Distance Insights
February 19, 2020

Acushnet CEO disputes calls for distance halt; current rules “effectively govern”

titleist-golf-balls.jpg

titleist-golf-balls.jpg

In a move that is about as unsurprising as it is full-throated, the Acushnet CEO, parent of the Titleist and FootJoy brands, announced his company's opposition to the USGA and R&A’s contention that the "cycle of distance increases" in golf must come to an end.

“…we believe the conclusions drawn in this Report undervalue the skill and athleticism of the game’s very best players and focus far too much on the top of the men’s professional game and project this on golf and golfers as a whole,” reads the statement from David Maher, Acushnet’s president and CEO.

“Furthermore, we believe that existing equipment regulations effectively govern the prospects of any significant increases in hitting distance by the game’s longest hitters.”

Maher’s 686-word position paper, titled “A Perspective on the Distance Insights Report,” is the first from a major golf company CEO to explicitly counter the ruling bodies' conclusions from their Distance Insights research project, announced Feb. 4. In that announcement and subsequent press conference, the organizations detailed their desire to curb how far tee shots fly.

“We believe that this continuing cycle of increases is undesirable and detrimental to golf’s long-term future,” the report’s 16-page Conclusions document reads.

“We believe that golf will best thrive over the next decades and beyond if this continuing cycle of ever-increasing hitting distances and golf course lengths is brought to an end.”

The Acushnet CEO’s statement indicated the ruling bodies’ position failed to account for the benefits to the game from innovation. Rather than reducing the skill needed to play the game, Maher said equipment technology fuels the enthusiasm for the game for beginners as well as the top players in the game.

“Like all sports, golf is played differently today than it was centuries, and even decades, ago—from the people who play, the rules by which we play, and the equipment we use,” he said. “Almost all would agree this progress has been a great benefit to the game and that innovation in golf equipment has been an important contributor to this progress. Golf is bringing younger players into the game sooner and keeping older players longer than ever; professional golf is as dynamic and entertaining as it’s ever been; and the game remains a healthy challenge for all players and at all levels.”

Contacted by Golf Digest, the USGA released a statement that stressed that the process in evaluating distance going forward would be a collaborative one.

“At our core, we are golf fans, and we continue to celebrate both the skill and athleticism of today’s players across the game," the statement reads. "As we articulated in the statement of conclusions, we see this as a multifaceted, long-term issue that impacts everyone—from recreational to elite players as well as golf courses at all levels of the game—old and new alike. We look forward to working with Acushnet and other manufacturers as we engage in the next steps.”

Maher noted the ruling bodies were “acting in what they believe to be the game’s best interests,” but he said the current equipment standards are sufficiently keeping distance in check.

“The ability to consistently achieve distance with accuracy, and convert this into low scores, remains a special and elusive skill,” Maher said. “In fact, the Report itself shows that hitting distance on the PGA Tour decreased in six of the past 13 years, including 2019. We believe this helps to affirm the effectiveness of regulatory efforts, particularly those adopted since the early 2000s, which continue to achieve their desired intent of setting boundaries around future distance increases while also rewarding skill and encouraging innovation.”

Maher’s statement also endorsed one set of rules, taking a position his predecessor, Wally Uihlein, made almost exactly seven years ago in an essay titled “The Case for Unification.” Today, Maher was reacting negatively to the suggestion that the ruling bodies would consider extending the use of a local rule requiring equipment that produced shorter hitting distances. Though USGA CEO Mike Davis endorsed a commitment to one set of rules, he said “the concept of the local rule goes back to the 1700s and allows courses or tournament committees to have flexibility where it makes sense.” Maher said a local rule restricting equipment would not be a positive for the game.

“We believe playing by a unified set of rules coalesces our game, is an essential part of its global understanding and appeal, and eliminates the inconsistency and instability that would come from multiple sets of equipment standards,” he said.

Other major manufacturers thus far have declined or were unavailable for comment on Maher's statement.

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