News & Opinion

For aspiring pro, there’s no turning back

When Jack Nicklaus talks, I listen. He has been around a lot longer than I have. He won his last major championship in the 1986 Masters, eight months before I was born.

Nicklaus has done it all and won it all. I am just a low-ranking touring pro with a Web.com Tour card who is not exempt into Web.com fields. I’m one-for-two in the past month in Monday qualifying. I got into the event in Savannah, Ga., but came up short Monday in a wind-chilled qualifier in Tunica, Miss., and thus spent a few numbing hours practicing Tuesday at TPC River’s Bend just north of Cincinnati during my 12-hour drive home to Pittsburgh. 

I’m clearly not on equal footing in any debate with Nicklaus. I understand that, but I can’t agree with his recent comments suggesting that the golf ball should be cut back to travel 20 percent less on the PGA Tour.

As a pro golfer, I’m not sure whether that’s a good idea or a bad idea. My point is simpler: It’s too late to make this change. Way too late … but it has been done before, which is the real problem.

The first solid-core Titleist Pro V1 golf ball – a game-changer – was used on tour in 2000. That’s 18 years ago. An entire generation of 23-year-old golfers coming out of college has played the Pro V1 or a ball like it since age 5. They have known nothing else. Is it fair to them to change the rules as they start pro careers? No, I say. 

Phil Rodgers won two PGA Tour events in 1966 with something like a belly putter. The U.S. Golf Association decided in May 2013 that anchored putting would be deemed illegal, taking effect Jan. 1, 2016. That was a half-century of tainted tournament results. 

What about square grooves? The USGA legalized them in 1981, then reneged on an agreement with Ping and took them out of play in January 2009. The USGA needed a mere 28 years to make that decision. Who’s guilty of slow play now?

Players who turned pro in 2009 (like me) were given new irons with new grooves and told to go play despite having used square grooves for our entire lives.  

When my dad talks, I always listen. I probably don’t agree because, well, he’s my dad. But I listen. In 2007, he wrote a story for Sports Illustrated and asked Dick Rugge, the USGA’s senior technical director, what took so long to ban square grooves.

“That’s a great question,” Rugge said. “We want to do things very thoroughly before we propose anything. We looked at data from the Tour that showed a problem. Accuracy off the tee is no longer important. We're doing a lot of work on balls and other things. You know, the things that need to be done, it's always, Why didn't we do it sooner?

Yes! That’s it! That’s the question! Why can’t the USGA ever do anything sooner?

The USGA continues to undermine generations of aspiring Tour players by allowing “illegal” equipment for 20 or 30 years and then banning it after it has become an integral part of the game. 

The Rules of Golf are meant to make the game fair for everyone. The USGA should try living by that concept in regard to equipment rules.

When Gary Player talks, I listen. In 2001, even before the ball and oversized-driver revolutions hit their peaks, Player said, “I think all the equipment we’re using today is illegal. I’m sad to say that I think the USGA, which I’ve admired over the years, has been very weak in regards to golf equipment.”

Bifurcation would have been an easy compromise. Golf is one of the few sports in which rules bifurcation doesn’t exist. The USGA could have drawn a line in the sand and had one set of equipment rules for professionals and another for amateurs. Aluminum bats are used in college baseball but not in the major leagues. The NFL has different rules than college – one foot inbounds instead of two for a reception; getting up and running even if a knee hits the ground, as long as the player has not been touched; the width of the hash marks, and more. Even NBA players are given an extra foul (plus an extra step or three) compared to the NCAA game.

So why is golf different? Why hold 30-handicappers, college amateurs and PGA Tour players to the same standard of rules when almost no other sport does?

 

When Arnold Palmer talked, I listened. Especially the parts about being nice to fans and making sure that a signature is legible. He got a lot of heat for coming out in favor of recreational golfers using the Callaway ERC II driver – deemed non-conforming in the U.S. around the turn of the century – because he was a USGA spokesman at the time. Reading between the lines, what the late Palmer supported with his comments, knowingly or not, was bifurcation.

It would’ve been the right move then. Now it’s too late. The USGA shouldn’t punish today’s pros because it was asleep at the wheel on more than one occasion.

Nicklaus was asked at the Honda Classic whether his proposed decreased-distance ball would be accepted by equipment manufacturers, who put a lot of money into pro golf. “The manufacturers don’t make the rules of the game,” he said.

Well, maybe they should, because the USGA hasn’t exactly lit it up.

When Jack Nicklaus talks, I listen. In order to get the USGA to listen, maybe he should have hit the ceremonial first tee shot Thursday morning at the Masters … with a balata ball and a persimmon driver.

Mike Van Sickle, a professional golfer based in Pittsburgh, is a former first-team All-American at Marquette University who would gratefully accept sponsor exemptions from any tour. Twitter: @mvs_golf