MIAMI BEACH — In taking the job of USGA president and setting out to work alongside Executive Director/CEO Mike Davis, Mark Newell has no shortage of items on his “to do” list. A few of note:
• Oversee the continued roll out of the modernized Rules of Golf.
• Unveil the details of the new World Handicap System.
• Examine the distance issue that faces the game.
Regarding the first two items, arguably no one is better suited for to handle them. The retired lawyer from McLean, Va., has been a member of the USGA Executive Committee since 2010 and chaired the Rules of Golf committee since 2013. In those roles, Newell—who casual golf fans might recognize as the official who walked with Dustin Johnson on Sunday at the 2016 U.S. Open—has been intimately involved in both projects since their inceptions earlier in the decade.
“There were a lot of people who worked on this, but nobody did more for the new Rules code than Mark Newell,” Davis admits.
As for the third, Newell confirmed he’s ready to continue the USGA’s examination of the distance debate, acknowledging the collective concerns about the slow “creep of distance” over the past decade. But unlike the other matters, Newell says there’s nothing on the immediate horizon in terms of action set to be taken.
“When you combine [distance] with the effect of the size of golf courses on the economics of the facilities, on the environmental issues that come from that and, in some cases, on the effect on just the enjoyment on golfers, it’s something we need to look hard at,” Newell told Golf Digest. “That’s what we’re planning to do. We have been, and we’re going to be focused on what that situation is and how we can deal with it.”
Much of the subtext surrounding Saturday’s USGA Annual Meeting at the Fountainbleau Resort reflected the continued discussion surrounding the distance issue. No red lines were drawn and no ultimatums made; Davis even joked that it wasn’t his intent to make headlines at the meeting about the USGA taking a stand on distance. But in almost every public speech, the issue was mentioned, directly or indirectly, in cautious tone.
“When there are important issues facing golf, we will tackle those issues head-on in a comprehensive and fact-based way that focuses on the long term health and needs of the game as a whole,” Newell said in his introductory speech. “And we will find innovative solutions that promote and sustain the long-term health of this game that we all love.”
“It’s not our job to make the game harder, but it’s also not our job to make the game easier,” noted John Bodenhamer, USGA senior managing director of championships and governance, during a Town Hall Q&A session with Annual Meeting attendees.
While Newell will certainly be involved in the discussions, it’s Davis who appears likely to be taking the lead on the matter. In recent months, he’s spoken more directly about the issue, specifically in the context of the impact it’s having on golf courses and golf course design. From that standpoint, Davis believes the USGA needs to take a more holistic approach to the matter.
“This issue is a very complex issue, and an issue that’s been talked about, debated and researched,” Davis said. “This just isn’t about the male elite game. That’s not how we're viewing it. For us, it’s understanding the past … and being very forward thinking. We know there are some severe pressures on the game. … Long term we really do believe that reducing the size of footprints is a way to help the game in so many ways. We’ve been very forthright in saying we do not think increased distance is good for the game.”
To reiterate his point, Davis reminded people that this year’s U.S. Open will be played at Shinnecock Hills at slightly over 7,400 yards compared to 6,900 the previous editions. But what about the first time Shinnecock hosted the Open, back in 1896? The distance was just 4,423 yards.
The next turning point could come later this month, when the USGA and R&A are expected to release their third-annual joint Distance Report, which breaks down statistics on seven professional tours around the world. A year ago, the report showed only a slight increase in distance.
In addition to the bigger picture issues, there are other practical matters the governing body is preparing to address. Among Saturday’s announcements was the formal transition of the USGA Members Program, established in 1975, into a newly formed USGA Foundation, charged with helping increase the ability for golfers to invest and contribute financially to the game. In conjunction, the association is launching a multi-year campaign “Driving Golf Forward” to help fund innovation and research while boosting inclusivity within the sport.
Some time in the next few weeks, details of the much anticipated World Handicap System will be unveiled, followed closely by the final version of the modernized Rules of Golf. According to Bodenhamer, the more than 20,000 responses to feedback surveys the USGA and R&A received after the original draft of the new Rules was unveiled last March were accounted for and have contributed to the final product.
“You’ll see a handful of pretty significant changes to what came out on March 1 or additions … and we’re pretty exited about it,” Bodenhamer said. “A lot more common sense and rules that are easier to understand and apply.”
After introducing the final Rules, the USGA and R&A will concentrate on creating supporting materials with the intent of beginning the formal education process around September. The new Rules are slated to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2019.
While the focus of the conversations was on long-term plans, there was also one short-term item mentioned: After two years of renovations and alternations, the USGA headquarters in Far Hills, N.J., will re-open on Feb. 12. The modernized facility will help the USGA be more collaborative and accelerate innovations from association.
Suffice it to say, its opening comes not a moment too soon.