VoicesFebruary 7, 2020

Why players are right to jab the USGA on the distance debate … and are also off the mark

Mike Davis, Henrik Stenson
Streeter Lecka

It’s intended to be a conversation starter, but it is a conversation that started some time ago, with sides that are passionately entrenched. Perhaps that’s why the USGA and R&A’s release of its long-awaited Distance Insights report has been viewed by some as a verdict rather than an opening statement.

But that statement was clear: Distance needs to be curtailed for the good of the game. And because much of the debate revolves around the PGA Tour, a number of pros spoke out this week after the report’s release, feeling as if they are being tried for a crime they did not commit. Many defended themselves by citing advancements in training and club optimization. Others deferred the blame to architects and designers. A few took exception with the idea that a distance spike is actually a problem.

No matter the response, there was an underlying tone to some of the players’ denials and rebuttals that is problematic. Simply put, many sound as if they don’t trust the governing bodies, their motive or their competence.

It was mostly unsaid, but it was there. Like when Billy Horschel asked, “Do you think the USGA or R&A hold any responsibility in the distance issue?” or as Paul Casey insisted players and manufacturers aren’t to blame. Even the Tour’s official statement, which expressed its desire to collaborate with the USGA and R&A, added the caveat it wouldn’t back any solutions that could negatively impact the Tour, its players or the fans’ “enjoyment of our sport.”

Just in case the message was lost in the nuance, Phil Mickelson provided clarity.

“I didn’t really read anything tangible from the report; I only saw that they didn’t want each generation to continue getting longer and longer,” Mickelson said earlier this week. “I struggle with some of our governing bodies. I struggle with it because we are the only professional sport in the world that’s governed by a group of amateurs, and that leads to some questionable directions that we go down. I wish that we had people that are involved in the sport professionally to be in charge a little bit more.”

Now, the USGA’s approval rating will never be confused with, say, Tom Hanks’ popularity, its standing still recovering from miscues in three of the past five U.S. Opens. The report itself also is not without its flaws or weak points, or above criticism, although that last point shouldn’t pose a problem: The sport—fans, player, media—hasn’t shied from voicing its displeasure with officials in Far Hills.

And to be fair, many of these players were asked their thoughts, and they obliged. (Shoutout to Dustin Johnson, who admitted he did not read the report after seeing its length.)

Yet, whatever qualms exist with the governing body, know this. In aim and scope, the USGA’s purpose is not without merit.

(Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

Mickelson called out golf for being governing by 'a group of amateurs.'

When the Distance Insights project was announced in May 2018, many assumed the USGA and R&A were holding kangaroo court for a pre-determined agenda. It was a notion dismissed then and now by those involved, who say its mission was to gather research and opinions on how distance affects each individual and all aspects of the game.

“We are looking at distance in a very holistic way,” Rand Jerris, the USGA’s senior managing director of public services, said to Golf Digest. “The golf ball is not the focus of this project.”

A rollback has been the presumed outcome for many on both sides of the debate, a prevailing theory being that the USGA has been saving the resources to wage a legal war. Except multiple current and former USGA employees say that’s not the case, stating the last thing the USGA and R&A want are courtroom battles and broken relationships.

“It’s there in the beginning of the summary," a former USGA employee said. “ ‘[The USGA and R&A] are trying to protect the challenge and character of golf.’ From what they have gathered, this is the route to reach that objective.”

The gathering is impressive, as the Insights reports features more than 100 years of data. The research, made available to the public, flows from 56 ancillary reports, many themselves dozens of pages in length. To those who view the USGA as a bunch of lawyers cosplaying as country club presidents, it could read like an information dump to obfuscate the point.

Those around the USGA again say that’s not so. As USGA CEO Mike Davis told Golf Digest, “We clearly have identified a problem that the industry should solve in a collective way,” and the papers are proof of that indication. Or as another USGA staffer relayed, “We are trying to be transparent.”

Moreover, in a sport accused, often rightfully, of being too exclusive, the USGA and R&A did their best to make sure everyone was heard. Golfers were offered a chance to participate in a survey and many took that opportunity, with nearly 70,000 people filling out the online questionnaire. Even the most cynical USGA observer has to agree, that’s a lot of homework to do if you already have the answer in hand. And that’s important since wherever this debate goes, its execution depends on listening to any and all stakeholders.

So when players insinuate the USGA doesn’t know what it’s doing, they are impeding the conversation, and making themselves look bad in the process.

Scott Halleran

It's hard be call out Davis and the USGA for a lack of effort with its Distance Insights report.

The report is far from infallible. Despite the mountain of research, some of the conclusions—particularly those on how distance has affected average golf courses—are lacking basic data points, filled with hearsay and empirical evidence in their stead. The survey’s questions could be interpreted as biased, and with just 7 percent of those surveyed replying distance is a problem, it’s fair to ask if Average Joes have a big enough seat at the table.

Those questions are well and good. But they warrant discussion, not dismissiveness.

The USGA knows these questions and more are coming, which is why it is calling for continued input from the game, hoping to specify areas of further research within the next 45 days. Once those topics are reached, gathering research could take another nine months to a year. Insert your pace-of-play jokes here.

And yet, while every other stakeholder in the game has self-preservation at heart, the USGA and R&A have a higher calling: Earnestly trying to do what they think is best for the game.

“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,” Davis said at the onset of the project. “We look forward to delving deeply into this topic and learning more, led by doing right by golf, first and foremost.”

Whatever you think of Davis or the USGA, there is nothing amateur about that pursuit.


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