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Blog 365, 12/11/12 - This is Getting Silly

Actually, it got silly years ago. Every TV broadcast throws up dozens more instances of golf balls flying distances golf just can’t keep up with.


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Distance Report

In March this year, the USGA and R&A issued its annual Distance Report, a joint statement that sent ripples of shock through the game of golf. The surprise wasn’t caused by the fact driving distances were increasing (we all knew that) so much as the inference the USGA and R&A might actually do something about it this time. They vowed to investigate further.
Almost six months later, that investigation remains ongoing, with no announcement on when it will be complete or its findings made public. Those six months, however, have given us time to fully digest the Distance Report and dig deeper. Before we discuss the three directions the rulesmakers could choose to take the game in, we address eight key questions…

1. WHY ARE THE R&A AND USGA ACTING NOW?

Martin Slumbers
Having witnessed only a modest increase across seven global tours in their previous two annual driving distance reports, the USGA and R&A felt no reason to act. Since 2003, they noted, we have seen only a “slow creep of around 0.2 yards per year”.
When the 2017 distance report landed on their desks, however, the two bodies noted, as one, that the slow creep had become too significant to ignore. “The 2017 data shows a deviation from this trend,” read the report’s preamble.
“The average distance gain across the seven worldwide tours was more than three yards since 2016." The slow creep upwards had been replaced by something more alarming. “Our 2002 Joint Statement of Principles put a line in the sand,” said R&A CEO Martin Slumbers, referring to the fundamental notion that skill, not technology, should be the primary determinant of success in the game. “But when you look at this data,” he added, “we have probably crossed that line in the sand. A serious discussion is now needed on where we go.”
Slumbers wasn’t the only influential figure voicing concern. On multiple occasions, USGA CEO Mike Davis hinted new ball-related legislation may be necessary, most notably last November when he talked about the ‘horrible impact of increased distance’. Action was inevitable, though in what form remains to be seen.

2. HOW LEGITIMATE WAS THE R&A/USGA'S TESTING?
The statistics came from data taken from the seven main tours, dating back to 2003 and involving roughly 300,00 shots in total. That data was typically recorded on two holes at each event, with 94% of PGA Tour players and 96% on the European Tour using a driver on those holes. Fourteen years and 300,000 shots-worth of data is a solid sample size, but can it tell the whole story? Between 1993 and 2003, driver heads got larger and larger and the wound, balata ball became obsolete, replaced by the solid core, urethane-covered ball – the Nike Tour Accuracy followed by the Titleist Pro-V1. In that single decade, the average drive on the PGA Tour jumped an astonishing 27 yards – or 10.38%. So, while the USGA/R&A report assessing data from 2003-2017 is necessary and appears very thorough, there are many who argue it’s redundant as the horse had already bolted. Equally, does testing outdoors, with varying wind and temperatures invite too many variables? Some would argue that to eradicate any doubt, the testing should have been conducted in sterile, scientific conditions. Also, to paint the full picture on driving distances, testing amateurs would have also helped – test the majority as well as the minority.

3. IS MODERN EQUIPMENT LEVELLING THE PLAYING FIELD ON TOUR?

Old (well, 1991) and new Callaway driver heads
Is it becoming harder for the truly great players to win on tour? Or put another way, is it now easier for ‘lesser’ players to gatecrash the party, aided and abetted by their talent-equalizing equipment? As far back as 2012, Ernie Els believed so. “Big-headed drivers allow everyone to hit it like only Greg Norman used to,” he noted, adding that driving the ball is no longer the art form it once was and that huge metal-headed drivers, and lower-spinning golf balls make it hard to hit a bad drive. “I look around now and see guys winning, guys who could never have done so 20 years ago.”
European Tour player turned architect Mike Clayton agrees. “Modern equipment has enabled less talented golfers to compete successfully on the pro tours,” he says. “Today’s equipment de-skills the game the same as computers have de-skilled our handwriting. We can be less precise but still hit a decent shot.”
If this is true, a look at the PGA Tour and the majors over the decades should show a far wider spread of winners today than in decades gone by. Consider the numbers…
PGA TOUR WINNERS
2018 - 30 events/25 different winners - 83%
2017 - 46 events/33 different winners - 72%
2007 - 47 events/36 different winners - 77%
1997 - 45 events/31 different winners - 69%
1987 - 46 events/38 different winners - 83%
1977 - 44 events/32 different winners - 73%

FIRST-TIME MAJOR WINNERS
2008-2017 - 40 majors/22 winners - 55%
1998-2007 - 40 majors/11 winners - 28%
1988-1997 - 40 majors/15 winners - 38%
1978-1987 - 40 majors/7 winners - 18%

