Are Golf’s Ruling Bodies Preparing A Rollback?

Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but when the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews and United States Golf Association jointly introduced their most worrisome report on driving distance to date, it came the day after the field average at the WGC–Mexico Championship soared to nearly 306 yards, 13 yards longer than the tour average for 2017 and the ninth event this season to surpass last year’s record-setting driving average of 292.5 yards.

This new report, together with comments officials have made in public and private, suggests golf’s rule-makers are inching closer to an equipment rollback, rules bifurcation or some combination. The report doesn’t explicitly say that, only a desire for “a thoughtful conversation” and “an open and inclusive process”. Still, the spectre of change looms: distance, the ruling bodies are saying, is officially an issue.

Almost immediately two of golf’s chief organisations disputed the report, and it’s important to note that without US PGA Tour consensus, a rollback isn’t possible. In a letter to players, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said: “We do not believe the trends indicate a significant or abnormal increase in distance since 2003, or from 2016 to 2017. We will continue to collaborate and share data with the USGA and the R&A… and are hopeful our perspectives will align.”

Pete Bevacqua, chief executive of the PGA of America, which has a membership of 29,000 PGA professionals and conducts the US PGA Championship and Ryder Cup, was more direct: “We are highly sceptical 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.”

Reasonable minds looking at the same numbers and reaching different conclusions suggests that the “thoughtful conversation” period could be protracted and contentious. For reference, the rancorous groove-rule debate took five years from proposal to implementation. An equipment rollback would have many more obstacles to overcome.

The distance report’s March release had been preceded by increasingly forceful expressions of concern. A year ago, USGA executive director Mike Davis questioned the time constraints, rising costs and resource shortages that golf’s expanding footprint has caused, wondering, “Has that been good for the game?” But at that same meeting, Davis also said: “We don’t foresee any need to do a mandatory rollback.”

Then at the USGA’s Annual Meeting in February, Davis bluntly questioned golf’s effect on the environment and said the increase in driving distance “does compromise the architectural integrity of some marvellously designed golf courses”.

A week later, R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers was more pointed, suggesting the report would show that driving distances had gone from a “slow creep” to “quite a big jump”, something he said the R&A and USGA’s 2002 Joint Statement of Principles had vowed to guard against.

“When you look at this data, we have probably crossed that line in the sand,” Slumbers said. “A serious discussion is now needed on where we go.”

That discussion has no doubt been going on behind the scenes. The appointment of Hall of Famer and three-time Major champion Nick Price to the USGA Executive Committee last year was no mere honorarium. Price, the highest-profile player to serve on the Executive Committee, is a long-time proponent of reining in distance.

Two weeks before the distance report was issued, Jack Nicklaus, perhaps the game’s leading rollback proponent, intimated that he had been assured by Davis that something was in the works to restrict driving distance. “‘We’re going to get there,’” Nicklaus said Davis told him over dinner. “‘I need your help when we get there.’”

Bolstered by Fox’s $US1.2 billion television contract, the USGA perhaps thinks it doesn’t need as much help to push for a rollback, especially against a golf-manufacturing community fighting for its respective bottom lines in a down market.

But Acushnet, maker of Titleist golf balls, isn’t staying quiet. For decades, Acushnet was led by Wally Uihlein, the eloquentanti-rollback attack dog. If the ruling bodies thought the report’s timing would meet less resistance with Uihlein’s recent retirement, they were wrong. David Maher, Uihlein’s replacement, took up the cause with the same fact-based scepticism.

“Any movement as in 2017 is not suddenly indicative of a harmful trend,” Maher said. He cited what he said was a discrepancy in the report: a surge in driving distance at three of the four Majors in 2017 accounted for a third of the gain in driving distance on the US Tour for all of 2017. This included a 20.4-yard jump for the US Open, 8.1 yards for the British Open and seven yards for the US PGA Championship. Conversely, when comparing events played on the same courses year to year, Maher said the gain from 2016 to 2017 was only half a yard – 45 centimetres.

“A closer look into the numbers in the report underscores the complexity of making any meaningful year-to-year comparisons,” he said. “There were several contributing variables in 2017, including course selection and setup, agronomic conditions and weather, which need to be considered when assessing the data.”

The USGA’s first two reports on driving distance, in 2015 and 2016, showed only modest gains. But 2017’s numbers revealed a distinct and unexplained increase. The average distance gain for the seven professional tours was more than three yards (compared to 0.2 yards per year since 2003). This included a nearly seven-yard jump on the Tour in 2017, the first major professional tour to average more than 300 yards (302.9).

There’s another way to look at the numbers, especially those on the US PGA Tour. With the nearly three-yard average gain in 2017, driving distance since 2003 has increased just 6.6 yards. That’s an average of less than half a yard per year. Conversely, in the decade leading up to 2003 – a decade that inspired the ruling bodies to say distance was a problem – the driving-distance average increased nearly 20 yards, about two yards per year and more than four times the growth rate seen in the past 14 years.

Interestingly, the 2017 report also collected the average driving distances of regularmale golfers since 1996. This figure went from 200 yards in 1996 to a high of 217 yards in 2005, then down to 208 yards in 2017.

On the US Tour, however, the distance boom has continued into the 2018 season:by mid-March 69 players were averaging more than 300 yards off the tee, easily anall-time high.

It’s unusual for the R&A and USGA to take a single year’s data, like the jump in 2017, and build a case for change. The groove rule, for example, came about by studying more than two decades’ worth of numbers. And, in fact, the growth in driving distance on the US Tour has been less so far this decade than any other decade since 1990.

The rule-makers haven’t offered a timetable for making a decision on a potential rollback, but they have been studying shorter-flying prototype golf balls since 2005. Golf Digest obtained samples of one of the prototype balls and tested it at four swing speeds: the ball lost 22 to 32 yards at 120 and 105 miles per hour and seven to 10 yards at 90 and 75mph.

With all the talk of sustainability, it’snot clear that the ruling bodies have pinpointed the problem with distance. A survey by the American Society of Golf Course Architects found more interest in building tees to allow for a shorter course than building more tees for a longer course. Any debate about a rollback will likely be about “if” or “how” equipment should be limited. The distance report’s preamble stresses “the effect of increasing distance on the balance between skill and technology” and that “maintaining this balance is paramount to preserving the integrity of golf.”

Although the golf ball gets most of the attention, it’s getting harder to separate the ball’s effect on driving distance from the club. Drivers, for example, have become larger, lighter and more stable, with centres of gravity increasingly fine-tuned to produce high-launching, low-spinning shots. And what about the highly conditioned athlete or the launch monitor, which can elevate our understanding of ideal trajectories and spin rates? How close are we to the limits of human potential when it comes to distance? Furthermore, at what level would any rollback be implemented, and how would that level not be affected by every level
below it?

History shows that golf’s rule-makers don’t initiate a “conversation” like this without a rule waiting in their back pocket. It was that way with driver faces, with grooves and with anchored putters, changes that, though disruptive, did not significantly alter the relationship among the game, its pros and the paying public.

But an equipment rollback could test those relationships. In its distance report, the R&A and USGA extended an offer of collaboration to analyse the issue, a more collegial approach than what officials have sometimes expressed in public. It calls to mind the words of French essayist Joseph Joubert, whose thoughts were formed during the French Revolution. “It is better to debate a question without settling it,” he said, “than to settle a question without debating it.”