So, what is the Distance Insights Project report – the much-anticipated research opus just presented to us by the USGA and the R&A – and what will it mean?
Well, first let’s say what it’s not. It’s not a quick fix, or really any kind of solution to what a growing number of close watchers see as a problem that will have to be dealt with. The report is informational, educational and – for a certain kind of golf purist – even inspirational. With a frankness that the ruling bodies have never before summoned, it comprehensively concludes that “it is time to break the cycle of increasingly longer hitting distances and golf courses and to work to build a long-term future that reinforces golf’s essential challenge and enhances the viability of both existing courses and courses yet to be built.” Which – by putting the brakes on what’s become a runaway mantra of more distance – is a major shift. But there is no promise of tangible change, or, which if it were to come, wouldn’t arrive for several years, and probably more than that.
After two years of golf eagerly waiting for this report, that seems a downer – golf’s version of the Mueller Report. Because the increase of distance in the game is a subject that has been fervently talked about, but not acted upon, for a long time.
So obvious is that reality that the ruling bodies felt obliged to acknowledge it by the third paragraph of the current report with this direct quote from their own 2002 Joint Statement of Principles. “Any further significant increases in hitting distances at the highest level are undesirable. Whether these increases in distance emanate from advancing equipment technology, greater athleticism of players, improved player coaching, golf course conditioning or a combination of these or other factors, they will have the impact of seriously reducing the challenge of the game …” If you found yourself mouthing “yada, yada, yada,” you’re forgiven.
In the USGA/R&A’s defense, the main context of that 18-year old proclamation was a distance jump brought on in the immediately preceding years mostly by the solid core, multi-layer ball, and which rightly caused some alarm. Since then, the increases in distance have been more of a slow creep, arguably never spiking in a way that quite rose to the “significant” standard at the time.
Nevertheless, in the conclusion to the report, the ruling bodies don’t cop out, saying, “we recognize that some have the view that the governing bodies might have done more in addressing the implications of the continuing increases in distance and course lengths … our views have evolved as events have unfolded and new information has become available, just as they may evolve in the future, and we believe that it’s never too late to do the right thing for the future of the game.” On the heels of such a candid mea culpa, that last statement is hard to argue with.
And going forward, it should never be forgotten what a complicated landscape of potential litigation, negative public reaction, and lack of support from partners the USGA and R&A must negotiate. A more fraught path than any golden-age golf hole they are trying to preserve.
It’s also worth a reminder that the ruling bodies’ recommendations and wishes are only followed by the golf world that accepts such – on the basis of a kind of collective handshake that they know what’s best for the game. As the former USGA executive director David Fay wryly said, “We rule by the power not vested in us.”
And that power – because of misjudgments on equipment decisions and mistakes the USGA, in particular, has made at the U.S. Open over the last decade – has arguably eroded. At the moment, it’s fair to say that – on the distance issue – the USGA and R&A have among golf power structure more opponents, or at least suspicious partners, than allies. The equipment companies are always resistant to more equipment regulation, and the PGA Tour – whose product is booming the more players boom it – doesn’t want a distance rollback. Nor, of course, does the average golfer, who is always looking for more distance and tends to react dismissively to the phrase “the ball goes too far.”
Only Augusta National is visibly in the USGA’s corner, which was made clear when chairman Fred Ridley spoke before last year’s Masters about the reality of the 13th hole playing shorter and less dramatically than it used to. His carefully chosen words made the diluting of the genius par-5’s design a microcosm of the distance debate, while also making clear what side of it he is on:
“Admittedly,” said Ridley, “that hole does not play as it was intended to play by [Bobby] Jones and [Alister] MacKenzie. The momentous decision that I've spoken about and that Bobby Jones often spoke about, of going for the green in two, is to a large extent, no longer relevant.
“Although we now have options to increase the length of this hole, we intend to wait to see how distance may be addressed by the governing bodies before we take any action. In doing so, we fully recognize that the issue of distance presents difficult questions with no easy answers. But please know this: the USGA and the R&A do have the best interests of the game at heart. They recognize the importance of their future actions. You can be assured that we will continue to advocate for industry‑wide collaboration in support of the governing bodies as they resolve this very important topic.”
It was a powerful ally providing an encouraging push, but others in golf’s power structure were conspicuous by their silence. So, the USGA and R&A must be both strategic and persuasive in how they make their case. Observers want an unimpeded straight line from idea to action. But it will have to be a deft broken-field run.
With all that acknowledged, I think the Distance Insights Project report is an exceptional document. It’s clarity and comprehensiveness are what golf need to stimulate and liberate what has been the most gridlocked conversation in the game. After a thorough reading, it’s hard to imagine a dissenter arguing that the ruling bodies are, for example, trying to rob the modern golfer of gains that are the result of athletic evolution. Or that constantly increasing distance is simply par for the course and no big deal.
It was organized in three parts: The elite game. Sustainability. And the average golfer.
