Putting The Genie Back In The Bottle

By October 7, 2019 No Comments

Professional golf is a very different game today, when compared to the sport of twenty years ago.  The arrival of the Titleist ProV1 ball in late 2000 marked the start of an era in which golf would change greatly.  When paired with advanced materials and designs of large head contemporary drivers, the distances golfers can hit the ball have grown markedly.  These far flying balls also possess different spin characteristics to balls of years gone by, and as such, potentially de-skill the game.  Mishits aren’t as dire as they once were.  Techniques and tactics are focused more so on speed and distance. The way golf is played today, at professional and elite amateur level has changed significantly.


Golf’s two ruling bodies, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews (R&A) and the United States Golf Association (USGA) have conducted several studies on driving distance over the last decade, examining the gains in yardage delivered by technological advancement in clubs and balls.  Concern regarding advancements in ball design is not a new subject, but the topic has received increasing levels of attention in recent years.  New rules may be adopted in future, curtailing the advances in distance delivered by modern equipment.


Wally Uihlein, past President and Chairman of Acushnet (Titleist’s parent company) has been a vehement opponent of any review of the rules of golf, which may restrict the ball.  Uihlein enjoys support from many in his industry, and others including current PGA Tour chief Jay Monahan.  Pete Bevacqua, PGA of America chief is on record as saying “we are highly sceptical that rolling back the golf ball in whole or part will be in the best interests of the sport and our collective efforts to grow the game.”  Uihlein himself sees no harm in burgeoning distance, and also points to better instruction, better conditioned athletes, agronomy, and other factors also responsible for distance gains.  He identifies a failure from golf course designers to adapt to technology advances. These comments don’t stand up to much scrutiny.


Titleist is a large, wealthy, multi-national company.  They sponsor television programs, websites and blogs, countless professional players, publications, and prominent personalities in the game.  Some of these individuals and organisations may privately favour a rollback effort but remain silent, by virtue of financial consequences should they speak against the wealthy equipment manufacturer.  As heralded golf course architect Tom Doak noted many years ago – “nearly every player is on the payroll of one of the equipment companies, who will urge them to vote ‘no’ by threatening their contracts. That’s why we are where we are.”


Those who most aggressively resist a rollback seem to be those who stand to profit financially from preservation of the status quo.  Those who support a rollback are almost totally free of any financial incentive to do so, and approach the issue from a more altruistic perspective, focussing on the game itself. But I digress…


Martin Slumbers, current chief executive of the R&A suggests the most recent distance report indicates driving distance advances have gone from a “slow creep” to “quite a big jump”, contrary to the wishes expressed within the R&A and USGA’s 2002 Joint Statement of Principles.  “When you look at this data, we have probably crossed that line in the sand,” Slumbers said. “A serious discussion is now needed on where we go.”


No intelligent party in this debate is suggesting advanced ball technology is the sole factor responsible for burgeoning distance achieved by golfers today. But reform of ball specifications is the most pragmatic solution to a multi-faceted problem.


Perhaps the most likely reason for the lack of regulatory reform of clubs and balls by golf’s governing bodies over the last twenty years has been the looming spectre of legal action by Titleist and other manufacturers, should any rollback be attempted.  Decades ago, the USGA was engaged in protracted legal proceedings with Ping (regarding their grooves) and will wish to avoid another potentially harmful and costly court battle.  Many onlookers have been critical of the USGA for more than fifteen years of inaction on the modern ball.  Back in 2002, the USGA and R&A joint statement of principles stated “any further significant increases in hitting distance at the highest level are undesirable”.  Indeed, one may ask what has delayed regulatory action in the subsequent seventeen years.


Yet, golf’s governing bodies have cause to feel emboldened.  There are precedents of international sporting bodies reviewing their rules, rendering equipment that was once deemed legal, no longer compliant.  These examples should embolden the USGA and R&A and affirm that commercial interests, while significant and worthy of consideration in drafting revised rules of the game, are secondary to the greater good of the game itself.  Commercial interests must also remain a secondary consideration behind sports governors.


In 2009, FINA’s general congress voted to ban full-length polyurethane based swimsuits, the most widely used of which style was the LZR Racer by Speedo.  The suits were introduced eighteen months prior, in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympic Games.  The use of full-length polyurethane based suits had been described as ‘technological doping’.  They had been used to rapidly help set 130 new world records, and claim a raft of Olympic medals.  Current and recently retired swimming greats openly questioned the influence of technology upon the sport, as well as the stewardship of the sport’s governing body.


The suits were widely viewed to enable swimmers who did not possess ideal technique, or physique. United States Swimming Board member David Salo suggested the suits “devalued athleticism”.  Multiple Olympic gold medalist Matt Grevers stated “when we roll back, racers are going to hurt a lot more than they hurt currently, which is not something I’m looking forward to.  Mentally, I think everyone’s prepared to go slower”. Michael Phelps, who like many of today’s golfers, operated within the rules of the day even though he took issue with them, was in favor of banning the non-permeable, technologically advanced performance enhancing suits.  Speaking after the regulations were revised, banning the LZR suits from competition, Phelps said of the decision “I like it – I think it’s going to be good.”


The general manager of the United States swim team at that time, Mark Schubert went so far as to suggest all world marks set wearing the technologically advanced suits should be stricken from the record books, because they were artificially aided. “I just don’t think we’ve been good stewards of the sport to allow what’s happened,” he said.  How refreshing to see such perspective from swimmers at the pinnacle of their sport. True custodians, placing their own interests, and financial considerations behind what was best for swimming.


Not all swimmers were of the same mind.  Several sponsored not by Speedo, but by rival swimwear brand TYR took FINA to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) regarding the revised status of their suits.  They lost the appeal, and CAS ruled in favor of swimming’s governing body.


FINA reached the decision to ban the suits from use in competition from the start of the following year.  Equipment that was once legal was determined to be no longer compliant.  The decision was ultimately upheld and respected by athletes and manufacturers, despite some angst from swimmers and swimwear brands alike.


Legislative change in golf has been mooted for years – particularly pertaining to the distance contemporary balls travel.  Many presume the specter of immediate legal action from Titleist and other equipment manufacturers has stalled golf’s governing bodies.  The precedent set in swimming a decade ago should however light the way for the USGA and the R&A, who are the governors of the game, and have either independently or in unison, ruled golf since the late 19th century. Whether or not the professional Tours continue to adopt these rules is not the primary issue.


The USGA’s Mike Davis had dinner with Jack Nicklaus last year, and told Jack “We’re getting there. We’re going to get there. I need your help when we get there.”  The USGA and R&A are due to release their Distance Insights Project Report prior to the end of 2019.  Many within golf are eagerly anticipating the release of this paper, hoping for action on an issue crying out for attention.  Earlier this year, chief executive of the R&A Martin Slumbers stated “the purpose of the Rules is to protect golf’s best traditions, to prevent an over-reliance on technological advances rather than skill, and to ensure that skill is the dominant element of success throughout the game”.  It is dearly hoped the contents of the imminent report reflect this philosophy, and that something meaningful is finally done with respect to the modern golf ball.