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Randall's Rant: Distance report reveals little, but opens big door

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The USGA and the R&A should have delivered their new distance report to media on Monday by carrier pigeon.

Or pony express.

Or smoke signals.

The report’s finding that last year’s “deviation” in driving distance is “unusual and concerning” and breaks from the “slow creep” indicated in the two previous years suggests the governing bodies might be on their way to concluding the ball is flying too far for the good of the game.

Some big names are wondering what took so damn long.

“I’ve only been yelling at you for 40 years,” Jack Nicklaus told USGA executive director Mike Davis over dinner a couple weeks ago when Davis laid out his organization’s intent to address the game’s distance explosion.

Talk about slow play.

There is some irony in the “While We’re Young” initiative the USGA launched a few years back. Nicklaus, who has led a campaign for a rollback of the golf ball for a few decades, is 78.

Though the report states the USGA and R&A are merely using their findings to study the distance issue in a more serious way, you don’t need to read tea leaves to gauge where they appear to be leaning.

Davis told the Wall Street Journal last November that distance increases have been “horrible” for the game.

As a guardian of the sport, you can’t depict something as a threat to the game in that way and do nothing about it.

Last week, Nicklaus said Davis told him over dinner the governing bodies are getting closer to addressing the distance issue and asked for his help “when we get there.” Maybe Nicklaus read too much in that, but he sounded convinced change is on the way.

Two weeks ago, R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers joined Davis in expressing more public concern.

“Our view is that when you start to look at this data now, that we have probably crossed that line in the sand and that a serious discussion is now needed on where we go,” Slumbers said.

The new USGA/R&A report shows that the average driving distance across seven worldwide tours moved up more than 3 yards last year.

On the PGA Tour, the average was just a 2.5-yard gain. That’s modest compared with what happened in the boom years, when the USGA was largely silent, when average driving distances on the PGA Tour shot up 6 yards from 2000-01 with the introduction of the ProV1 and solid core balls. There was a 6.4-yard increase from 2002-03. This doesn’t even go back to account for what big-headed and thin-faced drivers did for length in the ‘90s.

There are more questions than answers with Monday’s report.

1. What actions might this report and subsequent study finally justify?

2. Is this a first step toward the USGA and R&A restraining technology, even reigning it back?

3. Would the governing bodies dare to do what Nicklaus suggests, roll back the golf ball?

If the subsequent study justifies that rolling standards back, Titleist won’t be the only entity pushing back.

The immediate reactions from the PGA Tour and PGA of America on Monday were eye opening. They don’t seem to like what kind of regulatory restraint this report might end up justifying.

PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan dismissed a 2.5-yard average gain among its members as not particularly alarming.

“Having carefully reviewed the data, we do not believe the trends indicate a significant or abnormal increase in distance since 2003 or from 2016 to 2017,” Monahan informed Tour members in a memo Monday.

He also wrote: “While this may seem significant when taken in isolation, it has not been uncommon over the past 15 years to see significant gains or losses. Since 2003, there have been three instances where a significant gain was recorded between years, and five instances where the average decreased.”

Monahan suggested last year’s distance gain should be attributed more to the players than to equipment.

“We believe this increase in club head speed is mostly attributable to a combination of factors, such as increased player athleticism and fitness, physical build of the player, enhancements in equipment fitting and the proliferation of launch-monitoring capabilities,” Monahan wrote. “It is interesting to note that since 2003, the average age of a Tour member has gone down, and the average height has gone up.”

So Titleist can add player height to its list of defenses when folks want to attack the ball as the main culprit in the distance boom.

That’s not intended as a joke.

Get out your protractors, calipers and calculators, because science will be a big part of where this study goes.

Really, can the USGA and R&A break down and quantify how much of the distance boom is due to the ball, drivers, exotic shafts, advanced agronomy and TrackMan?

And then how much is attributable to advanced coaching and player fitness?

Will that get broken down into percentages?

Back to Monday’s reactions.

The PGA of America didn’t seem overly concerned with the distance report’s “deviations” or in any attempt to overreact to them.

“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,” PGA of America CEO Pete Bevacqua said when Golf Channel sought comment.

Today’s news is really all about the line in the sand the USGA and R&A drew back in its 2002 Joint Statement of Principles regarding equipment rules, a line Nicklaus and his brethren believe was crossed a long time ago.

It’s about this specific governing principle laid out in that document:

“The purpose of the Rules is to protect golf’s best traditions, to prevent an over-reliance on technological advances rather than skill, and to ensure that skill is the dominant element of success throughout the game.”

Technology vs. Skill.

If the governing bodies finally conclude that technology is too dominant now, how do they word that indictment?

And how does Titleist respond?

“Titleist runs golf,” Nicklaus bluntly said last week.

Did Nicklaus pull back the veil on what this may really be about if the USGA and R&A find their study justifies restraining technology?

Technology vs. Skill might become code for Titleist vs. the USGA/R&A.

If Nicklaus characterized what is really at stake in all of this, real control of the game, maybe that’s what this comes down to in the end.

Titleist vs. the USGA/R&A.

Let’s hope that doesn’t end up atop some legal document.

That couldn’t be good for the game.