PGA Championship

Valhalla Golf Club

Bifurcation? Sí!

By David Fay Illustrations by Dan Page
January 21, 2013

Tucked away near the back of the R&A/USGA Rules of Golf is a section titled Conditions of the Competition. The portion dealing with clubs and ball requirements begins: "The following conditions are recommended only for competitions involving expert players." Key word: only.

The rules-makers tell us that conditions should not be confused with the rules, which are the same for all of us. Technically, that might be true, but these conditions read, penalize and sound (quack?) like rules.

One of these conditions is the so-called one-ball rule, which limits a player to one brand--and model--of ball for the round. Its genesis goes back to the late 1970s, when good players, on certain holes and under certain conditions, would switch from a softer-feeling ball to a rock ball for less spin and extra distance. It allowed them to switch from, say, a 4-wood to a more controllable 4-iron on par 3s. Many leading PGA Tour players argued that this practice was akin to having a 15th club in the bag. PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman agreed and led the charge to stop ball-switching during a round. Though the tour could have made this change on its own, it sought and received the blessing of the U.S. rules-making body, the USGA. The USGA and the R&A were sympathetic to the tour's point of view, but they did not want to force this limitation on the millions of golfers throughout the world who would find it impractical to carry a sufficient number of "one balls" in their bag to complete a round. But they also didn't want to see the tour create its own equipment rule. So, common sense prevailed, and a condition of play, the one-ball condition, was written as an optional requirement for elite-play tournaments.

For the past 30 years or so, hundreds of leading golf competitions--men, women, juniors, seniors--including all of the world's leading professional tours, all USGA individual national championships, the NCAA Championships and most of the highly regarded amateur-only competitions--have used the one-ball rule. It has worked well and is easily understood. And though defining the expert-golfer line of demarcation is fuzzy, USGA rules staffers, when asked whether to adopt the one-ball rule for a club championship, will counsel: "Well, yeah, you can...but don't."

I, with my 11-handicap game, have no need to follow the one-ball condition, even though I, like most of my golf pals (including my wife), have a favorite type of ball. But--hell, yes--I'll quickly switch to a scarred ball of any brand when worried that I might lose one of my good ones.

Let's be clear: Competitions for expert players adopt a couple of equipment rules (excuse me..."conditions") not required of the rest of us.

So, where am I going with this rule/conditions chatter?

If you're among those who believe the golf ball is going too far and too straight, there's a simple, surgical solution. Define and identify a new category of reduced-distance balls, and mandate the use of one of these balls whenever the one-ball condition is in effect.

Bifurcation? Sure, but so what? Adding one or two specialized equipment rules (bifurcation, with a lowercase b) to a one-ball competition will not signal the end of the game as we know it and will not damage the game's history, popularity and future growth in any way or at any level. Some low-handicap players might switch to the balls the big-leaguers play because they wish to. The rest of us? We might try one of the less-lively balls, suffer, and give up the experiment. But it will be our choice--just like deciding which tee markers to play. And we'll be playing according to the rules.

On the other hand, if the world's 65 million golfers are told to take one for the team (even with assurances that a reduced-distance ball won't really affect you because you're not good enough to see the difference), there'd be hell to pay.

The distance a golf ball travels and whether it needs to be dialed back is a highly charged topic with wildly varied opinions. One thing is for certain: The subject won't go away.

After 32 years with the USGA, DAVID FAY is writing a monthly column for Golf Digest.