SOUTHPORT, England – Is bifurcation inevitable?
Martin Slumbers, the R&A’s chief executive, gave the impression Wednesday that two sets of rules in golf might become a reality.
For the first time since the R&A and the U.S. Golf Association released their Joint Statement of Principles in May 2002, the governing bodies are seeing an uptick in driving distance on the major professional tours in the first half of 2017. The gains might be significant enough for golf’s leaders to take a hard look at the rules.
The level of the movement is unknown, and Slumbers was careful not to suggest that is an issue. During the past 14 years, when the R&A and USGA have released their studies on distance, they have indicated that distance increases were not a concern.
“If you look at the data over the last 18 months, we are seeing this year movements, only halfway through the year,” said Slumbers, who has headed the R&A since late 2015, during the organization’s annual news conference at the British Open. “We will take a full look at the end of the year, and then come back and make sure we analyze and think about it very carefully.”
In May 2002, both governing bodies took a stand that technology should not outdate or change the game in a significant way.
Before Wednesday, the effects of technology had not been an issue that the governing bodies needed to address. Slumbers, with years of data behind him, suggested that distance may now be creating a problem.
If he is right, the governing bodies and the PGA Tour could be in for a big fight from which only the lawyers can win.
All of the major golf manufacturers except for Ping make golf balls, a lucrative segment of the equipment business.
If the rules were to be bifurcated – that is, different for amateurs and professionals – recreational players would play with different equipment and under different rules from the professional game.
It would be a move that has been resisted vehemently by some of the equipment manufacturers but at times discussed by many in the industry as an alternative.
“Our overriding objective is to get more people playing this wonderful game, and it serves everybody if we have more people playing this game,’ Slumbers said after his news conference. “I think this balance between skill and technology has really helped people starting the game and the average player to be able to play what is a difficult game a little bit better, a little bit easier.”
Slumbers said it would be counterproductive to take the technology away from new and amateur golfers, so he is ready to consider alternatives.
“When we look at all the options we’ve got, it [bifurcation] will have to be one of the options we look at,” Slumbers said. “Whether that’s the right thing to do, who knows the answer. Up to date, we have had a view of one set of playing rules, one set of equipment rules, and I think that served our game extremely well, but we must make sure we get the skill and technology right, as a balance for the good of the overall game.”
Next up will be the analysis of the 2017 driving statistics. If change is significant in driving distance, then 2018 could be the year when bifurcation, the ugly word in golf, becomes attractive.
“I don’t know what the question is; I don’t know what the answer is yet,” Slumbers said. “I think if it continues, I do feel it very important that the game together works out the right solution and the right question to be answered.”
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @AlexMiceli