For years now, the biggest, baddest word to those who lead golf’s governing bodies has been bifurcation. The USGA and R&A have long insisted that part of golf’s charm is that pros and amateurs play by the same set of rules.
And it’s that assertion that has prevented the rulesmakers from doing anything about golf’s perennial elephant in the living room: the modern ball goes too far. Without two sets of rules – one for pros and one for everyone else – the ball can’t be restricted without taking away distance from everyday players, who would storm the palace in full-throated revolt.
So, the governing bodies have sat on their hands while touring professionals keep shrinking the world’s best courses. The only fight they could put up is the advent of the 500-yard par 4. Even at that, the longest hitters regularly reach them with a driver and 7-iron or less.
Erin Hills, the host of this year’s U.S. Open, was the longest course in Open history, at 7,839 yards. Yet Brooks Koepka blistered the Wisconsin course with four rounds totaling 16 under par.
Yes, players are bigger and stronger. Yes, modern big-headed drivers and exotic shafts create optimal launch conditions for maximum distance. But no one can deny that all things being equal, the ball goes farther.
And if now is not the time finally to do something about it, at least the chatter is getting louder. For the longest time, Jack Nicklaus was a voice in the wilderness, saying alone what most people believed to be true. “It’s the ball,” Nicklaus has said loudly and often.
But now Tiger Woods is onboard. And so is one of the major ball manufacturers. Woods is afraid that 8,000-yard courses are around the corner. And Angel Ilagan, president and chief executive officer of Bridgestone Golf, told Golf.com, "As it relates to the Tour ... there needs to be something to standardize [the ball], because the guys are hitting it way too long.”
The USGA has taken the stance that increased length hurts us all.
“I don’t care how far Tiger Woods hits it,” USGA executive director Mike Davis told The Wall Street Journal. “The reality is, this is affecting all golfers and affecting them in a bad way. These courses are expanding and are predicted to continue to expand. All it’s doing is increasing the cost of the game. The impact it has had has been horrible.”
Wally Uihlein, who is retiring as CEO of Acushnet at the end of the year, long has resisted any efforts to roll back the ball. He attacked Davis’ assertion that balls that fly farther make golf more expensive across the board.
"Is there any evidence to support this canard … the trickle-down cost argument?” Uihlein wrote in a letter to the Journal. “Where is the evidence to support the argument that golf course operating costs nationwide are being escalated due to advances in equipment technology?"
Uihlein is right. Only a relatively small number of courses face the quandary of whether to try to challenge the longest hitters. Most PGA Tour courses won’t find it necessary to get longer because those tournament directors believe fans like long drives and birdies.
It’s the major-championship courses that are at issue, and only a couple of dozen of those. The rest of us will be unaffected. Unless you play at a major venue, your course probably is not about to be lengthened.
So, let’s call this what it is: a problem for the elite. Which means we need two sets of rules.
Geoff Ogilvy is one of the most thoughtful players in the professional game. The winner of the 2006 U.S. Open had some insights last week in the run-up to the Emirates Australian Open.
“If bifurcation is the way to get where we probably need to get, then it’s the right thing to do,” said Ogilvy, who cited the analogy of Major League Baseball, which uses wooden bats while the rest of baseball allows aluminum bats.
“If major-leaguers used aluminum bats, it would totally destroy their stadiums. That’s kind of what’s happened to us. We’ve completely outgrown the stadiums. Do you rebuild every stadium, or do you make the ball go shorter? It seems relatively simple, from that perspective.”
The argument that we all play the same game is absurd. The equipment played by the best players in the world is not available to 99.9 percent of us, nor should it be. Tour players use exotic shafts and custom-made driver and iron heads.
Even the golf balls are different. Some manufacturers hold a number of iterations of their balls from years past – and not available to the public – that some Tour players prefer. When Woods was playing balls stamped with the Nike logo, if you wanted one of those balls, you had to steal one out of his bag.
The arguments have been heard and, in the court of public opinion, the verdict is in. Make two sets of rules, and do it now. The game will breathe a great big sigh of relief.
Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf