Eighteen years after identifying a worrying trend in distance, the R&A and USGA have signalled their intention to implement rule changes that will stop it in its tracks.
The Distance Insights Project has been released and outlines its areas of concern based on extensive research and consultation with key stakeholders within the golf industry, the report consisting of 100 years of data, 56 supporting documents and a 15-page Conclusions paper.
Course design, course set-up, sustainability and equipment were all identified as contributing factors to the distance obsession and why continuing down a century-old path would be detrimental to the origins on which the game was founded.
“Golf is about using a broad and balanced set of skills and judgments to get a ball from the tee to the hole in the fewest strokes on holes of varying designs, pars and lengths,” the report says amongst its Conclusions.
“The game’s essential character and test of skill do not depend on the absolute length of a golf shot or a golf course.
“We believe that it is time to break the cycle of increasingly longer hitting distances and golf courses and to work to build a long-term future that reinforces golf’s essential challenge and enhances the viability of both existing courses and courses yet to be built.”
In 2002 the R&A and USGA released a Joint Statement of Principles on distance that stated that “any further significant increases in hitting distances at the highest level are undesirable.” The ongoing trend ultimately led to a two-year investigation into the impact distance was having in all aspects of the game at every level.
“Our research shows that hitting distances and the lengths of golf courses have been increasing for more than a hundred years. This is not just a phenomena of the last few decade,” said Martin Slumbers, Chief Executive of the R&A.
“These changes have been driven by equipment innovation, improved course conditions and player athleticism. We believe that this continuing cycle of increases is undesirable and detrimental to golf’s long-term future.”
Increased distance compromising golf’s intrinsic values has been hotly debated for two decades but it is unlikely the game will be able to turn back the clock, rather put a halt on further advances that would further jeopardise the integrity of golf’s 30,000 courses found across the globe.
“We are not going back to some bygone era,” said Chief Executive Officer of the USGA, Mike Davis.
“We plan to build on the strengths of today’s game while taking steps to stop the cycle of golf courses feeling they need to lengthen because of increasing player hitting distances.
“The research is very clear: There’s a 100-year cycle of increasing hitting distances. There’s a 100-year cycle of subsequent golf course lengthening.
“This has had a profound effect on golf courses. It’s caused them significant resources to change. It’s increased ongoing operating costs. It’s using more resources; resources like precious water.
“The cycle of every generation hitting the ball further than the last and consequently having golf courses lengthened needs to end, and it will not unless action is taken.”
The Distance Insights Project did not identify any possible solutions to the issues raised but Davis conceded that a comprehensive review of equipment specifications will form a major part of research topics to be published within the next 45 days.
“Our next steps will be to develop and assess potential solutions in the best long-term interests of the game,” Davis explained.
“The primary next step will be to pursue a broad review of equipment specifications for both balls and clubs.
“We’ll review the overall equipment rules applying to all golfers to consider whether any of the existing specifications should be adjusted, and whether any new specifications should be created to stop the cycle of continuing increases.
“An important note to make here is that we do not currently intend to consider revising these overall specifications in a way that would produce substantial reductions in hitting distance at all levels.
“After the research on these topics is completed and comments are evaluated, if we decide that any proposed rules changes are needed, equipment manufacturers are going to receive a formal notice of these proposed changes, including a proposed implementation plan and the opportunity to comment under the equipment rules-making procedures, otherwise known as the Vancouver Protocols. We expect this to be a multi-year process.”
Here are five key topics as identified in the Distance Insights Project:
1. Equipment: Changes to equipment specifications shapes as the critical outcome of the Distance Insights Project, but collaboration and possible implementation will take years. A ball that doesn’t fly as far or less energy efficient clubs would help to stem the advances in distance with Davis raising the prospect of a Local Rule that would allow individual clubs to specify the equipment allowed to play their course.
“We plan to assess the potential use of an optional local rule that would specify the use of clubs and balls intended to result in shorter hitting distances,” Davis outlined. “The concept is that equipment meeting a particular set of reduced distance specifications, for example, a ball that doesn’t go as far or a club that doesn’t hit the ball as far might be a defined subset of the overall equipment rules. Like any of the existing local rules under The Rules of Golf, this local rule concept would not mandate the use of such equipment. Rather, it would give the game more flexibility within the rules for all levels of the game.”
2. Course design: A report cited in the Distances Insight Project states that 11 course renovation projects undertake in the US between 2018-2020 are adding 100-600 yards in length and several courses that will have a total length above 7,500 yards. It’s a century-old trend that Slumbers is adamant must be addressed.
“We believe that golf will be more successful over next decades and beyond if this continuing cycle of ever-increasing hitting distances and golf course length is brought to an end,” Slumbers said. “Longer distances, longer courses, playing from longer tees and longer times to play are taking golf in the wrong direction and are not necessary to make golf challenging, enjoyable or sustainable in the future.”
Added Davis: “You don’t see other sports continually having to change their playing fields, to change their stadiums, their arenas, to do what golf’s basically done for over a hundred years. So we just want to break that cycle of seeing golf courses feeling like they have to change.”
3. Course set-up: While stemming the need to lengthen courses is a key finding of the report, encouraging greater flexibility in course set-up is another of the recommendations. Courses played at their full length are insufficient to contain a small percentage of the game’s longest hitters yet Davis insists there are larger groups of golfers who should be catered to with shorter playing lengths.
“We believe forward tees at many golf courses are simply too long relative to the hitting distance of many golfers who play from them,” Davis said. “Here in the United States, the median forward tee course length is between 5,200 and 5,300 yards. As a result, many golfers playing from these teeing grounds may have little chance to reach greens in regulation, even with their best drives and approach shots. They are not offered the same type of playing experience as other golfers and cannot play often the way the architects intended.
“Second, we believe that many other golfers are playing from longer tees than is necessary relative to hitting distances, which can affect their enjoyment and the time it takes to play.
“In due course we’ll be providing guidance and best practices on both shorter forward tees and the appropriate tee-to-hole playing distances for golfers of all levels.”
4. Bifurcation: The distance explosion on the professional golf tours around the world is not necessarily reflected among recreational golfers still fighting to accrue 36 Stableford points. It has led to calls for different sets of equipment regulations for professionals and amateurs, a proposal Davis said was not under consideration.
“We are steadfast in our belief that one set of rules is in the best interests of the game for everyone,” Davis said. “We have long felt that. We continue to feel that.”
5. Sustainability: The crippling drought and devastating bushfire crisis further emphasised what a valuable resource water will be for the planet’s future, a resource golf’s governing bodies don’t want to be used unnecessarily on lengthened courses with more turf in play. Less water and drier conditions means that if not addressed, course conditioning will contribute to further increases in distance.
“One increasingly important practice that we believe is likely to be used at even more courses in the future is for maintained turf areas to become drier and firmer as a result of the reduced use of water and nutrients,” the report states. “This continuing trend may help contribute to hitting distance
increases at such courses.
“The sport of golf is recognising the need to adapt to escalating environmental and natural resource concerns, climate change and associated regulatory activities, such as a need to address issues such as water and chemicals, land use, wildlife and habitat protection and energy used by maintenance vehicles and equipment that can be reduced by shrinking the total acreage of maintained turf.”