To a jaundiced observer, golf debates must have all the obvious relevance of a couple of tweedy academics bickering over the best translation of Beowulf between draws on their pipes. No debate is more fractious than that surrounding distance, which has for years rumbled along like a freight train in the night. During that time friendships have been sundered, garments rended, pearls clutched and block buttons exhausted. To casual fans it must seem like golf esoterica; to those who care, it’s golf in extremis, an existential argument on the very future of the sport.
Ours is a game of byzantine conventions, so it’s unsurprising that many drive-by spectators believe it hasn’t evolved in years, that it remains the domain of those who prefer the way things used to be, regardless of what those things are. The reality is that golf, like an aging Hollywood actress, shows marked change if you know where to look. Only now have we reached a moment when its wheezy statutes begin to catch up.
The Distance Insights Report jointly issued by the USGA and the R&A represents the first draft of a manifesto on what the future of golf should look like. For those among us who wish to preserve the living works of art on which we play, who want to see restored the varied skill requirements that defined generations of legends, and who fear a looming sustainability crisis, it offers hope that the decades-long assault on those values is nearing an end.
In the words of the great Roberto Duran, no más.
There is ample blame to go around for how golf reached this impasse, but no shortage of it rests with the very people in Far Hills and St. Andrews who propose to lead us out of this quagmire. The governing bodies failed to govern diligently, a fact they had the grace to acknowledge in the document summarizing the conclusions of the 102-page report. They acquiesced to an equipment arms race that rendered obsolete some of our greatest courses and robbed elite ballstrikers of a natural advantage over inferior competitors. And the problem with a race that’s well underway is that it’s awfully difficult to call the runners back to the starting line.
Difficult, but not impossible.
The Distance Insights project frames the debate in terms that any golfer would struggle to rebut: “An enduring foundation of golf is that success in getting a ball from the tee to the hole in the fewest strokes should depend on using many different skills and judgments, rather than be dominated by only one or a few. In our view, it is essential for this to remain true for play at the diverse golf courses across the world, without the need for them to keep getting longer.”
The need to restate that basic principle is a tacit admission that it is significantly eroded. What the USGA and R&A did not state, at least not explicitly, is what precisely they will do to redress the issues caused by distance gains, to restore nuanced skill to the highest level of the game, to protect our finest courses, to ensure golf is sustainable for future generations.
The next steps that are broadly outlined in the report are in keeping with golf’s fondness for deliberate, ruminative processes, and at odds with the modern thirst for flip-switch change. There’ll be a year or so of more research with invitations for input extended to stakeholders, not least equipment manufacturers. Hence this effort at reassuring that hostile constituency: “It is not currently intended to consider revising the overall specifications in a way that would produce substantial reductions in hitting distances at all levels of the game.”
If you’re an equipment company executive, those words “currently” and “all” may as well be flashing neon.
The response from the manufacturing quarter will be as furious as it is predictable, because this report cannot be read as anything other than a revolution foretold, a serving of notice to those who have long resisted action on distance with a combination of bluster, cries about restraint of trade and barely disguised legal threats.
Raising the idea of tackling distance via the introduction of a Local Rule —which tournaments and professional tours can choose to adopt while recreational golfers are free to ignore — is an artful use of parliamentary procedure to undercut those familiar browbeating warnings that Messrs. Davis and Slumbers want to steal distance from short-hitting chops who can hear the ball land. Manufacturers can continue to sell product. Most golfers will simply not be impacted.
It’s bifurcation by another name.
Change is most assuredly coming to the elite ranks. Consider this section of the report: “Notwithstanding the Equipment Rule specifications that seek to limit hitting distance, we believe that there is potential for further increases to occur within the existing rules, such as by using longer shafts, and that club and ball design will continue to evolve in conjunction with improved swing and fitting techniques to generate more hitting distance.”
In short, existing standards won’t prevent a worsening of problems caused by distance gains. That admission makes inevitable new specifications that will seek to roll back equipment and rein in distance, and not simply draw a line in the sand where we stand now.
The distance report is awash with the noble language of consensus building, but make no mistake — the USGA and R&A have fired the first shot in a war for the future of golf. It is both overdue and necessary.
Golfweek.com, February 4, 2020.