4. IS IT GOOD THAT WE’RE ALL LONGER THAN EVER?
During the four months it has taken to organize, research and compile this feature, we talked to in excess of 100 amateur and club golfers. It was telling that nearly every single one told us they were hitting the ball further than they were 10 years ago. It was even more telling that their reaction to their new-found distance was overwhelmingly positive. Not a single amateur told us they wanted to see driver or ball technology rolled back or restricted in any way.
The general consensus of opinion among our unofficial focus groups was that the continual development of golf club technology had enabled them to maintain their distance off the tee over the years and continue to enjoy the game as they got older. “I hit the ball further off the tee now, at 50, than I did when I was 30,” says Golf World editor Nick Wright. “The driver used to be the most intimidating club in the bag, but now it’s arguably the easiest and most enjoyable to hit.
“A couple of months ago, myself and an old friend decided to visit the public golf course where we both learned to play with our fathers. Neither of us had been back for 20 years. On holes that once required driver/5-iron, I was now reaching with driver/9-iron. I walked off with my best ever score at the course. Was I bothered that I didn’t hit anything longer than a 7-iron into any par 4? Not on your life.”

5. WHO'S ACTUALLY PUSHING FOR CHANGE?
The USGA and R&A believe the “quite a big jump” in driving distances requires a serious discussion. But what do the other various groups and bodies involved in the game believe? Is there a widespread appetite for change? We polled those involved at every level to establish their view.

THE RULING BODIES?

Jay Monahan
Both the PGA Tour and the PGA of America came down fast and hard in favor of maintaining the status quo. “We do not believe the trends indicate a significant or abnormal increase in distance since 2003 or from 2016 to 2017,” said PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan. “We will continue to collaborate and share data with the USGA and the R&A – along with other industry stakeholders – in monitoring these trends, as we have since 2003, and are hopeful our perspectives will align.” PGA of America CEO (former) Pete Bevacqua sang from a similar sheet. “Based on the information we have seen, we are highly skeptical that rolling back the golf ball in whole or part will be in the best interests of the sport and our collective efforts to grow the game.”
The European Tour declined to comment.

THE MANUFACTURERS?
T
itleist
“Our findings continue to support the fact that equipment regulations have been effective... In any given year there are variables that impact distance, and any movement as in 2017 is not suddenly indicative of a harmful trend... We continue to believe equipment innovation has benefitted golfers at all levels, and our analysis of the 2017 Distance Report affirms that the USGA and the R&A have effective regulations in place to ensure the game’s health and sustainability.”
Taylormade

“We firmly oppose any potential rollback of product performance or bifurcation of the rules in any form as we believe these movements will be detrimental to the game at every level. We are optimistic about golf’s future and believe that the growth initiatives our industry has invested in are beginning to drive participation momentum in our sport. Any separation from the rules or any step backward in performance would be disadvantageous to the growth of the game,”
Mizuno

“We do not believe that driving distance is an issue with an overwhelming majority of the golfing population. Arguably, recent distance gains are more about athleticism and optimization... We are very much against any new restrictions on club or ball performance or rolling back club/ball distance, because this has the potential to detract from the average golfer’s enjoyment of the game and could negatively affect participation.”
(Other manufacturers chose not to comment.) 

ARCHITECTS?
Is there a problem with the distance th ball is travelling in the professional game?

NO – 22%
YES – 78%

Is there a problem with the distance the ball is traveling in the amateur game?
NO - 75%
YES - 25%

Do the game's governing bodies need to step in and limit equipment?
NO - 16%
YES - 84%

MEDIA?
G
eoff Shackelford - geoffshackleford.com
“The USGA/R&A have completely failed the sport by insisting that elite players cannot play by a few different rules, and the manufacturers have been resistant to the possibilities of having professional spec clubs or ball while maybe getting more leeway to create better equipment suited to the average player.”


B
rian Wacker - US golf writer, GW contributor
“For amateurs, distance is absolutely a good thing; golf’s a hard game and hitting farther and straighter is a great thing. But one set of rules for everyone is now an issue. Why not implement something separate at the professional level? DJ is still going to hit it miles past most everyone else.”


John Huggan - Golf World contributor

“To my dying day I'll never understand why golf’s rulesmakers have protected equipment at the expense of the great venues. In every other sport the opposite has been the case. History will not be kind to this mixture of contempt and incompetence. Bifurcation already exists, so why not make it official?”


Iain Carter -
BBC Golf correspondent, co-host of The Cut podcast
“Distance is now out of hand. Golf courses are being overpowered and we are not far from 8,000-yard set-ups. Do we really want that? My view is that the R&A and USGA have to do something and I think the only alternative is to bifurcate.”

 


TOUR PROS? (Quotes rom five anonymous PGA Tour pros)
Is
the increase in distance good or bad for the game?
“It’s bad in the sense that driver used to be a little bit of a risky play and now it’s the go-to club. It’s made it that now pretty much everybody can hit it long and straight. Even guys you might not consider long actually are. So, it has taken some of the risk out of it.”

