The Benefits Of Bifurcation

February 11, 2014

Tom Watson uses a range finder during a practice round prior to the start of the 2010 U.S. Open.

Bifurcation -- the golf term that cries out loudest for a synonym -- is once again clattering against eardrums. But while the sound continues to offend, the word itself is now inspiring more curiosity than threat.

Just last week, bifurcation formed the subtext of several actions by the game's leaders, whether it was the USGA's decision to approve range finders for amateur championships, PGA of America president Ted Bishop seeing no problem with non-conforming equipment for recreational play, Jack Nicklaus opining to the National Golf Course Owners Association that a golf ball rollback is in the offing, or PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, who last year said, "personally, I think in some situations bifurcation is OK," joining Bishop in asking the USGA to extend the grandfather period on the anchoring ban for amateurs. All this was on the heels of a PGA Merchandise Show in which the forces behind Hack Golf portrayed golf as a game in trouble and initiated a global search for ideas to make it faster, easier and less structured.

Of course, bifurcation remains a dangerous word to the governing bodies of the USGA and R&A, which both hold strongly to the principle of a single set of rules. At last week's USGA annual meeting in Pinehurst, the association's leaders, starting with new president Thomas J. O'Toole Jr. and executive director Mike Davis, laid out an admirably unified and earnest message: One set of rules ensures the game's fundamental challenge, fosters a spirit of kinship among participants and promotes efficient administration of competitions. Sandy Tatum, the 93-year-old former USGA president and unofficial poet emeritus of golf's purists, said that one set of rules "coalesces" the game.

No doubt it has, and can continue to. But more than ever in our changing culture, people play golf in all sorts of ways that best fit busy, multitasking lives. They roll the ball over, take mulligans and gimmes, don't go back to the tee after losing a ball, and engage in other habits that have long been tacitly widespread. It's far from the traditional USGA way, but to me such players are golfers, and in a time of diminishing participation, have to be part of any current and future coalescence.

Which, of course, makes me a bifurcator. But not one, like Bishop, whose concern is liberating the average golfer from feeling an obligation to closely follow the rule book. Groups of players who customize games among themselves don't need their adaptation codified. Nor have average golfers indicated a pent-up desire to play non-conforming equipment, knowing it wouldn't make much difference. But what's become clear is that it's simply not realistic to keep expecting golfers to have the time or means to commit to the kind of golf life that many USGA committeemen -- for example -- have had the rare opportunity to enjoy.

I do, however, see the benefit of bifurcation for the best players in the world. The professional tours, and especially major championship golf, would be better with a golf ball that underwent a distance rollback of 10 percent. Don't worry, a Dustin Johnson drive will still look awesome flying 290 yards instead of 325. But more importantly, a rolled-back ball would increase the premium on player skill, bring the driver out of the bag much more often, create more variety in the shape of approach shots, allow the best players to separate from the pack more easily, lead to more classic venues, stop the proliferation of extreme course setups that feature heavy rough and ultra-firm greens, and speed up play. This more interesting version of golf on the biggest stages would make the recreational game more popular and alluring.

At the same time, taking distance away from amateurs is a bad idea. For one thing, the millions of suddenly "hot" non-conforming balls instantly in circulation after a rollback under a single set of rules would be impossible to regulate. Secondly, the great majority of amateurs need more distance. Most average players can't reach a 400-yard par 4 in two, and hitting the ball farther for such a player increases fun.

Unfortunately, in the aftermath of the protracted battle over anchoring, any support within the USGA for a ball rollback aimed at enhancing championship golf exists only on a back burner in the deepest recesses of Far Hills.

There is a possibility such a ball could eventually be installed under the "condition of play" provision that is already in the rules, but even movement in that direction would mean the USGA giving in on a long-held principle, despite the gain in practice. In the meantime, bifurcators can take heart in their shrinking stigma, and maybe start working on a synonym.