The Distance Debacle

The genie left the bottle and is not returning

What’s the biggest issue for most golfers? For the overwhelming number it’s being able to hit the ball further than what they’re getting now. Guess who knows that? Easy answer — the equipment companies. Guess what the equipment companies constantly promote? Easy answer — distance.

Watch just about any golf equipment commercial and it’s usually the driver that’s highlighted. Very few times will you see mention about wedges, irons and putters. 

The USGA, in concert with the R&A, is going through an extensive outreach to all the key golf stakeholders — including soliciting opinions from everyday golfers — on the impact of distance gains made over the last several years. No decision has been reached and frankly despite all the effort put into this process it’s hard to fathom what significant steps the game’s joint ruling bodies will do.

There was a time when the game was played with wooden club heads. When metal heads were in their infancy the two ruling bodies sat on their hands. The list of related inactions goes on and on. The advancements tied to the golf ball are no less crucial to one’s understanding. The key milestone came when Titleist unveiled the original Pro V1 and Pro V1X balls in October 2000. Unlike the previous balata wound balls, which spun a great deal – the new golf ball products produced the ideal mixture of added distance and continued control.

The Distance Debacle - The genie left the bottle and is not returning
Brooks Koepka’s 308.7 driving distance is tied for 8th this year on the PGA Tour. (Matt York/AP)

Beyond the quick affirmation from the world’s best players — the general golfing public weighed in with equally positive feedback. In the years to follow — various golf ball companies — each attempted to provide a golf ball comparable to what Titleist produced. Some succeeded — others floundered. The gains did filter down the broader golf masses and with that surge came a key game changing moment. Rolling back was not going to be a very simple task. Once people were exposed to the gains made it would be the equivalent of telling a child at Christmas time that the toy you just received was now going to be pulled back and adjusted — to a lower total. 

The constant bombardment of messaging from the golf ball companies has clearly established a loyal customer following and has placed both the USGA and R&A in a difficult position. The ruling bodies know that taking a decisive action — say a rollback of 10-20% — would result in a negative manner. Why is that? Simple. People don’t weigh the general interest of the game of golf — they view matters through the prism of self interest. How will such changes impact them specifically.

Rewind the tape to the late 1980’s when PING founder Karsten Solheim took issue with the new protocol on square grooves for irons. The net result was that Solheim was resolute in going to court to prove his point and both the USGA — and eventually the PGA Tour — opted to settled the matter.

The Distance Debacle - The genie left the bottle and is not returning
TaylorMade M6

The USGA and R&A are well aware any major adjustment to equipment overall could very well mean a major litigation tussle. One that could cost millions of dollars with no guarantee the final result would sustain the primacy of golf’s ruling entities. Keep in mind, both ruling bodies have done quite well with their existing television contracts and the resulting monies filling their respective coffers. Taking a “draw the line in the sand” hardball position would likely result in the equipment companies seeking redress through the courts. The final outcome is uncertain but if the equipment companies were successful the resulting damages faced by the joint ruling making groups could cripple them both financially. The USGA has also faced a much more pragmatic stance taken by the R&A on such matters. For the folks at Far Hills, NJ to go forward it will take a good bit of convincing to bring the R&A on board.

The Distance Debacle - The genie left the bottle and is not returning
Rory McIlroy’s 315.3 driving distance is 2nd this year on the PGA Tour.(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

During the recent process followed by the USGA and R&A there’s been a stated collaborative desire in order to develop some sort of consensus from the key stakeholders. But, it’s important to stress that those who would need to follow the new rules are not about to simply fold their tent and comply if such compliance undercuts their respective market position. Take for example Titleist, the company has been the number one ball company for many years. One doesn’t remotely think Titleist is simply going to forsake their overall brand identify after working diligently to achieve it.

The USGA and R&A are seeking a mechanism by which they are looking to find some sort of solution that’s mutually acceptable. And frankly, that’s not likely to happen. Rolling back the golf ball — even nominally — is not a sexy and easy proposition to market. The equipment companies know this clearly. It’s equivalent to how top tier auto companies strut their stuff. Faster is preferable — selling slower is not a winning proposition.

Frankly, any such movement would likely find themselves on the short end of the public relations battle that would likely intensify to win the hearts and minds of the average golfer. The focus would be on how rule making bodies are out of touch with the fun golfers are receiving with the existing products produced. Look what happened initially when the USGA and R&A attempted to ban the long putter from play. The unilateral move was not received well and it became clear that some other type of solution would need to be implemented. Both the USGA and R&A are in the persuasion business since the only events they control 100% are those which they sponsor.

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The time for real action on balls and clubs was years ago and that window has been shut — and getting tighter and tighter. Neither the equipment companies nor the rule making bodies favor bi-furcation — where different rules would be in effect for those on the tournament side versus average players. The fantasy of this position is the propaganda being purported. The game played at the highest of levels is hardly the same as those played at the lowest of levels. It’s clearly not. The rule making bodies could institute rules on equipment — specifically the ball — curtailing gains made. But the pushback from the equipment companies would no doubt be swift with litigation likely. What gains have been realized?

In 1980 – the average length drive on the PGA Tour was 256.5 yards. A decade later — 262.3. But the real gains took off when the new golf ball technology began to accelerate. In 2000, the numbers moved to 272.7 but in just a decade later the spike by 2010 went to 287.3. In 2018 the numbers stand at 296.1. It’s not a stretch to think 300 yards is just around the corner.

The Distance Debacle - The genie left the bottle and is not returning
Dustin Johnson’s 310.8 driving distance is 6th this year on the PGA Tour. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

It’s important to point out that the physiques of many of the players now is improving through fitness and nutrition programs. Check out the likes of Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka with more clones to follow in the years ahead. You also have the usage of key analytics such as Trackman and other related tools giving players and their teachers a clear idea on what must be done to maximize potential for overall distance. In all probability, the players coming down the line will only be stronger and have even more tools available on how to deliver a swing consistently maxing out any gains technology can provide.

The distance debate is a debacle from the standpoint of what should have been done at a far earlier juncture. Putting the genie back in the bottle now is more than likely a fruitless situation. There’s little question seeing key courses hosting the big time events by stretching themselves again and again in order to remain competitive is a tragic situation. I can only imagine where the tees will be placed when The Open returns to The Old Course in ’21. The chasm between the elite at the very top — and the rank and file is as wide as the Grand Canyon. 

The Distance Debacle - The genie left the bottle and is not returning
Callaway Supersoft Magna

So what does happen? The major industry stakeholders are comfortable with the status quo. The USGA and R&A have a mountain to climb and little stomach for a clash that would ensue with no guarantee of success likely.

Unless something of a seismic nature impacts golf it’s safe to say that where matters stand today will simply continue unabated. Rolling back gains made by today’s balls and clubs has little momentum for enactment. The only way to do that is through a major persuasion campaign and I question whether the USGA / R&A really has the desire to do that.

Key actions, ones that should have been put into place in a timely manner, were missed badly. It’s clear for all who have eyes to see that technology has meant a clear separation between those at the highest of levels and the rest. Creating an equal playing field for all sounds marvelous but it’s inane for anyone to really believe is possible.Until some truly meaningful consensus emerges there’s little hope to see any consequential outcome. That’s why the situation relating to distance can only be defined as a debacle.

A true pity.

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