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The Distance Debate in Golf is About to Get Very Messy

By: | Mon 04 Dec 2023

With an expected announcement coming that will reveal plans to reduce the distance that the golf ball travels across the game, Golfshake's Derek Clements addresses what is certain to be a contentious topic in his latest View From The Fairway.

The world of golf seems determined to tear itself apart. 

If you thought that the launch of LIV Golf turned our sport upside down then I am here to tell you that you ain’t seen nothing yet!

The people who govern the sport and set the rules - the R&A and the USGA - are about to announce changes to the golf ball and the distance it can travel. And it is certain to cause ructions among the ball manufacturers.

Since Tiger Woods changed the face of the sport forever with the huge distance he hit the ball in his prime there have been serious concerns that many classic golf courses are no longer a proper test.

An initial recommendation from the R&A and USGA to introduce a Model Local Rule to allow elite events to impose the use of a distance limiting ball has been rejected by both elite professionals and the PGA Tour. But this is not something that is going to go away.

The R&A's chief executive Martin Slumbers told BBC Sport: "We can bifurcate, as we suggested; you change the whole game; or you can do nothing. And doing nothing is not an option."

Slumbers made those comments in the summer of 2023 and he has now told Golf Digest: "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."

Rory McIlroy

(Image Credit: Kevin Diss Photography)

Today's top players are hitting the ball too far. Courses are not long enough to cope with 340-yard drives and extending them is prohibitively expensive, environmentally damaging and often physically impossible.

The original plan was simply to rein back the very best players and allow the rest of us to enjoy the benefits of a modern golf ball and large headed drivers.

In his Golf Digest interview, Slumbers admitted: "The game was not happy with the Model Local Rule. 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."

The rules makers were always up against it. Top players are generously sponsored by golf equipment manufacturers, who are reluctant to curb the performance of their products.

And the likes of Titleist, Callaway, TaylorMade and Ping will rightly claim that they have spent millions of pounds developing both club and ball technology because golfers at all levels want to hit the ball further.

Does anybody honestly believe they are going to take any imposed changes lying down? There is not a chance.

Players on lucrative contracts are also going to throw their weight behind the manufacturers. And let’s be honest, with everything that is going on in professional golf right now, the PGA Tour needs it players on side so will clearly support them. They have lost too many to LIV Golf already.

There is a somewhat different stance being taken by the DP World Tour, with many senior figures believing that driving distances should be reduced by introducing tighter limits on drivers.

That, of course, comes with its own problems. Not least of which would be banning clubs that cost hundreds of pounds and make the game far more enjoyable for club golfers. It would be unpopular with both golfers and manufacturers alike.

You only have to look at the way drivers are advertised - it is all about claiming that the latest model will add distance to your game.

The original bifurcation idea, which would have seen driving distance cut by around 15 yards, would only have been felt by players swinging at the highest speeds.

Most club golfers would not have seen much difference if they used the adapted elite balls. 

It should be pointed out that bifurcation is nothing new. If you have played golf as long as I have you will remember the days of balata golf balls.

The best players wanted the spin of a softer balata ball that might not fly quite as far, while the rest of us used rock-hard balls to gain distance. Oh, the joy of hitting a Penfold Commando!

Life was far more simple back then. Watch this space because things are about to get very messy.

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