The return of the U.S. Open Championship to the historic Merion Golf Club last year proved that it is possible for a classic, short course to test the players of the modern game, who drive the ball significantly farther than their counterparts from past generations. Yet, as golf technology continues to advance, concerns remain that courses must be lengthened to keep pace, and that many venerable courses could become obsolete.
While changes in club technology tend to dominate the debate, modifications in the design of the golf ball have also been a major factor in the sizeable increase in distance achieved by players over the past two decades. Many observers expect the USGA to mount an initiative to scale back ball technology. Jack Nicklaus has advocated that such a strategy would reduce the costs of maintaining courses and preserve the integrity of layouts without the necessity of expensive modifications.
At today’s State of the Industry panel discussion at the PGA Merchandise Show, leaders of the industry discussed the prospects for “rolling back the golf ball” in the words of moderator Damon Hack of the Golf Channel’s Morning Drive.
PGA President Ted Bishop has expressed concerns for some time that last year’s anchoring ban might have been the “Trojan Horse” for the USGA’s assault on the golf ball. From the perspective of growing the game by making it more enjoyable and reaching out to new players, Bishop cannot comprehend how reducing the distance the ball travels could be a positive development.
Bishop did note that a positive result of the anchoring controversy is that “the PGA Tour and the PGA of America are certainly going to have I think a better seat at the table in future rules discussions.” He and PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem will participate in the USGA Executive Committee meeting next month, and will advocate that a grandfather rule for recreational players be incorporated in the anchoring rule. Another item on the agenda will be a proposal to limit the length of the driver from 48 to 46 inches, which Bishop opposes on account of its impact on recreational players.
Former USGA Executive Director David Fay conjectured that “rolling back the ball is just a little more likely than Ted Bishop’s Indianapolis Colts playing the Super Bowl in a couple of weeks.” Fay stated that “the decision is not that of the R&A and USGA; they need to get a consensus. There are shareholders [the PGA Tour, the PGA of America, and the LPGA] and those shareholders have vetoes.” He observed that when the R&A and USGA adopted new rules on grooves several years ago, they needed the full support of such other golf organizations to move forward.
Donald Trump sounded as enthusiastic about rolling back the ball as putting a moratorium on real estate development. “As far as rolling back the ball, I think that would be a disaster because you don’t want to make the game harder than it already is,” he said. “I think you’ll lose players.”
TaylorMade president Mark King, who is not reluctant to challenge the conventional thinking in the golf industry, opined that an undue emphasis on the traditional aspects of golf inhibits the ability to adapt to change and grow the game. “I don’t think we care about the people on the fringe,” he said. “We only care about the people who love the game for traditions of the game. That’s ridiculous for me. And they make up such a small part of our game, why would we organize an entire industry around a couple of million duffers….We live in a world that’s about innovation and progress and moving forward, and we are the slowest moving industry that I know of. There’s nothing to be proud of there.”
The consensus of the panel discussion was that any USGA initiative to roll back the ball will meet staunch resistance. And if Ted Bishop has a seat at the table, he is sure to make his feelings known.
Jack Ross, a regular contributor to New England Golf Monthly, is on-site at the PGA Merchandise Show this week.
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