U.S. Golf Association President Glen D. Nager offered more than 4,000 words of far-ranging comment about the state of the game as he began his second term during the organization's annual meeting in California, but his most pointed may have been those directed at calls for the rules to be relaxed, divided or bifurcated into various sets of guidelines that would apply to different levels of competition or different levels of players. He did not equivocate.
This year, I must unfortunately comment on an alternative view, recently advanced, that "easier" itself equates with "better" - specifically, that if only we would relax equipment and playing Rules to enable longer, straighter shots and lower scores, more people would enjoy and perhaps play the game. These assertions are sometimes coupled with a view that the USGA should preserve golf's Rules, traditions, and essential character only for professional and elite amateur players, while creating a separate set of relaxed Rules for recreational golfers. With all due respect, these calls to change the very nature of our wonderful game in a supposed effort to save it are misguided.
The argument that "easier is better" is premised on concerns about recent economics - and that fact alone should cause us to pause. There certainly are important issues for the golf industry to address, including economic issues, but revenue concerns arising during a broad economic slowdown should not lead us fundamentally to alter our approach to writing the Rules and defining the game. It is our obligation as a governing body to keep our eye on the long-term good of the game and to hold firm to what we know to be true about the essence of golf.
The underlying logic of "easier is better" is inexorably contrary to the game's very nature. Golf is a unique game of skill and challenge. The need for skill and the elements of the challenge are what define golf; they are in fact what have caused us to love the game for the past 600 years. The game tests us, vexes us, humbles us, and thrills us - so that, when our rounds are finished, we can't wait to tell our tales of triumph and woe; so that we search endlessly for the skills that will allow us to improve; so that we can't wait for our next chance to play; and so that we stand in awe of those who can play better than we can. For centuries, golfers have fervently embraced and celebrated the challenge of the game.
This enthusiastic embrace of the game as a stout test of skill and challenge prevails as strongly today as ever. In a recent study commissioned by the National Golf Foundation, passionate recreational golfers - that is, the golfers who play most of the rounds and who spend most of the money in golf - indicated that the challenge of the game is among the top reasons, if not the top reason, why they are so passionate about golf. Moreover, research among non-golfers, as well as lapsed golfers, indicates that the top three reasons that people do not take up golf, or quit the game, are reasons of expense, time, and the perception that golf is exclusionary and unwelcoming; the challenge of the game is nowhere near the top of the list of barriers to participation. These data strongly undermine the argument that making the game easier will grow participation. Golfers and potential golfers are in fact attracted by the challenge of the game; and calls for making the playing and equipment rules easier paradoxically would compromise and possibly destroy the game for them.
In arguing that "easier" itself equates with "better," some have pointed out that, in some other sports, such as football and baseball, there are some different rules for professionals and amateurs. The implication is that such sports have made their games easier to play for amateurs than for professionals, and that golf would benefit from doing so as well. But the argument is unsound.
There are a few differences between the rules for high school and collegiate football and professional football, such as whether a receiver need have only one foot or both feet in bounds for a reception. But the purpose and effect of such differences is not to make the game easier for amateurs; rather, the differences make it easier on the offensive player - but harder on the defensive player - or vice versa. Similarly, the differing rules permitting the use of metal bats in amateur baseball but not in the professional leagues prove nothing relevant for golf: Metal bats took hold in amateur baseball principally because they were more cost effective. But, after concerns deepened over time that metal bats were compromising safety and altering the game's balance between offense and defense, the amateur rule-making bodies in baseball took strong steps to regulate metal bats so that they have to perform comparably to wooden bats. Far from reflecting a bifurcated set of rules intended to make baseball easier for amateurs to play than for professionals, the metal bat experience shows that baseball is fundamentally baseball, whether played in the pros or in college or high school.
The analogies to rules in other sports also ignore a crucial difference that makes golf unique. In football, baseball, and similar sports, competition takes place in a contained league; players participating at one level generally do not play simultaneously at another level. Golf is wonderfully different: a single amateur golfer may simultaneously participate at virtually every level of the game. He or she may play in a national open alongside leading professionals; in elite national, regional or state amateur events; in school leagues or events; in club or inter-club championships; and in casual competition with players of the same or entirely different levels of ability. To create multiple sets of Rules for all these various levels of play would create confusion for competition organizers, players and officials alike, and would serve no purpose. Golf is a single game; that is part both of its unique appeal and its ability to grow as a global sport.
The argument that multiple sets of Rules are needed to accommodate players of differing skill levels is refuted by golf's long history and traditions. The history of golf is actually a history of movement toward unification of playing and equipment rules - as golfers of different abilities from myriad geographies and cultures seek to play the same sport on a national and international basis, and soon in the Olympics. Moreover, aided by the USGA, the game has long used two great innovations - multiple teeing grounds and the Handicap and Course Rating Systems - to enable people to play within their own physical abilities and yet also to compete against one another across ability levels, while playing each shot and each round by the same set of Rules. Creating multiple sets of Rules would undermine both these great traditions and the needs of modern golfing populations, as well as threaten the value and integrity of the Handicap System.
In the end, some advocates of an easier set of Rules for amateurs seem to believe that recreational golfers do not care about whether they are playing the same great game that they watch on television and are merely looking to have a generalized form of casual "fun" that is unconnected to the game's great traditions. Well, I am a recreational golfer, and I could not disagree more. Like many recreational golfers, I strive to master the skills of an elite golfer, which is why I take so many lessons, pound so many golf balls on the range, read every golf magazine and instructional manual I can find, buy the latest equipment and golf balls promoted by professional players, and savor the well-struck shot and occasional birdie so much more than my total score. I want to play the great courses that the legendary champions have played, in order to compare my performance with theirs - treasuring the fact that, on any given stroke, using the same equipment and following the same Rules, I may play as good a shot as the most elite player. The National Golf Foundation's data, as well as golf history, suggest that my perspective is representative of, rather than atypical of, many, many other recreational golfers.
With respect, therefore, I submit that easier for the sake of easier is plainly not better - at least not when we are talking about the playing and equipment rules for the game historically called "golf." In golf, we play the ball as it lies, however imperfectly it lies; we don't tee the ball up in the fairway or rough or play off of pristine artificial turf. We have to avoid hazards, play out of them, or accept a penalty in taking relief from them. We have to learn to control the ball; we do not allow golf balls that do not hook or slice. We have to count all of our strokes, not just the ones that we like. And, we have to call penalties on ourselves, and in so doing exhibit the honesty, integrity, and sportsmanship that are the hallmarks of the game. These complex challenges of the game are the game. To compromise them in a misconceived quest for "fun" would simply destroy the game that we love. Our task as rule makers is not to make the game easier or to make it harder, but rather to preserve and enhance the game's special and eternal qualities.
As I stated last year, and have reiterated today, the game of golf is facing real and complex challenges. But the answer is not to change the game. We should instead vigorously address the factors that we already know discourage golfers from enjoying or taking up the game - such as long golf courses that are unduly expensive to maintain; rough heights that make it difficult to find golf balls and slow down play; putting greens that are set up at speeds that are expensive to maintain and that slow down play; and indeed slow play itself. These issues and others like them are the challenges that we must carefully examine and address, with the confidence that we can identify solutions that will both protect the essence of our great game and foster a sustainable future. I hope that others will join us in this pursuit.