Distance DebateMay 15, 2018

USGA/R&A announce distance research project, website

'Ball rollback' is not the focus
Golf ball

The distance debate will now have an official website.

In their joint efforts to study the issue of driving distance and its effect on the game, the USGA and R&A announced Tuesday the launch of a website that will solicit opinions on distance’s role in the game from all golfers and stakeholders. The initial focus of the website will be to gather research and opinions on how distance affects each individual.

The announcement is part of a multi-faceted project to study distance in a broader way that goes beyond statistics on the professional tours, which has been the focus of annual distance reports the governing bodies have released to the public annually since 2016.

“The topic of increased distance and its effects on the game have been discussed for well over a century,” said Mike Davis, CEO of the USGA. “We believe that now is the time to examine this topic through a very wide and long lens, knowing it is critical to the future of the game. We look forward to delving deeply into this topic and learning more, led by doing right by golf, first and foremost.”

Davis’s tone, at least in this more deliberate approach to understanding distance, lies in contrast to comments attributed to him that suggest he is more bullish on a ball rollback. Both in statements from Jack Nicklaus and veteran club professional Bob Ford, Davis was seen suggesting that a ball rollback was a priority or at least in the offing. For example, Nicklaus said when he discussed his concerns over distance with Davis earlier this year, “Mike said, ‘We’re getting there. I need your help when we get there.’ ”

R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers, who also recently has suggested a line in the sand has been crossed requiring further study, echoed the more measured approach in his statement.

“Distance in golf is a complex issue which is widely debated at all levels of the sport,” he said. “It is important that we collate all of the relevant data and hear the many different perspectives on this issue that exist in the international community. We intend to conduct this process openly, comprehensively and promptly and will work with all of the key stakeholders to ensure we have a fully rounded view of distance and its implications.”

RELATED: USGA indicates increasing concern in latest distance report

Those statements may be read with a sense of foreboding, but those managing this project suggest any pre-determined agenda does not exist.

“I think just in terms of Step 1, this is not about a ball rollback,” Rand Jerris, the USGA’s senior managing director of public services, told Golf Digest. Jerris, along with Matt Pringle, senior director of USGA research, science and innovation, and John Spitzer, USGA managing director of equipment standards, is guiding the USGA’s team researching the distance question. Jerris made it clear that the research project is about fact-finding and understanding the issue in a way that’s not been fully attempted in the past. Jerris said there is particular interest in “the health of our golf facilities.” But the knowledge gleaned from this research project should be the foundation for any future debate, he said.

“We are looking at distance in a very holistic way. The golf ball is not the focus of this project. I think we see this research resulting in multiple insights, multiple recommendations and multiple solutions. … We need to broaden the discussion, get a variety of perspectives and re-set the conversation about distance.”

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USGA officials insist that contrary to a statement from Nicklaus, the USGA and its CEO, Davis, are not predisposed to an aggressive approach to the distance issue.

The website will be a key component of that research. Termed the “Distance Insights” project, it will feature a survey on both the USGA and R&A websites that will be open to anyone and everyone to submit opinion or personal research. Specifically, via both usga.org/distanceinsights and randa.org/distanceinsights, respondents will be asked to identify themselves in terms of their position in golf, whether they are interested in participating in future research about distance and specifically how distance affects their view of the game.

Golf’s ruling bodies also announced that in addition to its own in-house research teams specifically committed to studying all aspects of distance in golf, they will be seeking multiple third-party researchers to undertake further distance studies. Those additional projects will involve stakeholders that include amateur and professional golfers, worldwide professional golf tours, golf course owners and operators, golf equipment manufacturers, golf course architects and golf course superintendents.

A report based on this project is expected sometime in 2019 and would be in addition to the annual Distance Report. The Distance Report chronicles driving distance and related data from the preceding season on the seven professional tours.

RELATED: The most important questions answered on the distance issue

Tuesday’s announcement reflects the tone of the preamble to the 2018 Distance Report when it was released in early March. In it, the USGA noted that the gain of three yards across all tours was “unusual and concerning and requires closer inspection and monitoring to fully understand the causes and effects.”

Toward that directive, the USGA and R&A announced at that time: “We will conduct a thoughtful conversation about the effects of distance prior to making any specific proposals. We remain open-minded and our absolute priority is to ensure that all key stakeholders are involved in an open and inclusive process, and that we move forward together in the best interests of golf at all levels. There is no fixed timetable, but we will commence this process immediately and endeavor to reach a conclusion as promptly as possible.

“The USGA and the R&A intend to consolidate previous work conducted by the two organizations, as well as others in the golf industry, regarding the effect of distance on the footprint and playing of the game, conduct new research on these same topics to augment the current state of knowledge of the issues and, most importantly, in the coming months, engage with stakeholders throughout the golf industry to develop a comprehensive understanding of perspectives on distance.”

The Distance Insights project will be categorizing the research in several sub-topics, including the effect of distance on the golf course, pace of play, player behavior and development, rules questions not relating to equipment, historical elements, as well as equipment standards.


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