Now that the USGA and the R&A have acknowledged with an abundance of detailed data what everyone already knew – distance continues to transform golf as it has for more than a century – the bigger question is what to do about it.
And that may be golf’s unsolvable problem.
While no one denies what has happened in terms of distance, particularly over the past decade or so, there is no easy answer to curbing the steady increase in how far the best players in the game hit the ball.
At the heart of the matter is how many constituencies think distance is threatening enough that it needs to be addressed with what some will see as draconian measures (either a rollback of the golf ball or bifurcation of the rules governing equipment).
Some do. Some don’t.
Certainly, the USGA and the R&A are seriously concerned about how power and distance have changed the game, as the conclusions of their joint Distance Insights Project released Tuesday make clear, and they are rightfully concerned. It’s a different game than it was 20 years ago and not necessarily a better game. Just different.
“This cycle of every generation hitting the ball longer needs to end,” USGA CEO Mike Davis said.
The equipment manufacturers will understandably push back against any regulation limiting what their products can do, and consumers don’t want to sacrifice whatever gains real or perceived they have amassed by buying the latest and greatest tools of the trade. Part of the game’s charm is built on chasing another yard or two.
“We are steadfast in our belief that one set of rules is in the best interest of the game for everyone,” USGA CEO Mike Davis.
In golf, it’s possible to play what the professionals use, or at least a close proximity to what we see the stars using. It’s different than watching a NASCAR driver piloting a Chevrolet that is like yours only in that it has four wheels. No wonder equipment companies don’t want two sets of rules.
Neither, Davis said, do the USGA and R&A but it could come to that.
“We are steadfast in our belief that one set of rules is in the best interest of the game for everyone,” Davis said.
Is it worth changing so much because of a few thousand players around the world who already play a different game than the rest of us?
That’s what it feels like is being discussed, though the data says courses are getting longer for everyone and too many of us are reluctant to play the proper tees for our talent. Whether that’s a contradiction or irony, it’s an awkward correlation between fighting distance gains and suggesting most golfers should play shorter courses, but that’s part of what came out of the initial report.
The primary issue is what to do about the perpetually increasing distance players can hit the ball today and into the future. The idea of 8,000-yard golf courses is unappealing, as is the fact that any course around 6,000 yards is too short for many players.
The USGA and the R&A haven’t offered any solutions – those will come after a lengthy discussion period built around specified topics. It will be “a multi-year process,” according to Davis.
Nothing, the governing bodies have indicated, is off the table. The idea is to make this inclusive, prompting all the constituencies to work for the good of the game. That’s an admirable pursuit, but this has been talked about for years and there’s been no action because of different perspectives.
Those perspectives haven’t changed. In some cases, those positions may have hardened.
The organizations will look closely at equipment and determine if any changes should be made to the rules. They will also consider a local rule that would allow courses and/or competitions to put limitations on the equipment that is used. That’s another way of saying bifurcation.
As for the PGA Tour and the other major professional tours around the world, what would be their incentive for imposing restrictions on their players at a time when the game is in a strong position?
Regardless of what the forces behind the proposed Premier Golf League may think, the PGA Tour isn’t broken and its members don’t want to be told they have to use equipment that performs at 90 percent of what Joe Golfer can use. That said, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, among others, have long lobbied for a ball rollback.
In a statement, the PGA Tour said it will continue to collaborate with the governing bodies as they study the challenges facing the game without committing to a specific course of action.
“The PGA Tour is committed to ensuring any future solutions identified benefit the game as a whole without negatively impacting the Tour, its players or our fans’ enjoyment of our sport,” the statement read.
If the PGA Tour would not accept equipment restrictions for its players – and there is little reason to think it would – it would undercut any potential bifurcation imposed by the governing bodies in their respective championships, the U.S. Open and the Open Championship.
That’s getting ahead of things, though. In sharing their findings with the rest of the golf world this week, the USGA and R&A laid the foundation for their argument that something needs to be done and they’re right.
It feels, at least at the game’s highest level, that the value of shotmaking has declined as power and distance have increased. If seemingly everyone hits it 300-plus off the tee and 5-irons fly 195 yards with balls that curve less and less, the game becomes easier.
Not easy. Easier.
“Increased hitting distances can and do compromise the inherent challenges of courses,” said Martin Slumbers, CEO of the R&A.
That, naturally, introduces another element into this discussion – the sustainability of golf courses. Many courses don’t have room to expand or don’t have the money to expand or don’t want to expand. There is also the increasingly high cost of water and the expense required to maintain bigger courses. Those are very real concerns and superintendents have the budget numbers to prove it.
Like everything else, golf evolves, and if there is validity to the notion of leaving something for the next generation as good or better than you found it, that’s why the USGA and R&A are leading this initiative.
If there were easy answers, they’d have been implemented by now. Like golf, though, this isn’t easy. It’s a situation where no one may be wrong but, nevertheless, something needs to change.
Or does it?
Depends on who you’re asking.
USGA CEO Mike Davis, among others, must measure what to do about golf’s distance problem. Photo: John Mummert, Copyright USGA
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