Going the Distance: New Study Ignites Debate

The USGA, R&A and the PGA of America each recently weighed in on proposed changes to the game…it’s fair to say their thoughts didn’t meet with universal approval.

By Anthony Cotton

To be clear, when it comes to regulating distance standards in golf, Rory McIlroy isn’t having Any. Of. It.

“So I think the authorities, the R&A and USGA, are looking at the game through such a tiny little lens, that what they’re trying to do is change something that pertains to 0.1 percent of the golfing community,” the International superstar said in response to the recent announcement that the USGA and the R&A, regarded as the keepers of the game, was moving forward into the solution phase of its Distance Insight Report. “Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the people that play this game play for enjoyment, for entertainment. They don’t need to be told what ball or clubs to use,” he said. “We have to make the game as easy and approachable as possible for the majority of golfers.

“Honestly, I think this Distance Insight Report has been a huge waste of time and money, because that money that it’s cost to do this report could have been way better distributed to getting people into the game, introducing young kids to the game, introducing minorities to the game.

“I heard (USGA CEO) Mike Davis say something about we’re trying to protect the game for the next hundred years. This isn’t how you do it. This is so small and inconsequential compared to the other things happening in the game. It’s the grassroots. It’s getting more people engaged in golf. That’s where they should be spending their money, not spending it on the Distance Insight Report.”

Similarly, when the PGA of America announced that players would be able to use laser rangefinders and GPS devices at their events, including its majors—the PGA Championship, KPMG Women’s PGA Championship and KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship–starting this year, the huzzahs didn’t exactly rain down from the heavens either.

Citing the PGA’s stated intent to improve the pace of play by making the change, veteran caddie Paul Tesori told ESPN, “It’s so frustrating that they never asked the ones who know the best what we think. I truly don’t believe it’ll speed up play one minute.

“On a normal hole, I’ll still have the front [of the green] number, carry number, how many left or right and how many yards behind the pin. The last number we would get is the pin. What happens then if the range finder is more than 1 yard off? Now we will have to redo all our other numbers to fit what we are trying to do with the shot.”

nate lashley
Nate Lashley, the 2010 CoBank Colorado Open champion, is averaging 293 yards off the tee this season, 136th on the PGA TOUR. PHOTO COURTESY: PGA TOUR

In an interview with Golf Digest, Matt Kelly, caddie for Marc Leishman, added that using distance measuring devices during PGA TOUR events would look “unprofessional” on television, which, in recent years, has started featuring more of the byplay that goes on between player and caddie when they’re trying to figure out how to best approach a particular shot.

It’s not like either idea is some startling new bolt from the blue—per the USGA, rangefinders and GPS devices have been allowed in casual play and tournaments since 2006, although prior to this year they couldn’t be used in competition during PGA TOUR events, or the U.S. or British Opens. Similarly, Jack Nicklaus has been bemoaning the need to regulate out of control distance in golf, i.e. tamping down how far the ball flies, for at least a decade.

To the surprise of perhaps no one, Bryson DeChambeau  is leading the tour in driving distance this season, averaging almost 330 yards off the tee. By contrast, during the final round of last week’s AT&T Pebble Beach ProAm, CBS’ announcers were full of praise of the controlled swing of Nate Lashley, who held at share of the lead until a four-putt triple-bogey on the 70th hole. But as consistent as he is at driving the golf ball, Lashley, the 2010 CoBank Colorado Open champion, is “only” averaging 293 yards off the tee—while that may be all the rage at Green Valley Ranch, that distance is only good for 136th place on  the tour this year.

One of the arguments made about the need to regulate distance is that today’s golfers are supremely athletic and are capable of doing so much more than golfers did back in the day; DeChambeau is certainly evidence of that, and it certainly works against players like Lashley—as recently as 2002, an average drive of 293 yards would have placed you in the top 10.

When the distance study began in 2020, Davis said “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.”As might be expected, the initiatives have fostered a bit of conversation locally as well.”Of the two topics, the one that I’m by far more interested in is the distance discussion,” said Ed Mate, the Executive Director and CEO of the Colorado Golf Association. “To me, it’s kind of silly that haven’t allowed distance measuring devices on the PGA TOUR already…I don’t think it would speed up the game, I don’t think they’ll slow down the game—but it would just eliminate one more disconnect between them and every day golf.

“With regards to distance, to me, it’s a very simple solution, so simple—just create a limited-flight ball for the PGA TOUR—end of story, that’s it. Of course, you can get into shades of grey—what about college golfers, what about the LPGA—but the problem with distance resides with less than one percent of the people who play the game, those on the PGA and European Tours. For you, me, the overwhelming majority of people who play the game, distance isn’t an issue—so why are we dealing with the .00001 percent of people by coming up with some universal rule that only applies to that one incredibly small sliver?”I love the analogy that Robert Duke (the CGA’s Director of Rules and Competition) uses—he says when the light bulb goes out in your house, you don’t tear down the house, you just replace the light bulb. That’s all we need to do—just tell those guys to use a different light bulb.”

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