“People would still be wowed by guys like DJ if he hit it 290 because it’s all relative. But it’s made golf less interesting because no one apart from a few guys can move the ball the way previous generations did.”

“If we rolled the ball or the equipment back, the long hitters would still be long but the shorter hitters would be penalized even more. The short hitters would really have no chance.”

“It’s only bad in that we can’t go back to some of the old classic courses we used to be able to go to, which is a shame. But overall, no, I don’t think it’s bad because it’s made golf easier for everyone and isn’t that the goal to make the game more fun and easier? Golf’s already hard enough.”

“Go ask any fan if they’d rather see DJ or Bubba or Rory hit it 280 or 350.”

Is change necessary – and if so, what would you advocate?
“They don’t need to do anything in terms of equipment. The game has probably never been as popular if you include when Tiger was at his best. No one thought he hit it too far and he was one of the longest guys out there.”

“We need two sets of rules on equipment, one for pros and another for amateurs. Technology isn’t going backwards so there’s got to be something done at some point. Roll the ball back or mandate a tour ball and limit what you can do from a technology standpoint with the driver.”

“There’s clearly two different games – the one we play and the one everyone else plays. The USGA needs to come together with the manufacturers and figure out what’s best for the game, to adapt to the advances in technology and fitness. I think they’ll figure out.”

“There should be two sets of rules, one for amateurs and one for us. Clearly amateurs aren’t hitting the ball too far so why penalize them? But at some point, it’s going to get ridiculous for a lot of reasons if we have to start going to 8,000-yard golf courses because that’s where the game is heading.”

“Rolling the ball back would be the easiest and quickest solution. Have a set of standards, on tour at least, and the ball has to fit within that. But that’s never going to happen unless the manufacturers get on board and that isn’t going to happen because there’s too much money involved.”
(Not necessarily Dustin Johnson or Rory McIlroy quotes).

GOLF COURSE OWNERS?
“Golfers hitting the ball further than they used to is not a problem from our perspective,” says Jay Karen, CEO of the National Golf Course Owners Association. “There’s no evidence that the ‘recreational golfer’ is hitting the ball any longer than they have for the past several years. Indeed, golf course owners and operators have the opposite problem. Too many recreational golfers don’t hit the ball far enough to enjoy success as much as they’d like; and successful golfers equals happier golfers, which equals more frequent play. The real issue is that golfers need to migrate to the ‘right’ set of tee boxes for how far they hit the ball off the tee. Ultimately, golfers want to have a decent chance at par on each hole.
Putting the ball into play to reach greens in regulation eludes too many golfers that are playing tees that are too far back for them. That’s the bigger issue for us.

AMATEURS?
Is distance a problem that needs to be addressed?
NO – 59%
YES – 41%

What, if anything, would you like to see the R&A/USGA do?
NOTHING – 60%
BIFURCATE – 22%
ROLL BACK THE BALL – 18%

6. DOES THE EVER-FORGIVING EQUIPMENT HARM GOLF’S INTEGRITY?
To protect the integrity of the game, the question of how quickly we get the ball into the hole should always be determined by the level of our ability rather than our choice of equipment. In their recent report, the USGA and R&A identified this as an area of concern. “The effect of increasing distance on the balance between skill and technology is [a] key consideration,” they noted. A player’s score should be “dictated by his or her athletic and course management skills… not just an over-reliance on equipment.” And “maintaining this balance is paramount to preserving the integrity of golf.”

Mike Clayton
Australian Mike Clayton, a former European Tour pro and now a course architect, says the challenge of many of the great courses has largely disappeared for the biggest hitters, and now rely on unplayable rough and excessive green speeds to keep scores in check. “Today’s equipment has allowed great courses to play so much easier for elite golfers,” he says. “Even worse is how they do not play remotely close to the way their great designers intended them to be played.
”There are countless statistics demonstrating how the game has become less challenging for professionals over the years. One of the most revealing perhaps is that in 1980, the three players ranked 100th for driving distance on the PGA Tour averaged a little more than 255 yards off the tee, while Jim Colbert – the 100th most accurate driver, hit 61% of fairways. In 2017, Daniel Berger was the 100th most accurate, finding 60% of fairways, while Branden Grace was the 100th longest driver averaging 292 yards. So, while today’s PGA Tour players find the fairway about as regularly as those from 38 years ago, they hit the ball 40 yards further.

