Wagging The Dog: Insight on the Distance Report
IN FEBRUARY, the USGA and R&A declared war. Not literally, but from some of the reactions you’d have thought so. In a long-anticipated study, the Distance Insights Report, the regulators said: The ball goes too damn far. And when the ball goes too damn far, other essential parts of the game — skill through the entire bag, strategy, accuracy, positioning — are rendered less important, one-dimensionalizing the game. In turn, courses and developers respond with ever-longer tracks that cost more to build and maintain and slow the game down.
Over the next however-many months we’ll see modeling protocols to determine how all this boom could be reined in, and then comes something like advise-and-consent, the period of “discussion” between regulator and regulatee. And when all is said and done, rein will reign, and then, to borrow from Jeff Goldblum’s character in those dinosaur flicks, that’s when the screaming starts.
Until then, this is one mid-‘capper’s take on the kerfuffle …
Damn it. They’re going to take my ball away and make me play butter-knife blades.
You’ll need to accept it, too.
We will see a detuned golf ball for the truly elite. The demand will come via local rule. That’s from me, not the USGA, though it kinda is, as the possibility is referenced in the report. This will put brakes on the ball at a limited number of highbrow events where a club or regulatory body hosts; no pro or tip-toppiest am will take one for Big Retail Ball brand and skip the Masters. Camp Ponte Vedra and the PGA of America? Probably not interested.
The rest of us won’t be affected: Try as it might to paint yardage gains by recreational golfers as significant, the regulatory front doesn’t appear
to have proven its case, and even if they think they have, they will not hobble us, because we are not the ones “overpowering” fusty old classic courses. Per the report, male recreational players, on average, gained only six yards from 2000 to 2019. The accompanying text calls out a 16-yard gain, 1996–2019, which almost looks consequential, but half of that total came in one year, 2000, when the modern multi-layer, urethane-covered ball stormed the market.
(An off-the-record chat with a manufacturer suggests it will be easier to tame the ball than the bats, and it is possible to design a shorter ball that still allows the longest hitters to exploit their natural and gym-attained talents vis-à-vis shorter hitters; the gap will just close a bit. And when you think about that, one of the planks for the leave-it-alone crowd is that it’s not just the equipment and ball, and it is unfair to legislate against those who simply are stronger and fitter — it’s an athletic pursuit, after all.)
“Bifurcation” — oh ye nasty, un-American concept — is coming.
I’ve plowed through the report, read the shorter response from Acushnet (Titleist/FootJoy); I’m not worried. That doesn’t mean I don’t take issue with some of the assumptions or rhetoric flying about, whatever side, it’s just that at the end of the day all but the most elite — and then only in select settings — will still be sending $4-a-piece longbombium-infused balls past OB stakes and into watery penalty areas.
Is the USGA out of touch or a true steward? Yes. Are manufacturers more interested in money or solidarity with consumers? Yes. Are all the rest of us to blame? Yes.
Again, let’s take a breath, including those framing the discussion.
Mr. Long Ball is NOT causing developers and course owners to tack hundreds of yards on every golf course in the Great Republic. The tips at U.S. golf courses have remained acceptable for decades. The standard from the 1960s into the 1970s was 6,500 yards. The average was about 6,700 yards in 2000, when the current culprit — remember, steel shafts once “ruined” the game and its traditions — appeared, the modern ball. In the first half of the 2010s, what (relatively few) courses were being built inched just over 6,900 yards.
I’m not saying courses aren’t longer — of course some are — and the report holds that every 100 yards tacked on costs an additional $15,000 to maintain, and a struggling muni, which shouldn’t even be thinking about stretching things out, might fail for that amount.
MR. LONG BALL IS NOT CAUSING DEVELOPERS AND COURSE OWNERS TO TACK HUNDREDS OF YARDS ON EVERY GOLF COURSE IN THE GREAT REPUBLIC.”
Ubiquitous? That’s disingenuous. Golf Digest’s Top 100 courses — the creamiest of the cream — have lengthened an average of 200 yards since 1980. That’s a rush? The average length now is right at 7,150 yards. It is interesting to note that 18 of those have hosted at least one major since 2000 and, per the report, “Those 18 courses have lengthened significantly more than the other 82 courses on the list.”
The PGA Tour goes to some 40 sites a year; 36 clubs have hosted a men’s professional major since 2000; 10 of those are “over there.” There are nearly 17,000 golf courses in America. If Frankensteining is a problem, it’s finite and elite.
This is emotional, and that’s what makes it reverberate. Some fervently be-lieve that playing what Tiger plays makes our sport more connected than any other. Some think the USGA is bowing to a handful of obsessive blue-blood courses and antiquarians; Hogan hit 1-iron, DJ shouldn’t fire off with an 8-iron.
Nicklaus played hickory and a gutty?I’m fine with an “Open ball,” even if I don’t see courses as being “obsoleted.” Bombers don’t have a monopoly on the tour. Merion stood up just fine in ’13, as did PGA National, Bay Hill and Riviera – glorious, exacting, fair Riviera — already this year.
Devolution seldom works.
I think we, the masses, need to do our part. Strolling into PGA West or the home spread and immediately walking at least two sets too far back is folly. We belittle courses as not being “championship-caliber,” an asinine concept, if there’s not something back behind blue that starts with a “7.”
The numbers don’t lie. Move up, guys. Sixty-five hundred, 6,000, even 5,500 is your wheelhouse, as the USGA blessedly reiterates in the report. Let it echo. Pebble is 600+ shorter than Torrey. Torrey’s certainly not better. We need to get over ourselves and then developers might quit overbuilding tragically inappropriate golf courses and the USGA can ease back on the perception that we don’t get it.
Ball go far. For them. Oh, we get it.