Farmers Insurance Open - Final Round
Farmers Insurance Open - Final Round

The glaring issue threatening ‘golf’s long-term future’

GOLF'S governing bodies will conduct a review into equipment after declaring that "any further significant increases in hitting distances at the highest level are undesirable".

The R&A and USGA have revealed their latest findings in their Distance Insights Project, which raise concerns over the continued increases in the average hitting distances on the European and PGA Tours.

The report acknowledges that the average driving distance from both main Tours combined has increased by a rate of one yard per year since 2013, with the 20 longest hitters in 2019 averaging 310 yards with a driver.

Improved athleticism of the world's best players and course conditioning are also among the contributing factors to the increases, but the R&A and USGA have vowed to investigate how they can combat the trend they have described as "detrimental to golf's long-term future".

The ruling bodies have instructed their Equipment Standards teams and committees to conduct a "broad review" of golf club and ball specifications, an undertaking which will undoubtedly have a significant impact on the equipment manufacturing industry.

There have been repeated calls for the sport's authorities to address the distance issue, with Jack Nicklaus warning of the need to "change the golf ball" rather than continue to lengthen golf course - specifically referencing the possibility of adding distance to the classic par-five 13th hole at Augusta National.

Golf's governing bodies are set to examine the equipment used.
Golf's governing bodies are set to examine the equipment used.
Ahead of the Masters in 2016, Nicklaus said: "With the length the guys hit today, the simplest solution is change the frigging golf ball! The golf ball goes so far, and Augusta National is about the only golf course in the world that, financially, can afford to make the changes that they have to make to keep up with the golf ball."

The Distance Insights Project Report published jointly by the R&A and USGA, states: "The research shows that hitting distances and the lengths of golf courses have been increasing for more than 100 years. We believe that this continuing cycle of increases is undesirable and detrimental to golf's long-term future.

"The inherent strategic challenge presented by many golf courses can be compromised, especially when those courses have not or cannot become long enough to keep up with increases in the hitting distances of the golfers who play from their longest tees.

"Increased hitting distance can lead to a reduction in the variety, length and creativity of shot types needed on such courses and to holes more often being overpowered by distance, as well as to an increased emphasis on the importance of distance at the expense of accuracy and other skills.

"This can begin to undermine the core principle that the challenge of golf is about using a broad range of skills and making risk/reward judgments during a round.

Rory McIlroy is one of the game's biggest hitters. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)
Rory McIlroy is one of the game's biggest hitters. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

"The result is also that an increasing number of such courses, both widely renowned and less well-known, are at risk of becoming less challenging or ultimately obsolete for those who play from their longest tees - a serious loss for the game.

"The overall trend of golf courses becoming longer has its own adverse consequences that ultimately affect golfers at all levels and the game as a whole. Expanding existing courses and building longer new ones often requires significant capital investment and higher annual operating costs.

"Overall, the trend towards longer courses puts golf at odds with the growing societal concerns about the use of water, chemicals and other resources, the pressures for development restrictions and alternative land use, and the need to mitigate the long-term effects of a changing climate and natural environment.

"In our view, these continuing trends have also helped create an unnecessary degree of emphasis on distance, with a seeming expectation that each new generation of golfers will hit a golf ball farther than before."

The report goes on to detail the intended plan of action, with "the main topic for research and assessment to be potential changes in the Equipment Rules", with the impact higher for the professional game and less significant at club level.

"We will assess the potential use of a Local Rule option that would specify use of clubs and/or balls intended to result in shorter hitting distances. The concept is that equipment meeting a particular set of reduced-distance specifications - for example, a ball that does not travel as far or a club that will not hit a ball as far.

"Such a Local Rule option could be available for use at all levels of play, and golfers playing outside of a competition could also have the option to make this choice for themselves.

"We will also review the overall conformance specifications for both clubs and balls, including specifications that both directly and indirectly affect hitting distances. The intended purpose of this review is to consider whether any existing specifications should be adjusted or any new specifications should be created to help mitigate the continuing distance increases."