7. WHAT EFFECT DOES EXTRA DISTANCE HAVE ON MAINTENANCE BUDGETS?
“Golf courses have had to grow to keep up with the increase in distance,” says Tim Moraghan, a turf/maintenance specialist who has worked for the USGA. “They may not have bought more land on which to lengthen holes like Augusta National has (see box below), and smaller local courses don’t really have a need or the resources for it, but many public and resort courses have certainly felt forced to extend.”
When faced with longer drives shortening the test, the simplest solution is often to move the tee boxes back. “Typically, in the United States, a new tee costs $20,000 to build,” says Moraghan.
“In the UK, tee boxes are created using the same specifications as USGA greens, albeit with a half to a third less depth of sand,” says Robin Hiseman of European Golf Design. “So £15-20,000 for a new back tee is entirely feasible.”
But that is not the only cost. You then also need to factor in the increased maintenance costs on a longer hole. Even though the area between the new and old back tees may not be the most manicured on the course, Moraghan points out that you will most likely need to mow primary rough, remove trees, and/or extend irrigation lines. “And then you have labor, fuel, and machine depreciation,” he says. “The initial outlay for a new tee is not insubstantial, but then comes the cost of maintaining it and it all quickly adds up.”
Look at it this way - build five new tees and a course could be adding £80,000 to £100,000 to its expenses, before it even factors in the additional maintenance costs. How do you think the club recoups the money it’s had to spend?

8. DOES TECHNOLOGY’S PURSUIT OF DISTANCE FUEL THE HEALTH OF THE INDUSTRY?
According to Tom Stine, founder of Golf Datatech, the industry’s leading consumer research company, the pursuit of distance is helping to grow the amateur game. Golf Datatech monitors retail sales, pricing and distribution of golf products and while Stine says the health of the industry is uncertain right now, he believes distance is helping draw new generations to the game. “I’d say that over the past five to eight years golf has successfully stepped up its efforts to encourage younger players into the game and I think the pursuit of distance is largely responsible for that,” he says. “For many golfers, it might even be what keeps them playing. Every golfer wants to hit it further because distance provides a tangible and measurable distinction between peers on every hole. The old adage that ‘you can’t buy a better game’ still holds true, but you certainly can buy distance, be it with a new driver, new irons, custom fitting, or the latest ball. So yes, I firmly believe the desire to hit the ball further has always fueled the health of the industry, and I think it always will.” Not everyone agrees. Robert Crosby for example, editor of Tom Doak’s Little Red Book of Golf Architecture, takes the opposing view. “The single biggest lesson to take from the last two decades is that making golf easier with longer balls and clubs does not grow the game,” he says.

Golf World (@golfworld1) followers on Twitter:
Modern technology has made the game easier and more enjoyable?
AGREE – 81%
DISAGREE – 19%

Are you hitting the ball further than you were 10/20 years ago?
YES – 68%
NO – 32%

Are your clubs more forgiving? Are you hitting fewer bad shots, or are your misses not as significant?
YES – 63%
NO – 37%

Are the improvements in your equipment a good or bad thing?

GOOD – 95%
BAD – 5%

SO, WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

THE THREE SCENARIOS

OPTION 1 – LEAVE THE GAME AS IT IS
Left as it is, unchallenged in any way, it’s hard to imagine the game wouldn’t just keep on getting longer. That’s evolution, after all. Another sharp rise in distance on the pro tours, such as that which followed the introduction of the Titleist Pro V1 ball in 2000, is unlikely thanks to restrictions put on equipment that now limit the initial velocity and combined carry and roll of the ball, size of the driver head, a clubface’s spring effect, and a club’s length. But distance is likely to keep creeping up thanks to variables over which the governing bodies have less control: superior athleticism, equipment optimization and, to a degree, better turf conditions.
“There’s no doubt distance will continue to increase as a new generation of kids fixate on power, clubhead speed, and ball speed,” says Mike Clayton, a plain-spoken advocate for some sort of equipment rollback.
“Cameron Champ is an example of the next level coming – another step up from Dustin Johnson and Bubba. We all remember when Greg Norman came out – he was unbelievably long – then Daly, then Tiger. Nicklaus came before Norman, of course, and before him it was Snead. So, there have always been players who showed what was possible and dragged the next generation along with them.”

