It has been a big week for golf in the 21st century and beyond.
On Tuesday, the USGA and The R&A announced their intentions to potentially curtail some of the recent advancements in golf equipment that have radically changed the way the game is played, particularly at the highest levels of amateur and professional competition.
The main content of the announcement revolves around “a set of research topics relating to potential Equipment Rule changes,” with a particular eye toward how such changes might “help mitigate the continuing distance increases” that have been observed at the game’s highest levels in recent years.
This is painful but important work; after all, doing the right thing almost never means doing the easy thing. If successful, it will have long-term benefits both for golfers – elite and recreational alike – and the courses they love.
Battle lines are currently being drawn over whether this change requires such action, but it is undeniable that the way the game is played at the highest levels has changed considerably in recent years, favoring an all-out power assault more than ever before.
Off the tee, trading away accuracy in favor of brute force can be lucrative.
Future golfers may regard Bryson DeChambeau’s dominant 2020 U.S. Open win as a watershed moment. DeChambeau smacked tee shots all over the lot at Winged Foot Golf Club’s West Course, averaging more than 325 yards off the tee while finding only 41% of the fairways.
Missing all those fairways was of little consequence to DeChambeau, who was almost always close enough to a green to wedge it on, even from Winged Foot’s fearsome rough.
For centuries, great golf has required its share of power, certainly, but also a large measure of accuracy, which was long considered a superior skill due to its more complex demands than raw strength and flexibility. But DeChambeau proved that off the tee, trading away accuracy in favor of brute force can be lucrative.
As recently as 15 years ago, most drivers were considerably smaller than the 460 cubic-centimeter USGA limit. Once manufacturers learned to design clubheads that large and aerodynamic enough to be swung reliably at high speed, they became ubiquitous. Now, pros can smash drives far enough that accuracy is less important than at any point in golf’s half-millennium history.
It is clear that in the view of the governing bodies, this imbalance will only grow if the current equipment paradigm continues. Young bombers who grew up on 460cc drivers have flooded the upper echelons with bomb-and-gouge golf.
Because their skill sets have been marginalized, shorter-hitting tacticians are being crowded out, which makes Webb Simpson’s recent comments all the more perplexing. He of all players should welcome changes to equipment that will clearly reward his accuracy-forward game; he’s #2 on the PGA Tour in fairways hit so far this season.
Another surprising response: that of Wesley Bryan, whose lone PGA Tour win came at Harbour Town, arguably the PGA Tour course where driving distance matters least, in 2017.
More sustainable...help mitigate....interesting word choices. Sounds like a bunch of conservative, traditional, average golfers, with average skill sets, hitting it average lengths off the tee all got in a room together trying to figure out a way to make golf less fun https://t.co/TD7bphcMoU— Wesley Bryan (@wesleybryangolf) February 2, 2021
Then there's the golf ball’s role in the recent distance explosion. The introduction of the solid-core Titleist ProV1 in 2001 revolutionized the industry, enabling manufacturers to combine premium feel and performance – distance, reliable flight on full shots and control on and around the greens – in a way that earlier generations simply could not.
In the decades since, Titleist and its competitors have refined their materials and other aspects of design to the point where the best players can generate reliable ball flight even at 300 or more yards downrange.
The fact that the USGA and R&A are willing to take action suggests that they believe addressing the problem is worth the blowback from players and manufacturers. The end result of this process is unknown, but here are some changes that could be coming:
- Shorter maximum club length. A reduction in maximum driver length from 48 to 46 inches (putters are allowed to be longer) seems the most likely initial change. Bryson DeChambeau’s (and others’) stated intention to further augment his driving distance via a 48-inch driver in the wake of his US Open win is a likely catalyst here, as the comment window regarding this potential change is very short, closing in early March.
- Tighter spring-like effect testing limits. The USGA/R&A report all but admits that they have given a wider berth for clubface springiness than they needed to. That trampoline effect – measured by characteristic time (CT), the maximum time a ball stays on the clubface at impact before launching off – is currently 239 microseconds plus an 18-microsecond tolerance, for a total limit of 257 microseconds. The memo suggests that new testing methods are strong enough that that tolerance can come down to 6 microseconds, for a new maximum of 245. This can slow down drivers modestly, especially for high-speed players.
- “Ball efficiency.” There are several paths here, including dimple geometry that slightly destabilizes flight at higher speeds, raises spin, lowers overall ball speed or some combination thereof. There is also language about changing the procedures the USGA uses to test new ball models, possibly using a higher launch angle to mimic the trend toward higher-launch, lower-spin club/shaft/ball combinations.
Coaxing shotmaking back into golf’s elite levels will take the game to new heights of excitement.
If the governing bodies get this right, any new equipment regulations should settle the performance characteristics of equipment at a level that brings the currently skewed dynamic between power and accuracy back into balance.
Interesting times are ahead for equipment companies, who have relied for decades on using famous golfers to market their clubs. A rollback that only affects elite competition will threaten this tried-and-true marketing paradigm. Golfers may remember Callaway's non-conforming ERC II drivers, released in 2001. It caused a stir early on with its super-charged face, but the experiment didn't continue. Golfers seem to instinctively want to play the same equipment the pros play, even if they don't aspire to such heights in the game themselves.
Objections will continue to roll out from the ranks of professional golfers. This is understandable because they invest a considerable amount of time into matching their games to contemporary equipment and are loath to turn the clock back.
I would not put much stock in their complaints, though. After all, they are the most skilled golfers in the world, which means they will be able to adapt so quickly as to render any current pearl-clutching silly in hindsight. If and when they are forced to play a slightly slowed-down ball and driver, they will be just fine. Many will flourish, in fact.
Remember what Tiger Woods did at the 1997 Masters and 2000 U.S. Open? No one has played golf that incredible since then. If anything, the equipment of today makes it less likely we will ever see such a viscerally thrilling combination of power and accuracy. Coaxing shot-making back into golf’s elite levels will take the game to new heights of excitement. Any fan of the professional game should root for it.
Club and golf ball rollback: What about the rest of us?
In the days since the USGA and R&A dropped this bombshell, many rank-and-file golfers have seemed apprehensive that any “rollback” might make the game more difficult or less fun for them if it trickles down from the elite ranks.
These concerns are fully understandable, but they are not well-supported by the facts. While the elite amateur and professional ranks have gotten steadily longer over the course of this century, those gains have not been realized by average golfers in the same way. The R&A’s surveys of average driving distance by recreational golfers suggests that that cohort peaked, at 217 yards, in 2005. The average in 2019: 216 yards.
In those 14 years, the PGA Tour gained 10 yards.
Most golfers would agree that drivers today are better than they were in 2005. But better in what ways, and for whom? Yes, custom fitting has never been more available (or sensible) to avid golfers, and few would argue that current products look and feel better than ever before. I'm in the market for some new clubs myself.
But overwhelmingly, it seems elite golfers – a tiny percentage of the game who are inherently better-equipped to adapt to any club or ball “rollback” – have benefited from technology’s inexorable forward march than average players.
As this debate heats up and inevitably threatens to boil over, it is important to remember two important points:
1. The golfers and companies who come out against this necessary step by the governing bodies are extremely qualified to deal with whatever happens.
2. Because the governing bodies know that technology has disproportionately benefited elite players, any effects “regular” golfers see should be negligible at best.
If the USGA and R&A get this right, golfers 10, 50 and 500 years in the future will be grateful for the ability to measure their own abilities and standards of play against their predecessors in a way that, to this point in the game’s history, the evolution of equipment has made impossible.
Are you for or against an equipment rollback? Let us know in the comments below.