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This Distance Report Is Here but Will Anything Change?

This week the USGA and R&A finally published their extensive report on distance and it's effects on the game. You can find the 102-p...

Thursday, February 6, 2020

This Distance Report Is Here but Will Anything Change?

This week the USGA and R&A finally published their extensive report on distance and it's effects on the game. You can find the 102-page Distance Insights Report here. It's a fascinating read if you love charts and statistics. What it doesn't contain are any big surprises. Players are hitting the ball longer than ever.

The release of the report has generated yet another round of discussions on what, if anything, needs to be done. Jack Nicklaus has weighed in with the following tweets:
Mr. Nicklaus has long been an advocate of changing parts of the game to bring distances back down somewhere to around 1980's levels. As I've written before, he would most like to see the ball changed to limit distances. The creation of a flight of options that would allow individual players to handicap themselves against a given course based on what ball they chose to play.

I've always thought that the chances of equipment manufacturers being willing to offer such products unlikely. What amateur player wouldn't go for a 100% ball when given the choice? How could these companies absorb the R&D and manufacturing costs of these balls to such a level of precision only to have a very small group of players use them?

Ultimately the problem is one of the professional game becoming too long. The amateur game, with it's continuing aging population, is still in constant pursuit of distance and forgiveness. Controllable distance makes us happy and isn't that what golf is really about? The hope of extending our enjoyment of the game while our physical abilities stagnate or regress is what drives equipment sales these days for many players. You're going to have a hard time convincing the average player that they should give up distance for the good of the game. And, importantly, equipment manufacturers are going to struggle to be successful if forced to produce two classes of equipment.

Phil Mickelson, rapidly becoming the game's newest elder statesman, managed to look at the same report and come to a completely different conclusion than Mr. Nicklaus. During an interview at this week's AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, Mr. Mickelson had the following comment on the report (courtesy Geoff Shackelford):
I didn't really read anything tangible from the report. I only saw that they were, they didn't want each generation to continue getting longer and longer. I also don't feel that you should punish the athletes for getting better. I don't think that we have had massive equipment changes. We have just had athletes that have been able to take advantage of the equipment more so than in the past.
Now, far be it from me to tell Mr. Mickelson he's wrong, but, I think that to deny that there's more than physical fitness to blame for the game getting longer is a bit too convenient.

Is there a problem with distance? Sure. Many classic golf courses are being too easily dominated by professional golfers. Driving par-4's and not needing anything longer than a 9-iron all week except on the par-3's is probably not in the spirit of the game. But this is a problem that really only makes itself seen at the very top of the game. Your average golfer is very happy to be hitting it an extra 5 to 10 yards here and there with a bit more control to boot. Or, more importantly, being able to continue to enjoy the game later in life because their local course hasn't become unplayable due to their decreasing physical abilities.

Is the solution to bifurcate the rules of golf; to have professionals regulated to a different class of equipment than the amateur player? It might make the professional game look more like what we amateurs see during our Saturday morning round but is that what fans want?

It's easy to say that watching a player win a tournament at 25-under par is probably not great. But the cost of moving the professional game down in distance comes with even greater risks and penalties to the game as a whole.

For now, I expect there to be very little appetite for any radical changes. The USGA and R&A may clarify and expand their rules to further limit performance to current levels. I would be shocked to see any enthusiasm or movement towards rolling anything back.

Stay tuned. This is going to be an interesting conversation to follow.

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