is not going to change the enjoyment of the fan watching golf either on the men’s tour or the ladies’ tour.”
No dates are set. As Pagel said, “The only two dates we can control are the dates we open an area of interest and the date we close the feedback period. For the next five and a half months, we’re going to accept feedback.”
But the train appears to be out of the station. As long as the notion that players hitting it farther will eventually kill the game goes unchallenged, the days of measuring hangtime on a Justin Thomas tee shot and crowds flocking to see Bryson DeChambeau drive a par-5 appear to be numbered.
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