News & Opinion

Local rule will be key in distance debate

Don’t worry, recreational golfers, because the USGA and R&A aren’t gunning for you. It’s the big boys on the professional tours who will have to adapt in the wake of the Distance Insights project

Distance.

Everyone wants more of it, even the best players in the world. In today’s modern power game, 10 additional yards – or more – has become golf’s holy grail. Manufacturers innovate for it; players train and use technology for it; everyday golfers hope they can buy it.

But the USGA and the R&A have drawn a line in the fairway.

Commissioner, Jay Monahan
In the distance debate, Jay Monahan is facing perhaps his biggest issue as PGA Tour commissioner.

With the release of their Distance Insights project, the ruling bodies will seek to reduce the distance that elite players get from their golf equipment. They will pursue the implementation of a local rule that allows committees or other entities that run golf championships to require its competitors to use equipment and/or balls that are designed to result in shorter distances.

How much reduced distance and how the equipment and/or balls will be designed are other huge issues entirely. The ruling bodies said Feb. 4 that within 45 days, they would publish a list of topics that they intend to research to make their determinations. That process is expected to take 9-12 months and, upon its completion, recommendations for equipment-rules changes will be announced. Manufacturers and other interested parties would have a specified period of time to comment before the rules are finalized.

But at present, there are more questions than answers.

Basically, the best competitive male players will feel the brunt of this action. Obviously, all eyes are on the professional tours and the major championships. Because it’s the USGA and R&A who are proposing these new rules, the U.S. Open and British Open certainly would use the new local rule. And the way officials at the Masters have hinted at the past few years concerning distance, it’s almost a lock that Augusta National Golf Club would sign on with the ruling bodies. And if it’s certain that the other three majors would use this local rule, the PGA of America isn’t likely to buck the trend.

Less clear is what the PGA Tour might do. A majority of Tour players might declare that distance is not a problem, and Tour officials could take the stance that their product is doing just fine as it is. However, if the elite professionals use one set of equipment for PGA Tour events and another set for major championships, could top Tour players play in fewer events during the four-month major season to avoid having to make the switch back and forth?

This will be the most important issue of PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan’s time in office, even more vital than fending off the proposed Premier Golf League.

It’s unclear at the moment whether the ruling bodies would use the proposed local rule to compel elite male amateurs in its championships – the U.S. Amateur and the R&A’s British Amateur, for example – to use the same equipment that the professionals would use in the majors. Without question, amateurs who compete in professional majors would fall under the same equipment rules as the pros.

Other uncertainties would include whether the PGA of America would force its club pros to use reduced-distance equipment in its regional or national championships. Or whether state and regional amateur golf associations would adopt the new local rule.

It seems unlikely that elite females – pros or amateurs – would be forced to play equipment that reduces their distance. Nor would senior competitions – male or female – be likely to implement a local rule for their equipment, including balls.

The local rule won’t affect the 99.9 percent of golfers who aren’t elite players. The ruling bodies aren’t coming to get your distance. You get to keep what you have and more, too, if you can get it. Creating the local rule for competitions avoids creating two sets of equipment regulations and leaves the Rules of Golf intact. However, there’s nothing to prevent you from using the reduced-distance equipment, if you insist on playing the same equipment as the pros.

Among the elite players, straight hitters are going to praise this action to no end. They have long complained that hitting fairways carries no reward anymore. But there are plenty of observers and pundits who believe the time has come to limit what they see as runaway distance. Jack Nicklaus, who has preached for years that the ball goes too far, is ecstatic.

The longest hitters are sure not to be enthusiastic about these proposals. They’ve used technology and athletic training to gain a competitive advantage over the length of championship courses, and they’re loath to give it up. Why be happy about hitting 7-irons to par 4s when you’ve become accustomed to hitting wedges, even on some of the longest holes?

Manufacturers won’t be happy, either. If new rules are implemented, they will have to retool to produce clubs and/or balls that meet the new reduced distance, whatever that turns out to be.

Manufacturers would have to make gear for pros and elite amateurs, who get equipment for free, anyway. They likely wouldn’t sell much of the same equipment to non-competitive amateurs. How many players do you know who voluntarily want less distance?

To receive Morning Read’s newsletters, subscribe for free here.