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Ping's Solheim: What to do about distance

John Solheim, chairman & CEO of Ping, believes golf's distance debate is about to heat up again, and he thinks he has an idea that might help cooler heads prevail.

With the PGA Tour driving distance average surging past the 290-yard barrier for the first time, Solheim is concerned about how golf's ruling bodies, the U.S. Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, might react.

solheim_470.jpgJohn Solheim's proposal for dealing with distance surges would require three separate golf balls. Photo by Getty Images

"It worries me what might happen with our rulemakers when they see something and how they're going to react to it," Solheim said Friday in an exclusive interview with GolfDigest.com. "I wanted to put this idea out there to give them something to think about. This is an idea that works without bifurcation."

Solheim's proposal, which he has presented to manufacturers and sent to golf's ruling bodies, calls for changing from just one overall distance standard for all balls to a "ball distance rating," or BDR, system that would include three types of balls. The three balls in Solheim's proposal include one that is the same as today's current standard, a second ball that would be as much as 30 yards longer and a third ball that would produce distances 30 yards shorter than current balls. Courses, tournaments, tours and even individual players could choose their ball based on the course they're playing or the skill level of the players in the event. Solheim equated the BDR system to varying tee boxes. He envisioned a system which even might allow opportunities for average golfers playing their home course to have slower swingers using the longer-distance-standard ball while faster swingers would play the shorter-distance-standard ball with both players teeing off from the same marker. To make this work from a competitive standpoint Solheim suggested the handicap system incorporate a "ball rating" element. (Read the full proposal here)


Solheim believes his BDR proposal is a better alternative than some recent decisions made in response to the distance question. He writes in his proposal, "Unfortunately, over the past dozen or so years, many actions taken in response to that challenge have often been short sighted, costly and/or controversial--such as altering some of golf's most revered courses and adopting restrictive golf club rules."  

Solheim concedes that the specifics of the limits on a shorter ball would take time for the ruling bodies to determine, and he freely admits that his proposal is merely a starting point in any discussion. His main motivation, however, is that the game's ruling bodies open a dialog on  distance rather than unilaterally implement another club rollback or a new, shorter overall distance standard for the ball.

"I think something is going to happen, and I tried to give them a way that wouldn't hurt everybody, especially the average golfer," Solheim said.

Wally Uihlein, chairman and CEO of the Acushnet Company, isn't as alarmed by 2011's driving distance numbers, and more specifically doesn't believe rules proposals should be originating from manufacturers. 

"Under the guidance of the [Joint] Statement of Principles, the regulatory bodies have taken the necessary steps to insure the ongoing balance between skill and technology," said Uihlein. "We continue to believe that it is the responsibility of the regulatory bodies to make and monitor the rules of golf, and the responsibility of manufacturers remains to provide input and comment upon proposed rule changes. We consider the minor increase in driving distance on the U.S. PGA Tour for 2011 part of the normal movement (up and down) of that statistical category since 2004. We would be surprised if the ruling bodies considered it significant or appropriate for action under the Statement of Principles."

The USGA announced it was conducting research on shorter distance golf balls in March 2005. As recently as the summer of 2010, it was conducting research with mini tour players using shorter-distance golf balls, but that research has not been made public to date. USGA senior technical director Dick Rugge said in an interview Saturday with GolfDigest.com that no distance rule changes are imminent, but that he appreciated the thoughtfulness behind Solheim's proposal. Rugge released the following statement:

"The USGA has been concerned about the effects of increased distance and stated so in our Joint Statement of Principles in 2002. When someone as committed to the integrity of the game as John Solheim publicly joins us in that concern, he deserves our attention. While his proposed method--multiple levels of equipment rules--is contrary to the tradition of the Rules of Golf, we welcome John's sincere efforts to discuss the topic."

Particularly relevant in the 2002 Joint Statement is the ruling bodies' position on distance. While not setting a specific number, the document makes it clear that any further significant increases in hitting distances at the highest level are undesirable," and that such a result would lead to rule changes. "Should such a situation of meaningful increases in distances arise, the R&A and the USGA would feel it immediately necessary to seek ways of protecting the game."

Since the Joint Statement was announced in May 2002, average driving distance on the PGA Tour has increased by 14 yards, including a 3.6-yard gain in 2011 over 2010. That was the largest one-year gain in driving distance average since 2003.

The USGA's Joe Goode, managing director of communications, said Solheim was sent a response regarding his proposal from president Jim Hyler on Nov. 22. "We assured John that the USGA would 'discuss the merits of the proposal with the USGA's Executive Committee and appropriate staff,'" Goode said in an e-mail.

Solheim said he believes the distances young tour players are hitting the ball might cause the rulemakers to consider sweeping changes, including a rollback. In his proposal, he urges a more deliberate and, he says, "long-term" approach. The document reads in part: "With so many other challenges facing the game, we need to be sure any 'distance discussions' focus on the long term--on solutions that can quickly and easily respond to future increases in distance (no matter the cause); on ideas that give professional events and courses a tool that allows each to best address the distance concerns unique to their venue; on proposals that recognize it is far simpler to adjust the ball to the course, than to adjust the course to the ball."

In Friday's interview, Solheim admitted he is concerned that a rule change will be proposed without the average golfer in mind.

"What scares me is that I think there's going to be some people who are going to try to shorten the ball, and if the average player can't keep playing the current ball, that's going to be a difficulty," he said. "I think this proposal takes care of both the elite player and the average golfer, but the people who will benefit more from it are the masses."

Technologically speaking, it would not be difficult to achieve the kind of golf balls being talked about. "Making a shorter ball is not all that difficult, and it would be fairly easy to achieve another 20 to 30 yards without much trouble if there were no initial velocity restriction," said John Rae, vice president of research and development for Cleveland/Srixon. "A slightly smaller, slightly heavier ball would be significantly better aerodynamically and go farther. That said, I don't know of anyone not entering the game or leaving the game because they're not hitting the ball far enough. From an everyday golfer standpoint this may be addressing a problem that isn't really a problem."  As for the elite level, the PGA Tour, at whom presumably the shorter ball might be aimed, declined comment on Solheim's proposal.

It's not a stretch to suggest that ball manufacturers might not be enthusiastic about Solheim's idea. Not only would they be forced to develop the technology for a shorter ball, but they likely would be forced to market balls on three distance levels. Finally retailers, with shelves already flooded with a sea of different ball models, would find themselves needing to stock three types of each model--something not likely welcomed. 

But Solheim believes his idea, or at least a discussion about ways to deal with the issue of distance without hurting average golfers, is vital for the future of the game. His proposal concludes with these words. 

"All of us, including those in the manufacturing community, have a responsibility to offer new ideas and appropriately work with the rule making bodies to help improve the game. ... I will continue to do what I can, and I believe others will as well. The game has seen many positive changes over its long history, changes that appropriately recognize the relationship between the challenge and the enjoyment of the game at all skill levels. I believe a BDR system would provide a way to continue do just that--for a long time to come." 

--Mike Stachura and E. Michael Johnson
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