Distance. Specifically, how far golf’s leading practitioners can these days propel balls with their turbo-charged equipment, is the aspect of the game that, surely more than any other, bonds the regulatory bodies. Standing side-by-side, arm-in-arm and shoulder-to-shoulder, the R&A and the USGA are currently going head-to-head with a variety of interested parties in a battle for the future of the sport.

“Unequivocally, the ball is going further than it did 15 years ago,” says R&A CEO Martin Slumbers in an exclusive interview with Golf Digest. “And I see no reason to doubt it will not continue to do so. I’ve long been of this view. And for a long time, I had to keep it private. But once we published our distance report at the start of this process, I was very clear that, for the good of the game, we need to address this issue.

“From that point of view and from an environmental point of view, we have to do something,” he continues. “We have been very clear, as has [CEO] Mike Whan at the USGA. There are only three options: We can bifurcate; you change the whole game; or you do nothing. And doing nothing is not an option. We stand by that.”

For those keeping score, the ruling bodies got together earlier this year and proposed a Model Local Rule (MLR) that gives competition organizers the option to require use of golf balls that are tested under modified launch conditions to address the impacts of hitting distance in golf. The MLR was intended for use only in elite competitions and, if adopted, would have no impact on recreational golf.

But it wasn’t well received in certain influential quarters, and there was much debate and documents filed during the official comment period that ended in August. 

“The game was not happy with the Model Local Rule,” admits Slumbers. “There was a view that it would create a bifurcated game at the elite level. It was a very strong pushback against that. The PGA Tour was very public about it. So was the PGA of America. A number of players spoke out. And our job is to listen.

“But our responsibility is to the long-term future of the game. Along with the USGA, the R&A is a custodian of the game. We’re responsible for our period of time, something that has gone on for hundreds of years and will go on for hundreds more. So, we are listening. And we have made a decision about what we are going to do. We’re working that through at the moment and will make it public before the end of the year.”

While we stay tuned on that one, the R&A recently released the Open Qualifying Series of events that will offer places in the game’s oldest championship at Royal Troon in July 2024. It is a system that has come under are scrutiny since the arrival of LIV Golf. Has the Saudi-backed circuit complicated the process?

“If you look at the qualifications for last year’s Open and the way we structured the field for the 2023 Open, I’m very comfortable we created the opportunities for what we want,” says Slumbers. “That’s the best global field we can get. I care about global. And we did that. There are enough spots between top-50 exemptions on the world rankings, plus our qualifying events in South Africa, Australia, Japan, on the Asian Tour and final qualifying. I am confident that we find the best players and get them into the field. We will do the same again next year.”

Mention of the Asian Tour does raise one other area of contention. Two years ago, the R&A removed the Open exemption granted to the winner of the Asian Tour.

“We feel like our Order of Merit winner is deserving of playing in a major,” said Asian Tour CEO Cho Min Thant. “All four of them.”

Indeed, given that Open places are allocated to players who qualify from relatively weak fields like the one in this week’s Joburg Open, it seems like an odd decision. But it is one Slumbers defends.

“The argument, which I have explained to the head of the Asian Tour a number of times, is to look at this in the round,” says the Englishman. “We give 19 spots available to players from the Asia-Pacific region into the Open Championship. There was 20 when we exempted the Order of Merit winner. But the 19 spots are available to any who plays on his tour, or in the other qualifying events in that region. That’s 19 out of a field of 156, which is something around 14 percent. That is absolutely reflective of the relative strength of the players in Asia-Pacific.

“I much prefer to see the qualifiers come from 72-hole stroke-play tournaments,” continues Slumbers. “In a whole series of events with a whole series of mixed-ability fields. So, it is better to focus on the Open Qualifying events which contain the strongest fields in Asia-Pacific region during that year. If we want the best players from that region, that is the best way to achieve it.”

On a happier Open-related note, the prospect of the championship being played outside the United Kingdom at Portmarnock, just outside Dublin in the Republic of Ireland, is not something Slumbers dismisses out-of-hand.

“The club has talked to us about it,” he says. “The course is a world-class links. But there are infrastructure challenges. We are going to play the Women’s Amateur there in 2024 and we had the Amateur Championship there a couple of years ago. They have had the Walker Cup there, too. The position at the moment, which we support, is that the club is working with the Irish government to ascertain if there would be support for them to make a credible proposition. We will wait and see what happens there.”

Image: Matthew Lewis/R&A