The Old Course 18th
It’s never a bad idea to assess the state of the game and how far professional golf has advanced by monitoring how the elite play The Old Course at St Andrews. The beauty of the Old Course is its simple strategy – the way it has asked questions of golfers’ ability and confidence, and the wisdom of their shot selection, for centuries. The targets are not clearly defined. Yes, there’s a hole everyone is ultimately trying to find, but how you get there is entirely up to you. It’s as much an intellectual test as it is a physical exam. At least it should be. With today’s equipment, the best golfers don’t really need to ponder the uncertainties that made the course so alluring in the past. They simply blast away, dismissing the need to strategize as something weaker golfers do. One shot fits all; two actually – the long, high drive that carries all potential trouble, and a lofted approach that lands softly and eliminates all, or most, of the excitement offered by the contours. The ground game has largely become an amusing relic from yesteryear.
In the final round of last October’s Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, the field averaged 67.9 round the Old Course and Ross Fisher cruised to a 61 after making 11 birdies and nothing worse than a four. There was no wind, denying the Auld Lady much of her protection, but Fisher just needed to hit the shots his equipment (and skill) enabled.
For a couple of hours, one could simply marvel at Fisher’s brilliance and the prospect of the first ever 59 round the Old Course. But it didn’t take long to grasp the implications of Fisher’s score and the way he battered the world’s most important course into submission, her dignity saved, barely, when the Englishman took three to get up and down from the Valley of Sin on the 18th hole.
The game has changed. For today’s Tour players, there are at least nine par 4s on the Old Course where a 9-iron/PW/SW is all they need for the approach. At last year’s US Open, played on the longest course in the championship’s history, winner Brooks Koepka hit nothing longer than a 7-iron into any of the par 4s. Similarly, Dustin Johnson went eight months without hitting more than a 7-iron to a par 4 on last year’s PGA Tour.
To combat the distance gains, golf courses feel the need to grow ever longer (and ever-longer rough) increasing the cost of the game – green fees and memberships – and eliminating a lot of the charm. Manufacturers continue to release hyper-marketed drivers with huge price-tags, and the time it takes to play golf can only increase – not only a result of longer courses but also the desire to mimic Tour pros.

 

The case against change

Wally Uihlein
Those who abhor distance gains would reject such a claim, but that steady increase in yards might actually have its benefits. Until his retirement at the end of last year, the unelected chief of the pro-distance brigade was Wally Uihlein who joined Titleist's parent company Acushnet in 1976 and became its senior executive in 1995. In the early days of the debate, before those who support increased distance had gathered behind him, Uihlein was something of a lone voice and often vilified for appearing to put profits well ahead of the game.
Respected industry analyst Rick Young believes people’s perception of Uihlein was inaccurate, however. “Many said he didn’t really care about the game, but I know he does, deeply,” Young insists. “The USGA and R&A’s findings on distance, and the statistics they used to arrive at their conclusions, can always be interpreted differently by different people, but I assure you Uihlein firmly believed the ball, and other technologically-advanced equipment, was not having a detrimental effect on the game. Quite the opposite in fact. He considered it essential to golf’s popularity.”
Uihlein’s replacement as Acushnet’s President and CEO, David Maher not surprisingly echoes his former boss, saying Titleist “continues to believe equipment innovation has benefitted golfers at all levels. And our analysis of the report affirms that the governing bodies have effective regulations in place to ensure the game’s health and sustainability.”
Young, one of the seemingly few golf media figures that believes the golf ball should remain untouched, and the Rules un-bifurcated, explains his position. “For starters, amateurs would get to keep the technologically-advanced equipment they have grown accustomed to and which undoubtedly makes the game more fun,” he says. “And tournament attendances and TV ratings would not be negatively affected, which is certainly possible if distance is limited. People enjoy watching the professionals smash 350+-yard drives.”
And while the assumption is that all course architects disapprove of distance gains, there is one who appreciates the opportunities they’ve given him. “Without the extra distance we have nowadays, we’d not have been able to create the 9th and 10th holes at Turnberry,” says designer Martin Ebert, who in partnership with Tom Mackenzie has updated multiple Open Championship venues. “Those holes now involve considerable carries over the ocean which would have been too testing with a shorter-flying ball.” Fellow architect Robin Hiseman, of European Golf Design, likewise believes distance has its place, and asks what many are asking: if technology is making the game a little easier and a little more fun for the average player, then what good could possibly come from taking it away? “The game needs all the help it can get to preserve interest in the sport and keep clubs in business,” he says. “Golf is still a really tough sport to master and always will be.”

The case for change
The pro-distance brigade certainly makes valid points, but how do they stack up against the negatives from those who say the pursuit of distance isn't doing the game any favors and does not bode well for its future?

