(Andrew Redington/Getty Images)
By Mike Stachura
At the very least USGA CEO Mike Davis was unequivocal on one thing Tuesday morning at Shinnecock Hills: “The notion that we’re going to be rolling the ball back next year is simply not the case.”
In a small-group media session, the head of the USGA addressed the association’s new Distance Insights research project. Announced last month, the project grew from the recent Distance Report that showed unusual gains in driving distances on the world’s professional tours in 2017. Aside from an explicit assurance that no equipment rule change was imminent, however, Davis described the Distance Insights research project as being more about information gathering than decision making.
More precisely, Rand Jerris, USGA senior managing director of public services and the lead on the Distance Insights project, called it “the most comprehensive understanding of the distance issue that’s ever been created.” The study, which will initially involve 21 industry stakeholders (architects, superintendents, golf course operators, tour players, and recreational players among them), is expected to take place over the next year and a half, a period which Davis said the USGA will “go quietly” on the topic.
But pressed further, it seems Davis is more than a little curious as to what effect distance has had on the game in its entirety and over its centuries-old history and where the current trendline is pointing. He expressed a vision for golf’s future that involves what he calls a desire “to give the game more choices,” but at the same time he also stressed, “one set of rules is very important to the game long term.”
“If you all of a sudden allow a bunch of different bodies to allow their own rules, it would become chaotic,” he said. “There has to be some structure.”
The current distance debate gained energy this spring when the Distance Report showed driving distance on the PGA Tour, European Tour and Web.com Tour in particular reached record levels. This year, those numbers continue to trend toward records, with the average on the PGA Tour now at 296.4 yards, or two yards longer than it was at this time last year and more than nine yards longer than it was five years ago.
But Davis stressed tour data is not the sole source of the distance discussion going forward. “There is good data [already available] on what Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson do,” he said. “That’s not the data we need. We need data on what is happening with the 34,000 golf courses around the world. What’s going on with the recreational game and how it’s being played, the time and the cost.”
When the Distance Insights project was announced, one of its hallmark phrases was “a holistic approach” to the distance question. Davis echoed that, but with no specific endgame in mind. While several key stakeholders—the PGA Tour, the PGA of America and multiple equipment manufacturers—were quickly on record saying the distance increases on the tour level were not a cause for alarm, Davis thinks the Distance Insights project is an opportunity to calm the discussion.
“What we’re trying to say to all the stakeholders is ‘Hey, let’s not get ahead of ourselves,’ ” he said. “We’re not at the solution stage yet. What we’re trying to do is not have preconceived outcomes. Until we really know what we’re talking about, until we really know where the pressures in the game are now and where they might be in the future, everybody should embrace the process.
“We have no idea what the end result might be, which might be nothing. It might be something. It might have nothing to do with equipment. It may have something to do with golf courses. We’re just not sure.”
The Distance Insights project will attempt to inform the distance question with information that dates back to the game’s beginnings in the U.S., and Davis said that data already raises some questions in his mind.
“If this was just about the elite game, you could solve that very easily,” he said. “And that’s if there is a problem, and I think a lot of people say there’s not a problem. But we believe this issue has gone broadly into the game, and that’s why we’re looking at it broadly because we know golf courses, even the ones that aren’t hosting elite events, have been expanding. Why have they been expanding? Why a hundred years ago were courses all 6,400 yards, most of which don’t even have the elite game being played on them, why did they expand?”
Davis even alluded to the idea that some golf courses today are stretched beyond 7,000 yards perhaps more for marketing and economic reasons, that “if your course is considered a championship course, you can charge more in green fees.”
Through the entire hour-long session, Davis stressed that no decisions have been made on distance and none will be made until the research project is completed and analyzed. This revelation comes despite the fact that several times this year he has been portrayed as asserting that a rollback of some kind is in the offing. Most notable was a reference from Jack Nicklaus in February that Davis had assured him that change was coming in the form of a ball rollback.
While not addressing those comments directly, Davis said his hope was the debate becomes more informed.
“People have feelings about what they want to see, but really I think we are just saying, ‘We see some concerns in the game in terms of the future, and shame on us if we don’t start to think about it.’ That doesn’t mean we have a solution, and that doesn’t mean we’re going to do something. All we’ve committed to do is this project. That’s all we’re going to do, and sometime in the future we’ll address what does this all mean and what are the things we need to do.”