The distance debate is so addictive because it’s so complicated.
Every proposed solution presents countless consequences for countless stakeholders in the game, impacting everyone from the everyday player to billion-dollar corporations. It’s incredibly easy to throw out fixes and impossibly complicated to implement solutions. And that’s assuming you can even get everyone to agree there’s a problem to be solved, which seems more difficult than ever.
It’s boring, but I think there are legitimate pros and cons on both sides of the argument around reducing hitting distances for the best players in the game. Personally speaking, I have long thought there are more pros than cons on the side of some sort of bifurcation between the recreational game and the professional game and it seems the USGA and R&A feel the same way. You may violently disagree for any number of reasons, which is fine.
But on some level, I think this all becomes a pretty good Rorschach test for how you feel about the role of governance in the world of golf.
Maybe this is too simplistic, but it seems like two reminders are in order for many around the game. The first is that the purpose of the USGA and R&A is to be the governing bodies of the sport and to ensure the healthy future of the game. Full stop. Right? Agree or disagree? Because it’s hard to move forward without being on the same page there.
The second is that they’ve been working on this distance study (and been transparent about it) for a very long time. The Distance Insights project has been underway for about 5 years and they’ve surely been keeping an eye on the topic for decades before that. Let me stop you at, “Why didn’t they look at––” because I promise they did. Just go read about it.
You can, and should, disagree with parts of their thinking and question specifics. (I literally don’t know what else Twitter is for these days.) And PGA Tour players have every right to hate something that could potentially affect their livelihood and #product. That’s what this comment period is for.
But when those two Very Serious Organizations spend the better part of a decade researching a topic and come back with the headline: “Predictable, continued (distance) increases will become a significant issue for the next generation if not addressed soon,” it’s not something that’s done flippantly.
Policy making is a lot harder than tweeting, which is a lesson learned from way too much tweeting. Is the proposed solution going to make everyone happy?
[Hold for laughter]
Probably not. But nothing ever does. So instead, the only people who have been looking seriously at this issue as more and more land is gobbled up for tee boxes will be painted as the 10-handicaps trying their best to ruin the game. Which is part of the job.
If you think the best people to make the rules for PGA Tour players are PGA Tour players, that’s an interesting conversation. It’s just a totally different conversation than we’ve ever had in golf. And judging by how much more boring the weekly PGA Tour setups are than those done by outside parties at the majors, I’m quite pessimistic about going down that road.
Likewise, if you think it should be left up to the fans and entertainment value, that’s fine. If you think the people cheering as Bryson DeChambeau pulverizes a golf ball over the lake at Bay Hill have given more thought to the best long-term interests of the game than the USGA, then, again, we’re probably just going to have to disagree.
(Side note: That Bryson drive was great and one of my favorite golf memories of the past few years. And it would have been just as good from one tee box up. It’s not the specific number that makes Bryson’s drives fascinating. It’s the fact that he was the only one who could do it. It’s all relative.)
We can keep going. What does Justin Thomas think? What does Jack Nicklaus think? (Cautiously) What does Charley Hoffman think? What do equipment manufacturers think? What do TV networks think? What do sponsors think? What do agronomists think? What do biomechanists think? What does Augusta National think?
All of these parties have valid thoughts on one of the biggest decisions that will be made in pro golf this decade. Some of those arguments are better than others. Some are understandably biased and self-interested. Some are flat-out wrong. Some are brilliant. What makes the discussion so overwhelming is when all the information and takes are flying around, in and out of context, at 127 miles per hour and 11 degrees of launch.
The unenviable task that faces the USGA and the R&A is to listen to all of them, along with all of their own research, and make an unbiased and unemotional decision about what to do. It’s pretty clear they’ve done that, and they’ve probably given it a lot more thought than the guy on Twitter who says “why don’t we ban golf tees?”
We’ve just spent two years discussing how the PGA Tour should have looked around the corner and been more proactive in making the changes necessary to keep their stars from jumping to a rival league. It’s easy to see some parallels in the decision faced by the USGA and the R&A. Look at how pissed off some of the PGA Tour rank-and-file is today about changing their structure AS they’re facing an actual existential threat!!! If the PGA Tour had tried 5 years ago to get ahead of LIV’s rise, it would have been fighting the same inertia the governing bodies are facing in trying to curb the distance issue.
Things in golf are going great. And the easiest thing to do in a boom time for the game would be nothing. But if the USGA and R&A have identified that golf (at least golf at an elite level) is headed in the wrong direction, it’s very clearly their job to take action. And that action only gets tougher to take with every day that goes by.