Jack Nicklaus
Their Wally Uihlein equivalent is Jack Nicklaus, long-time unofficial spokesman for restricting distance by rolling back the ball. Nicklaus first spoke with the USGA on the subject four decades ago.
Perhaps his most notable comment on the subject came ahead of last year’s Masters when he was asked how to maintain the challenge of the par 5 13th hole. “The simplest solution,” Nicklaus said, “is to change the frigging golf ball.”
Not quite as blunt as Nicklaus perhaps, but equally as passionate about reining in the ball, is Mike Clayton who's adamant the great courses are being overwhelmed by modern equipment and the distance professionals hit the ball.
“The balance between courses and equipment has swung entirely in equipment’s favor,” he says. “When clubs had hickory shafts, the course usually won the battle. But steel shafts and better golf balls redressed the balance. Now rocket golf balls and frying pan drivers have made driving the ball too easy. Everyone drives it longer than Greg Norman did which is ridiculous. And no professional needs anything more than a mid-iron nowadays.”
Clayton illustrates his point by looking at how differently Augusta National’s 13th and 15th holes play today compared with 30-40 years ago. “The great players used to hit long irons and woods for their second shots into those holes, and it was compelling to watch,” he says. “Fred Ridley (new Augusta National Chairman) got it right at the Masters in April when he said going for those greens should be a momentous decision. It’s not anymore. Neither hole is the great par four-and-a-half that Jones and Mackenzie created. They’re just par 4s, and not terribly long ones.”
To combat distance and the possibility of low winning scores, Clayton says the USGA, R&A, PGA of America, and Augusta National have resorted to altering the length and width of courses when setting them up for their events. “Major championship venues have become totally distorted in an attempt to elevate winning scores,” he argues. “But these set-ups just mask reality and make the majors far less interesting to watch. High winning scores give viewers the impression everything is okay, and that the course stood up to the best players in the world. That’s just wrong. The battle now isn’t between the architect and golfer, it’s between the superintendent/greenkeeper – or what the USGA and R&A tell them to do – and the golfer.”
No one wants to see great courses covered in long rough with greens running at 14 on the stimpmeter, Clayton says. “They say a course is worthy of major championship status because the winning score was 280 or whatever,” he adds. “But anyone can set up any course to ensure a high winning score. It’s not difficult.”
Clayton also notes that one of the most damaging consequences of excessive distance and diminished challenge has been to trick young amateurs into thinking they have what it takes to succeed as professionals. “They all hit long drives and score low today because the equipment is levelling the playing field,” he says. “It mirrors what we’ve seen in the professional game, but this just makes it harder for truly talented players to stand out. And the reality is, they probably aren’t going to make it.”
Clayton and many others in favor of a ball rollback believe the game is being dictated to by the giant equipment-makers, Titleist specifically. “But they’re a business whose sole reason for existence is to make money,” he says. “I get that, they’re a for-profit company. But while they should certainly get a chair at the table, they mustn’t be allowed to run the game. Those who make the rules need to stand up to them more than they have.”
The perception of weak governing bodies cowering before the mighty, billion-dollar Titleist is another unfortunate consequence of the distance debate. But there’s more...
Ian Andrew
Ian Andrew is a Canadian course architect who points out that human safety has become a major concern. “This a problem that few people are talking about, and it worries me,” he says. “Yes, the ball doesn’t curve as much as it used to, but you can still hit it off-line. And average golfers are sometimes hitting it way further off-line than they once did. The best 10 per cent of players at all clubs hit the ball far enough for it to be problematic. We have to design around that 10 per cent because they set the standard on what’s safe in design. On some holes, I’ve had to increase the safety corridor by as much as 50 per cent in the last 20 years.”
Martin Ebert
Martin Ebert agrees. “Increased distance means we have to consider larger margins to boundaries and between holes,” he says. “In some cases, holes are having to be closed resulting in major changes to layouts.”
On top of that, the environmental impact can be significant. Golf has become a good deal more environmentally-friendly over the last decade, but the impact of expanding courses has certainly been felt. Highly-regarded US architect John Fought has seen longer courses impact the environment. “Thirty years ago, a course might cover 150 to 175 acres,” he says. “Today that number is at least 200, and we typically maintain seven per cent more turf which requires more gasoline-powered mowing and more water.” All to benefit a very small number of golfers.
Mike Davis
The financial ramifications can also be fairly unsettling. In his conversation with the Wall Street Journal last year, Mike Davis (left) said all the pursuit of distance was doing was “increasing the cost of the game,” – to courses and, in turn, golfers, thus deterring future generations from taking up golf. If nothing is done, expect the cost to keep on rising.

 



Time to consider

And then, inevitably, there’s the issue of slow play. Nicklaus believes modern equipment is also to blame for the almost glacial pace of today’s game. “It’s not just the players that cause slow play,” he said in 2013. “It’s the difficulty of the course, the length of the course, and the distance the golf ball goes. You’re playing a lot of golf course these days, and that takes more time.”
In February, JB Holmes spent an absurd amount of time ruminating over his second shot to the par-5 18th at Torrey Pines in the final round of the Farmers Insurance Open. After more than four minutes of shameless dawdling, the four-time Tour winner finally made the decision...to lay up. If that wasn’t bad enough, the final group – Holmes, Ryan Palmer, and Alex Noren – had taken close to six hours getting to the home hole. It was the final round with much on the line, but six hours? There are multiple reasons why the game takes longer to play these days, and longer golf courses is definitely one of them.

