Memo to Phil -- Give it a rest

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Brouhaha unnecessary from '21 PGA Champ
Posted on
August 29, 2021
M. James Ward in
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Social media - Phil Mickelson. Memo to Phil -- Give it a rest
(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes


OWINGS MILLS, MD. Social media is a fantastic tool. You get real time info and updates with no filters. Giving the sender their own microphone and bypassing other gatekeepers. However, like any tool it can be used stupidly when the person sending a message seeks to inflame and provide slanted propaganda to bolster whatever message they're attempting to deliver.

Case in point -- Phil Mickelson's tweet Friday on the possibility that the United States Golf Association (USGA) in concert with the R&A may opt to enact a rule limiting the length of drivers to no more than 46 inches.


Phil's tweet used the word "pathetic" in outlining his opinion on what may happen. The reality is that Mickelson's "pathetic" social media outreach can just as easily be applied to his mindset in getting this brouhaha started in the first place.

Let's rewind the tape shall we.

The USGA and R&A have been attempting to build consensus on what needs to be done concerning the debate on golf equipment and the gains made in distance via clubs and balls. This interminable process has stretched a few years because the governing bodies wanted to build the momentum leading to consensus for any proposed change that might develop. Frankly, the answer was clear a few years back but the end result is now present.

The statistics on distance gains -- specifically at the elite level -- is unassailable. The governing bodies also realized given the minefield they would be walking into that any proposed solutions would need ones at the initial stage that are reasonably tame and could be quickly adopted by all the key stakeholders.

This past February the USGA and R&A sought comments on one of three rule changes. The most prominent was mandating the maximum length of a driver to 46 inches. The current rule permits upwards to 48 inches. There was no specific time line as to how or when this new rule would be enforced.

The USGA stated in a report - "There is a 100-year trend of hitting distance increases in golf, as well as a corresponding increase in the length of golf courses, across the game globally. The USGA and the R&A believe this continuing cycle is detrimental to the game's long-term future."

Mickelson uses a 47.5-inch length driver and his verbal counterattack came during the PGA TOUR'S second leg of the FedEx Cup Playoffs being played at Caves Valley in the Baltimore suburbs. Phil smartly concluded that since he's playing in the event -- barely making the top 70 in order to compete -- his canyon fire would resonate across his legion of followers and the broader golf community. Smart timing certainly.



The reality is that the USGA and R&A are in the rules making business. Anytime you have to say "no" to someone there will be issues with those who believe the approach being contemplated is wrong. Yet the USGA and R&A are keenly aware they cannot summarily enforce rules beyond their own championships. They need to be in the persuasion business to sustain their position and cement their governance. This is especially important as the PGA TOUR is the 800-pound gorilla in the discussion and it's central the TOUR comes on board with whatever the "new" rules will be.

The process of dealing with distance gains has to start somewhere and limiting the length of drivers is fairly straightforward and innocuous. The suggested change does not impact most of the key stakeholders -- namely the equipment companies and what they produce generally for consumers to buy. The USGA and R&A are fully aware the overwhelming bulk of drivers used are not more than 45.5 inches in length. Those beyond that -- Phil included -- represent the extreme fringe in the total picture.

Why don't more elite professionals use drivers beyond 45.5 inches? Simple. It's counterproductive. The key at the highest level is to get the most distance you can achieve and find fairways on a consistent basis. One without the others does not work no matter what one sees being done by Bryson DeChambeau from time to time. 

Tom Wishon, one of the leading individuals in the equipment industry has stated the importance for golfers of being able to control the swing of a driver where solid contact with the face of the club and ball is done again and again. Added lengths make that more difficult to achieve -- even for elite players. For whatever distance one might gain with the added length the wherewithal to find a fairway becomes more difficult.

"Not more than 10 percent of all men should ever try to play with a driver length that is longer than 44 inches," said Wishon. "Most average male golfers should consider a driver length of 43 inches to 43.5 inches."


The issue for elite players versus those playing recreationally is consistent strikes providing sufficient distance and playable accuracy. Recreational players may get a surge of adrenaline with a one-time hit that goes beyond their normal distance with an extra length driver but the key to meaningful scoring is getting the ball into play consistently. That's the same driving ingredient -- no pun intended - for elite players.

A new rule limiting driver length will not be a burden on equipment companies. The key companies produce the bulk of the drivers at no more than 45.5 inches. The USGA and R&A were likely aware of this and therefore started the process in drawing a line in the sand with a solution both workable and feasible for such key stakeholders. No question, the rules making bodies do not want lawsuits being filed by proposing draconian new rules that do impact the bottom-line realities of those being regulated. That may happen down the pike.

Will there be other rule changes regarding equipment? Undoubtedly. But the USGA and R&A know the first effort in this discussion needed to be in the big tent area where action is taken but not to the point at which alienation germinates from the outset.

There's also the matter of Phil using the word "pathetic." It's amusing because this is the guy who, in the 2018 U.S. Open during the 3rd round of play purposely hit a moving ball on the 13th green during that championship. Talk about pathetic and certainly embarrassing. Mickelson attempted to spin the story in one direction and then realized such a clown act could not be defended. The USGA was gracious in just slapping him with a two-stroke penalty and allowing him to continue play. His actions warranted disqualification. Can you ever imagine Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer doing such a thing?



I wonder if Phil ever realized it was the USGA that tendered him an invitation to play in the 2021 U.S. Open when he was not assured of a spot in the field at that point? Yes, it became a moot point when he won the PGA Championship at Kiawah but the USGA was not "pathetic" then in reaching out in having him at Torrey Pines.

Phil's tweet was really about trying to link his situation to that of ordinary golfers. When he mentions "less fun" it's an attempt to demonize the USGA and R&A as being the forces that want to take away such "fun" when the reform being suggested does not do anything close to that.



Rules making is not an easy situation. Someone has to do it. The USGA and R&A started the process in a sensible manner. Phil certainly stirred the pot and he certainly is entitled to his opinion -- but the actual facts undercut his position.

Interestingly, Phil references the first golf boom in 40 years and no doubt there has been a spike in more rounds being played and more equipment being purchased. But the push on that side has come from existing core golfers. The major underlying issues -- pre-pandemic -- the time and associated costs to play the game and the difficulty in learning how to play, are still front and center. Limiting driver length to 46 inches is totally unrelated to that and it's an attempt to demonize the USGA and R&A unfairly. It would be most welcomed for elite golfer like Mickelson and others to address those core topics because the future of the game is clearly tied to them.

Phil is a Hall-of-Famer and as such his opinions on topics within golf will resonate -- even when the actual facts say otherwise. One can only guess what Lefty's motivation was in opting to go forward now with his bombshell broadside. However, when the sum total of the actual situation is assessed it's apparent Phil's attempt at hitting it long and straight is clearly out-of-bounds.

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About M. James Ward

A GWAA and MGWA member, the 66-year-old from the USA has covered golf in all facets since 1980, notably the major championships and other high level events. He has played over 2,000 courses globally and has competed in USGA Championships.

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