I like that order. Because the elite male game is really the only place – through mostly seemingly small but steady increments over the last two decades – where distance has run rampant and changed the game most dramatically. It’s also the biggest influencer in affecting the perceptions and decisions of the rest of golf whether it's average players, equipment companies or golf course operators.
The report’s research suggests that that modern clubs and balls being used on the men’s professional tours are arguably entailing the kind of “over-reliance on technical advances” that equipment rules are supposed to curb. As a result, the elite game is out of balance. By a far greater margin than ever, driving distance is outpacing driving accuracy as an indicator of success on the PGA Tour. While long and straight off the tee remains the most valued and difficult-to-attain skill in the game, long and crooked is being rewarded nearly as much, or not punished enough. The so-called bomb-and-gouge style, in which players have learned that a long drive that leaves a wedge to the green from the rough is a statistically better percentage play for scoring on most courses than a straight drive that leaves an 8-iron approach, is leading, according to critics, to the best players in the world being asked to hit a smaller variety of clubs and shots and thus a collective “deskilling” at the highest level. As the report states, “Overall, the increased hitting distance with a driver may allow some holes to be effectively overpowered, rewarding an emphasis on distance at the expense of accuracy and other longstanding skills.”
The most important effect is that the current style of play actually creates an equipment-induced parity that works against the most skilled players achieving separation from the rest. This has been Jack Nicklaus’ observation for many years, and it’s no accident that he has long been the biggest advocate of rolling back the golf ball, both from the perspective of a player and a course architect.
The report likewise bemoans that to keep up with the distance produced by modern pros, tournament courses have kept getting longer – upwards of 7,500 yards in many cases. Those courses that cannot be made long enough – some of them renowned for their classic design – are routinely overpowered and ultimately considered obsolete for elite competition. Seeing such courses disappear as tournament venues has been golf’s loss.
From a sustainability standpoint, longer courses often face an uphill fight for financial viability. They have a bigger footprint and are more expensive to build and maintain, use more water and chemicals, cost more to play, and take more time to get around.
They also encourage non-elite players, who statistics prove that as a group have always attained minimal gains in hitting distance, to play from longer tees that is suitable to their abilities and ultimately inhibits their enjoyment. And the great majority of forward tees – usually in the 5,500-yard range – are far too long for most woman and beginners.
In short, the report concludes, golf has reached a point where it is harmed as distances and course lengths increase, and the cycle should be brought to an end.
The question is, what’s the best way it can be helped? If there is a problem in the distance the best players hit the ball, but not for the average golfer, what can be a solution? Especially if the ruling bodies hold to their long-standing commitment to one set of playing and equipment rules for all golfers.
Most intriguing among the report's possible next steps is exploring expanding the implementation of a local rule option under the Rules of Golf at professional tournament sites (presumably including major championships on venerated but shorter older courses) that would specify use of clubs and/or balls intended to result in shorter hitting.
Such a move would not circumvent the one-rule-for-all-players that the ruling bodies have long considered the ideal. But it’s not difficult to envision an awkward conflict arising in which the four major championships (with the U.S. Open, Open Championship leading the way) agreeing to use the local rule to allow roll back clubs and/or balls, but the PGA Tour – perhaps determined to go all-in on the power game as crucial to its branding – resistant to the idea and not going along.
The local rule would be de facto bifurcation, but that’s a very incendiary word in the world of equipment manufacturing and regulation. The word bifurcation is never used in the report, and never publicly uttered by USGA or R&A officials. In the current climate, it raises fears of litigation and damaged partnerships. But if there ever were consensus on two sets of rules, it would unshackle the game from its current equipment conundrum. One set of equipment rules for the elite competitive players, another for recreational players (hypothetically with a precisely-defined boundary line drawn somewhere in the upper-reaches of the competitive amateur game).
And here’s where the report gets interesting. A section dealing with how a planned review of conformance specifications for clubs and balls could lead to a possible new rule that could help mitigate distance increases included this sentence: “It (the review) is not currently intended to consider revising the overall specifications in a way that would produce substantial reductions in hitting distances at all levels of the game.” In other words, leave the average golfer alone. But if there are reductions, they will be aimed at reducing the hitting distances of elite players. This leaves the door the slightest bit ajar for bifurcation.
Though both governing bodies stated during a Monday news conference that they would prefer a single set of equipment rules, separate sets would allow The Show to produce a more interesting brand of golf on the game’s most historical and interesting stages and help the very best players better demonstrate the more complete skills that would distinguish them from the very good. I would argue bifurcation would also help the everyday player have more fun. No longer would the ruling bodies have to try to meet the increasingly difficult balance of regulations on clubs and balls that work for both ends of the game. If we have learned anything in this century of golf, it’s how completely different they are from the other.
I believe it’s where the road will eventually lead. And that the ruling bodies secretly believe so as well. Which is why – as the report was quick to warn us – that road will be a long one.