OPTION 2 – BIFURCATE
The potential benefits of bifurcation – one set of equipment rules for the professionals, a different set for us amateurs – are fairly obvious, given what we learned previously about maintaining the status quo. If amateurs are allowed to keep their large-headed titanium drivers and juiced-up balls they will continue to profit from modern technology. The typical amateur’s average drive (214 yards according to research carried out by Trackman) hasn’t changed much in recent years and is often a lot shorter than the typical amateur believes (240-250 yards). But it is 15-20 yards longer than the average drive 25 years ago with a persimmon driver and soft, wound ball.
Back then, the driver was considered the most difficult club to hit. A tiny sweetspot, comparatively high Centre of Gravity, and low Moment of Inertia, made driving high-spinning balata balls extremely difficult.
“Although off-center hits were usually playable, they looked way worse than they do now,” says Mike Clayton. “What was much harder was repeating good drives with the same flight. It’s so much easier now to hit 14 drives that all look pretty much the same because heel and toe hits still fly decently. To hit a persimmon driver well with consistency, and separate yourself from other players, you needed special talent – like a Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman or Ian Woosnam.”
With bifurcation, a rolled-back, higher-spinning ball would help identify genuinely great drivers, and see that those players who rely on technology to straighten or lengthen imperfect strikes, find fewer fairways, aren’t always able to go for par 5s in two, and have more mid or even long-iron approaches.
Instead of the driver being perhaps the easiest club in the bag to hit, the challenge would return to that part of the game, and players would be reluctant to whale away off the tee knowing that any imprecision would likely result in a troublesome second shot. That, in turn, would significantly reduce the need to lengthen courses and bring angles, width, and strategy back into play. That’s just more interesting.”But there is a problem. The R&A and USGA can stipulate competitors in The Open and US Open must hit a limited-distance ball, but they don’t legislate for the professional tours. The PGA and European Tour choose to adhere to the official Rules of Golf, of course, but might they be tempted to split from the governing bodies if the ball is shackled? Such a scenario could prove catastrophic.
“The last thing the Tours want is to be in control of the rules of the game,” says Australian Rod Morri, host of the popular iseekgolf podcast . “But the stakes are high with equipment since every single one of their players has a vested interest. And that may be motivation enough for them to split and simply say they won’t abide by a set of USGA and R&A rules which includes a limited flight ball and/or a rolled back driver head. That would be a disaster that would take the game a long time to heal from.”
Adam Schupak, author of Deane Beman; Golf’s Driving Force, which tells the story of how Beman, the PGA Tour’s second commissioner, made the Tour what it is, doesn’t think it will come to that. “I don’t sense that the PGA Tour is looking to get into the rules business,” he says. “A split would likely sever all ties between the Tour and USGA which I think the Tour realizes would be very bad for golf.”
Something else that would be very bad for golf is the legal action Titleist would no doubt take if the governing bodies did restrict the ball. It’s not so much the amounts of money that would be involved – both parties have plenty – but rather the potentially damaging coverage such a story would create. Golf gets plenty of bad press from writers who think it stuffy, non-inclusive, and environmentally-unfriendly. So, it doesn’t need two of its biggest entities clashing over an issue the non-golfing world would regard as childish.
Titleist, Young suspects, is very concerned a rollback would open the door to rival companies to make a shorter ball as good as theirs. “They could potentially lose significant market share,” he says, “and in an industry where one percentage point is the equivalent of millions of dollars, Titleist would obviously do all they could to prevent that.”
Young also stresses the importance of golf as entertainment, something bifurcation could negatively impact. “Looking at it purely from a business perspective,” he says, “if the long hitters are no longer able to hit it as far as they do now, the TV audience and tournament attendances would probably drop. Accuracy, strategy, and course management aren’t quite as compelling as distance to the more casual observer.”
There’s also the complex question of where, when, and how to bifurcate – above/below certain handicaps, above/below certain swing speeds? In specific events? You see how that ends up, right? The R&A/USGA lose one section of the golfing community after deciding to bifurcate, then lose more when they decide where to draw the line.
In their 2002 Joint Statement of Principles, the two governing bodies stated that a single set of rules was one of ‘the game’s greatest strengths’. “The R&A and the USGA regard the prospect of having permanent separate rules for elite competition as undesirable and have no current plans to create separate equipment rules for highly-skilled players,” they stated. Though that was 16 years ago, it’s hard to imagine they feel any differently.

OPTION 3 - ROLL EQUIPMENT BACK FOR EVERYONE
The final option, as we see it, is that the governing bodies limit the golf ball’s flight – and they roll it back across the board. “Absolutely not,” says Rick Young. “Most club golfers wouldn’t lose much distance, some might not even notice at all, but the perception of losing distance and reversing technology gains, would be dreadful.”

The 1.62" Dunlop 65, named after Henry Cotton's second-round 65 in the 1934 Open at Royal St. George's.
When the R&A finally outlawed the 1.62” ball (left) in 1990 and the 1.68” ball became standard, those who had been playing the smaller ball lost plenty of distance. But the game persevered. Young asserts you can’t compare that situation with today’s, however. “Just imagine the outcry if something similar happened now,” he says. “Golf has survived some seminal moments – being banned by Scottish kings, two world wars, the Great Depression... but circumstances are different now. We have social media, and there are so many other activities competing for people’s time. A lot of amateur golfers would be incensed. Golf, the golf industry at least, might not endure.”
It’s hard to disagree with Young on this point. Reversing technology and impounding the recreational golfer’s equipment would be a very unwelcome move. Amateurs could always use their outlawed equipment, like users of the non-conforming Callaway ERC II did after it was launched in October 2000. But how would a sizeable percentage of golfers choosing not to abide by rules imposed by the game’s governing bodies look?
Other possible outcomes that suggest a universal rollback would have devastating consequences are the long, drawn-out, and messy litigation Titleist would likely take against the governing bodies, the potential rift between those governing bodies and professional tours, and the likely drop in TV ratings and tournament attendances.
There’s also a suggestion manufacturers’ product cycles might become even shorter. “Most golf balls are on two-year cycles right now,” says MyGolfSpy’s Tony Covey. “That might not change much, but it’s certainly possible we could see an acceleration in the first few years as OEMs try to figure out how to make a better short ball.”
Covey also notes that some of the smaller ball brands that have emerged in recent years could disappear as they don’t have R&D departments and would struggle to keep pace with the big brands that have the biggest budgets.
On the plus side, if a shorter, but higher-spinning ball was introduced, better ball-strikers would gain a significant advantage off the tee, and there would be no need to continually lengthen courses. In time, Mike Davis might actually comment on how much more affordable the game had become.

 

GOLF WORLD’S VIEW
Distance is without doubt the most complicated topic in golf right now, and these 7,000 words could easily have been double that. Anyone who has watched the game evolve over the last decade didn’t need a USGA/R&A report to tell them that distance has increased and, in certain instances, increased to a somewhat disconcerting level.
Technological advancements in equipment have allowed – and encouraged – drives to fly longer and straighter, rendering many of the classic courses powerless and continually narrowing the talent gap between the great, the good and the mediocre players. Clearly that’s a problem and clearly something needs to be done. The fact that the USGA and R&A have identified it as a problem is a positive thing, even if the horse has long since bolted.
However, it’s also important to realize the game isn’t broken for everyone. Despite the technology we now have at our disposal, most amateurs do not drive the ball so far that the courses we play can no longer contain us. In fact, the average amateur drive increased only slightly between 1996 and 2017 – from 200 yards to 208.
The fact that our drives are a little longer and straighter than they were two decades ago is no bad thing. Given that the game of golf is difficult, we believe that anything that makes the sport a little more enjoyable for the masses can only be viewed as positive.
Which is why, of the three options presented on the previous pages, the best approach as we see it would be a move towards some kind of bifurcation of equipment. Two sets of specs – one which allows us to retain our performance-enhancing equipment and keep on making modest improvements, another which limits the distance of the top pros, breathes life back into defenseless courses and enables us to identify who really are the best golfers.
In pretty much every other sport you can think of, the dimensions of the field of play have stayed the same despite the athletic prowess of competitors improving. We believe the same should be true for golf. It is unfair to demand that golf courses continually expand and lengthen holes to cater for such a small percentage of golfers. It is not practical or financially viable.
The problem of excessive distance affects only a tiny percentage of golfers on the planet and any changes made will have to reflect that. That’s why a roll back of equipment across the board is not viable.
Like it or not, the game has changed. We have crossed the line in the sand where distance is concerned and the trickle-down effect has become too significant and problematic to ignore. Those in control of the game must follow suit and change with it.
But there are problems – big problems. Whichever solution is proposed will be messy, unpopular and difficult to implement. The R&A and USGA have both made it clear they oppose splitting the game into two sets of rules, but let’s assume that when they finish investigating further – and don’t expect that to be a quick process – they have a change of heart. They state that they also believe bifurcation is the way ahead. At that point, it seems safe to assume that the industry’s more dominant manufacturers will make it very clear that they strongly oppose any changes and vow to fight it every step of the way, whatever the cost. The players the manufacturers pay so well to promote their equipment would quickly fall in line behind their paymasters and the PGA Tour, keen to avoid mutiny among their members, will voice their own dismay. Suddenly, predictably, the USGA and R&A will find themselves outnumbered and outgunned. The tail will be wagging the dog.
The truth of the matter is that bifurcation is already a part of golf, for we amateurs are clearly not playing the same game as the PGA Tour professionals. Making bifurcation official in some form will be problematic and costly, and an incredibly slow process.
However, Golf World believes it is the only option and most sensible way to proceed.

This article first appeared in Golf World Magazine in the UK.
Gary Lees contributed the illustrations for the print version.



 

 

 

 

 

 


Blog 365, 12/11/12 - This is Getting Silly

Actually, it got silly years ago. Every TV broadcast throws up dozens more instances of golf balls flying distances golf just can’t keep up with.