The United States Golf Association and the R&A, the two governing bodies of amateur golf and equipment in the world, took another step toward possibly reining in what many see as a major problem in the game these days, the distance that top players, particular pros, are hitting the golf ball.
But in doing so, they sparked a renewed debate over whether the 340-yard drives fans see from pros on a Sunday afternoon really matter that much to the overall game.
The Distance Insights Report, released by both organizations, uses plenty of charts and graphs and numbers to reinforce what we already know, that modern, athletic players with modern clubs and modern golf balls hit the ball a long, long way, much longer than 20 or 40 years ago.
The concern is that this distance is starting to take the skill out of the game and replacing it with brute strength. And that brute strength will, in turn, takes some of the game’s great venues and render them obsolete.
But is any of that true?
OK, yes, the golf ball flies farther today, and some of the biggest names in the game have been arguing that the USGA has let the horses out of the barn by not reining in distance years ago. Fabled courses like Merion and even Augusta National and St. Andrews seem to be losing the battle against equipment and muscular players.
But bigger and stronger players have always hit the golf ball farther than other players, no matter the specifications allowed by the USGA. Longer drives don’t always equate to winning a tournament, either.
The proposal for change – and there is no timetable for this – focuses on four areas: change current specifications for equipment (in other words roll equipment back a bit); change how equipment is tested; put new limits on clubs, especially the length of drivers to 46 inches; and allowing those who are putting on competitions to decide which equipment can and can’t be used in an effort to have players hit the ball shorter.
Pros vs. recreational players
Here’s the problem with all of that. This weekend walk up to your usual foursome and ask your playing partners how many of them think they should hit the ball shorter than they do now. And be prepared to duck, because at least one of your partners is going to throw a golf ball at you.
The kind of distance that the USGA is talking about, the distance that can make a golf course obsolete, is reserved for players in major competitions. PGA Tour, LPGA, European Tour, college golf and, yes, even top high school golfers can hit the ball 300-yards plus on demand. But that has nothing to do with the recreational game you and your friends play. When architects talk about not wanting to expand courses, they aren’t talking about adding yards onto courses for you. It’s that PGA Tour or LPGA Tour event that comes to town once a year that can be an issue.
It is true that there is something strange about watching a pro hit the green on a 600-yard par-5 in two shots, or hitting a sand wedge into a 470-yard par-4. But if you played those same holes from those distances, you would likely struggle to hit the greens in regulation.
All of which leads to the idea that no one at the USGA or the R and A want to discuss much, bifurcation. That means a separate set of rules, one for pros, one for amateurs. The powers that be like that idea that you play by the same rules Tiger Woods and Dustin Johnson play by. But how can the USGA limited equipment for pros and not hurt amateurs if there is one set of rules.
So the debate will go on. In the report released this week, 82 percent of those surveyed said they don’t want to see golf courses expanded to 8,000 yards or more. Seventy-three percent said they don’t want to see the golf ball fly farther than it already does. That would seem to back the case for limiting equipment.
Phil Mickelson catches a ball as he prepares for The 2020 Masters golf tournament at Augusta National GC. Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports
But would limiting equipment make your round at your favorite course any more fun? Probably not. It might make you move up a set of tees, which is something a lot of golfers just don’t want to do.
Because there is no timetable for the proposed changes, no one knows if or when the golf ball and golf clubs might be reined in. But expect plenty of pros and manufacturers to bristle at the idea if it comes close to reality. Already Rory McIlroy has called the report a waste of time, arguing that limiting equipment is no way to grow the game of golf.
McIlroy may be right on letting more people have fun with equipment that makes the game easier. But expect more and more talk about bifurcation if the USGA and the R and A decide pros are just hitting the ball too far.
Larry Bohannan is the golf writer for the Palm Springs (California) Desert Sun. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook or on Twitter at @Larry_Bohannan.