When will golf’s distance debate end, and who has the final say?
The topic of increased ball flight will be on the agenda for the U.S. Golf Association and the R&A, likely during Masters week. The debate had been stoked by recent comments from Jack Nicklaus and R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers that increased distance is a problem for golf and must be addressed.
For the first time, the USGA and R&A are ready to try to rein in distance, most likely by calling a 1.68-inch sphere the culprit.
Slumbers’ support of a distance rollback makes clear that, like the debate involving the anchored stroke, which resulted in a ban two years ago, the R&A is unwilling to let the issue go unaddressed.
“For a number of years, there has been a slow creep upwards, but this is a little bit more than slow creep,” Slumbers told GolfDigest.com earlier this month. “It’s actually quite a big jump.”
Driving-distance data soon will be released jointly by the R&A and the USGA in their annual distance study.
“Our 2002 joint statement of principles put a line in the sand,” Slumbers said. “But when you look at this data, we have probably crossed that line in the sand. A serious discussion is now needed on where we go.”
Truth be told, a discussion has been ongoing between the USGA and R&A for years.
Nicklaus has argued for tighter restrictions on the golf ball for at least 20 years, but he struggled to find a supporter at the USGA until now.
“I had dinner with Mike Davis Sunday night, and Mike said, ‘We're getting there,’ ” said Nicklaus, recalling the discussion days earlier. “ ‘We're going to get there.’ He said, ‘I need your help when we get there.’ ”
Unlike the anchoring ban, which really was much ado about nothing, a distance rollback via rules bifurcation between the professional and amateur games or a reduction of 10 percent or 20 percent would have significant consequences.
Thomas Bjorn, Europe’s Ryder Cup captain, put those consequences in an economic context.
“The manufacturers of golf equipment put a lot of money back into the game worldwide, probably some of the biggest contributors into the game,” Bjorn said last year during the Turkish Airlines Open. “And if you keep them from pushing their product and being competitive, I think you're going to find that their way of making money is going to fall, and then I think you'll have more or less money coming back into the game from what they do, and I think that's a very dangerous route to go.”
With the inception of the Titleist Pro V1 ball in 2000 and the evolution of metal drivers, science has ushered golf into the 21st century.
Is golf really suffering because of increased distance? Nicklaus acknowledged that golf remains “a great game today,” so why make fundamental changes?
Golfers not only are hitting the ball farther, but more of them are topping 300 yards.
In 2000, when the Pro V1 debuted during the PGA Tour stop in Las Vegas, only John Daly averaged more than 300 yards off the tee, at 301.4. Ten years later, Robert Garrigus led the tour in driving distance at 315.5 yards, and 11 others averaged 300 or more yards off the tee.
Last year, when Rory McIlroy led the Tour at 317.2 yards, 43 players topped 300 yards.
At the same time, the leader in scoring average on the PGA Tour has not changed significantly, with Tiger Woods at 68.17 in 2000, Matt Kuchar at 69.43 in 2010 and Jordan Spieth at 68.94 last year.
Distance has shown little, if any, substantive improvement to scoring on the PGA Tour.
The other end of the distance debate has had little voice.
Is limiting distance by rolling back the ball or any other method worth putting the millions of dollars in charitable contributions in jeopardy? An argument, which Bjorn was making, could force golf’s manufacturers out of supporting professional and amateur golf, leaving little or no backing.
Most amateurs would be uninterested in giving up distance, so equipment manufacturers likely would limit their TV, digital and print advertising if Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson and the game’s most visible stars would be forced to play other, inferior equipment.
A loss of that advertising, promotion and support by the equipment companies ultimately would challenge the PGA Tour’s system of rights fees by the TV networks and cable outlets as a large part of the advertising inventory would be available if the equipment manufacturers were to flee.
If golf lost those advertisers, it would be difficult to fill the void, forcing the cost of advertising inventory down and ultimately pushing rights fees lower.
With the PGA Tour and its tournaments responsible for $180 million in charitable contributions in 2017 alone, is it conceivable to put such largess in peril?
Ultimately, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan will make the call. No matter what the USGA or R&A decides, Monahan would decide whether the PGA Tour abides by any distance rule. Monahan would hear from every player on Tour, most of whom have financial relationships with the manufacturers.
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Jay Monahan won’t jeopardize the PGA Tour’s success by allowing a distance rollback.
The PGA Tour is a thriving organization, and almost every tournament is fully sponsored. The business of professional golf is going extremely well. So why put that in danger?
Monahan won’t, and that will be that.
The European Tour under Keith Pelley also likely would take the same position, putting the USGA and R&A in a bind.
Neither organization can risk having the major tours develop their own rules. It would be organizational suicide for the governing bodies, whose mission is to oversee the game, not have their rules used in professional golf.
A grassroots effort likely would take place, as well. Few, if any, recreational golfers want to see a rollback of any type, and why should they?
Golf is hard enough. Why make it harder or less enjoyable?
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli