Tuesday’s announcement came as no surprise to the golf industry. We knew this was coming. The USGA and R&A have created a Model Local Rule to give tournament organizers the ability to limit the length of all non-putter golf clubs from 48 inches down to 46 inches starting Jan. 1.
That was the easy one. Now comes the hard part.
The USGA and R&A want to reign in distance because they see a trend of golfers hitting the ball farther and courses having been made longer over the past several decades. The game’s governing bodies see that as unsustainable and destructive for the game. However, they also want to maintain a single set of rules for everyone and remain steadfastly against the concept of bifurcation. The same rules should apply to Justin Thomas, Nelly Korda, you and every other recreational golfer.
So how do you change the rules and equipment standards to limit what Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson and Tony Finau do without making things tougher for the weekend players who buy gear, book tee times and, in the end, finance the sport? How do you keep Korn Ferry Tour players from cutting the corner on long dogleg par 5s and going driver-wedge into the green without making the game less fun for everyone else?
Perhaps the USGA and R&A tipped their hand with Tuesday’s announcement and gave us a clue. The answer could be semantics. You simply don’t call it bifurcation and instead create tools to produce different playing environments for varying levels of players.
Thomas Pagel, the USGA’s senior managing director of governance, confirmed to Golfweek that the new Model Local Rule governing club length would be in place in June at the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open. It will be in place at all of the USGA’s championship events, and the folks in Far Hills, New Jersey, and St. Andrews, Scotland, must love that the PGA Tour and LPGA will adopt it, too. Pagel said the USGA will go to events to educate players about the Model Local Rule and answer questions well before the USGA hosts its national championships.
However, the USGA and R&A stated that the Model Local Rule is intended to be used only at elite events. You will still be allowed to use a 47-inch driver at your local member-guest or club championship next summer. It’s bifurcation by another name.
Yes, very few players use a 47-inch or 48-inch driver, so this Model Local Rule will not affect many people, but you can see how Model Local Rules could be handy for curtailing distance. If they so choose, the governing bodies could introduce more Model Local Rules that, if implemented, mandate the pros and elite amateurs use golf balls that don’t fly as far as those available at retail or driver faces that are not quite so springy as those the rest of us might buy.
Phil Mickelson has expressed his irritation over the Model Local Rule that limits club length in elite competitions. (Jamie Squire/Allsport)
Except for one sticky problem: Equipment companies will hate making clubs or balls to conform to a series of Model Local Rules. They will want to fight it.
Creating clubs and balls to fit new, less-efficient specifications would be expensive and take time away from designers and engineers paid to make gear that companies can sell. Weekend players will not want to buy a driver that Xander Schauffele has to use in PGA Tour events that has been slowed down to conform to a Model Local Rule. No one will want to buy a less aerodynamic Titleist Pro V1 that Jordan Spieth is forced to use. And if Titleist has to make such a ball to conform to a Model Local Rule on the PGA Tour, it will need to make thousands of those balls for staff players.
Plus, as anyone who recently has tried to buy a new set of irons or have their clubs re-gripped can tell you, golf equipment makers are facing supply chain issues. Product is scarce and delayed, and that unfortunate circumstance may continue for months or years. Model Local Rules that mandate distance-reducing gear for elite golfers would create another logistical headache for manufacturers who already are scrambling.
Mike Whan, the new CEO of the USGA, worked in the golf equipment industry before taking the helm at the LPGA Tour as its commissioner, his previous post. He knows all the problems. Still, in a July interview with Golfweek’s Beth Ann Nichols, he did not sound afraid of a tussle with equipment makers.
“Everybody evolves not only to make the game better, but to make sure it’s great for the next 100 years,” Whan said. “It’s important. I won’t lie to you and say it’s going to be popular, but it’s important and I think it would be irresponsible for us not to relook at something that the last significant look was 1976.”
Mike Whan took over as CEO of the USGA in 2021. (Copyright USGA/Robert Beck)
He added, “I feel like if you want to critique the USGA, the fair critique is why not before now? I think that’s a fair critique. But why now? I think you’re stretching if you don’t think at some point we need to make sure we establish some new parameters.”
Using more Model Local Rules to reduce distance at the pro and elite amateur levels could be messy, but it might work. The LPGA Tour, which does not have a distance problem, could ignore them and carry on using the same gear as recreational golfers while PGA Tour, Korn Ferry and other elite men’s tours force the guys to play with distance-reducing clubs or balls.
See bifurcation in reality, just not in name.
In February the USGA and R&A announced they wanted to research things such as the limitation of ball efficiency, golf ball sizes and weights, reducing driver size and volume, and reducing the spring-like effect in faces and moment of inertia in clubheads. The comment period for those research reports ends Nov. 2, to be followed by a lot of number crunching and meetings.
If history is a guide, we might learn more about what the USGA and R&A intend regarding distance in January or February. Tuesday’s announcement of a Model Local Rule to reduce maximum club length is not a part of the central drama. We have plenty of time to get some popcorn and find a comfy seat before the real show begins.