Golf’s governing bodies take steps to tackle game’s distance problem
Golf’s leading authorities signalled their intention to rescue the future of the sport from the big hitters on Tuesday by unveiling proposals to rein in the likes of Bryson DeChambeau and Rory McIlroy. The game’s two governing bodies, the R&A and the US Golf Association, have paved the way for restrictions on equipment including limits on the length of drivers and the introduction of a standardised, tournament ball on the tours. Golf’s growing distance problem is causing great courses to be ruined The move is likely to leave DeChambeau’s plan to employ a 48-inch driver to overpower Augusta National at the Masters in April in tatters. It was the landmark day for which the purists – including the likes of Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods – had been waiting since the powers that be signalled last February that, with the “Distance Insights” project, they were ready at last to tackle the professional game’s length issue that their joint studies indicated was “critical to the future of the game”. The pandemic pressed pause on the progress, but it has resumed and has at last reached what is labelled the “solution phase”. With Martin Slumbers, the R&A chief executive, confirming to Telegraph Sport on Tuesday that a radical overhaul of the professional game was all but inevitable – “it is highly unlikely that we will end up doing nothing” – it will now start collecting feedback regarding the potential use of a local rule that specifies the use of clubs and balls intended to result in shorter hitting distances. In the short term, comments have been sought on the proposal to introduce a local rule reducing the maximum non-putter club length from 48in to 46in. The deadline for this is March 4 and, as it is expected to go through, it will allow Augusta and every other tournament organiser to put a brake on the long hitters. Slumbers denied it was “individual specific”, but accepted that the big hitters out there could be “personalised in this”. Yet the big battle will surely come in the attempts of the R&A and USGA to persuade the equipment makers to review the overall conformance specifications for clubs and balls, including specifications that directly affect hitting distances. This means the ruling bodies want to research topics such as the limitation of ball efficiency, ball sizes and weights, making drivers smaller in volume and shorter, and reducing the spring-like effect in faces and moment of inertia in club heads. They have chosen to go down the “local rule” to ensure that golf continues to have one set of rules to which professionals and amateurs of all grades will adhere. “Local rules” are not part of the official rule book, but are a modification or addition of a rule that any tournament committee can adopt for a particular competition. The rules would, in fact, be different in practice and it would ultimately mean that, while the weekend hacker would still be able to use the best technology can offer – there is no appetite to alter things significantly at recreational level – the pros will face game-changing restrictions. Slumbers, though, does not see it that way. “The local rule could be applied on a much wider scale than the pro game, or the elite amateur game,” he said. “I think it’s misleading to say it is just about elite golf.” No doubt the lawyers will become, and are already involved, with the equipment makers desperate to protect their billion-dollar industry, but the hope is that agreement can be reached following the conclusion of the feedback stage in November. “This is a serious problem and this is the time for serious thinking and I am confident the game and its many facets can come together to do what is right for our sport,” Slumbers said. It is a complex subject, but Slumbers pointed out that, while they intend the conversations to be as in-depth as they are responsible, they should not drag on. The likes of DeChambeau are already threatening the 400-yard mark and there is an urgency to curtail the bombers to ensure great courses do not become obsolete and that the game does not become too one-dimensional. “There is the balance of skill and technology that we are trying to find because the game is in danger of losing that balance,” Slumbers said. “After the lockdown, the different tours, governing bodies, golf federations, golf unions and bodies such as Augusta and the PGA of America came together to ensure the sport could get back and running as effectively as possible. That gives me confidence in this regard.” Mike Davis, Slumbers’s counterpart at the USGA, added: “This is about long term, for the whole of the game. Golfers need to understand that this every-generation-hits-the- ball-farther is affecting the game negatively. The cost of this is being born by all golfers. We’re just trying to fit the game of golf back on golf courses.” ‘Local rule’ route is the perfect plan to thwart big hitters and manufacturers The R&A and United States Golf Association are far from stupid and are acutely aware that they will have a fight on their hands with the equipment makers with their proposals to reduce the hitting distances in the professional game. Yet if they were expecting this essentially to be a battle with the bombers on Tour, then Webb Simpson highlighted that even the plotters could be in opposition. Simpson, the world No 9, is one of the shorter hitters in the elite, standing at 114th in the PGA Tour’s driving distance stats, having failed to finish in the top 100 in the past six seasons. If the power of Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau and Rory McIlroy was suddenly curtailed, it would surely have to be good for Simpson’s chances of adding to the one major on his resume.