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I couldn’t help myself.
I just had to ask the question because nobody had ever really given me a firm answer, on or off the record.
“Will bifurcation ever happen?”
There, I said it.
The person I was talking to was a high-ranking employee of a major golf brand, which will go unnamed for now.
“No, it will never happen,” was the reply. I remember at the time being somewhat convinced he was right. The prospect of amateur golfers being forced to play different equipment to that of tour players? It seemed ridiculous that we would ever reach that point.
That was five years ago. Now, it appears we are three years away from the impossible finally happening.
Yesterday, the R&A and USGA announced plans for a golf ball rollback. They intend to introduce a Model Local Rule (MLR) that will see tour players forced into playing a ball that will – we are told – reduce driving distance by up to 15 yards. But not everyone is buying it.
Outspoken US analyst Brandel Chamblee has said there is “no convincing evidence” to suggest we need a rollback.
David Maher, the president and CEO of Acushnet Company, which makes the Titleist Pro V1, said the decision would see players going back to using golf balls from the 1990s.
Bryson DeChambeau, golf’s poster boy for big hitting, called the plans “atrocious”.
A multitude of personalities, journalists, YouTubers and gear nuts seem utterly perplexed that we are staring at a ‘rolled back’ version of the game at a time when golf is absolutely thriving.
It appears the powers-that-be – the USGA and R&A – have had enough of ‘bomb and gouge’ golf.
“I think that there is a multitude of variables around how the game is played and how it’s performed, to which course set-up is one of them,” said Martin Slumbers, chief executive of the R&A. “But I do think it’s a bit of a red herring here. Course set-up… you need to maintain the integrity of the golf course and the way it’s being played. What has happened here over 20, 30 years is, in my opinion, the balance of skill and technology has got a little bit out of key for the very, very skilled players.”
The “way it is being played”.
He means bomb and gouge. They do not like guys hitting driver/wedge into par-4s because that’s ‘not how par-4s are meant to be played’.
Herein lies the problem.
Golf hasn’t ‘moved with the times’ because it is a traditional sport that’s been dragged into the modern world and is now played by modern athletes. Take the improvements in technology from the last 20 years and then throw in better agronomy, much faster fairways, shorter grass, better grass, and a focus on strength and conditioning and you have a melting pot of conditions that, when coalesced, mean that golf isn’t translating well from era to era.
Tennis had to change its ball when it became a largely power-based game. In 1984, authorities had to make the javelin more blunt and less aerodynamic because there was a real danger of certain athletes throwing their javelins into the crowd at the other end of the stadium. The current world record for the javelin throw, set in 1996, still stands.
But nobody buys javelins so nobody really cared. Eyelids were not batted.
Not so for golf and its many stakeholders.
Callaway invested $50m in a golf ball facility a few years ago and has since made wholesale changes to its product line-up with massive success. Now, Callaway boss Chip Brewer will have to instruct his R&D team to not only push forward with innovation – but also find a way to go backwards with a sort of reverse innovation R&D strategy.
Will Callaway sell their new ‘tour’ ball to the mass market? Nobody knows. Yet plans are in place to introduce this new MLR ball in three years on tour, where the brand uses players to help shift gear to wide-eyed amateurs.
And if you think Callaway are angry, spare a thought for Titleist. Nobody sells more golf balls than they do. The Pro V1 has been the No.1 ball in golf since March 2001. The biggest ball manufacturer in the game is going to have to reverse engineer its flagship product.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Part of the blame for all this lies with Bryson DeChambeau.
Late in 2019, he said he was going to return after the off-season “looking like a different person”. In the summer of 2020, he told Men’s Health: “I’m going to keep working out every day and keep getting stronger and keep speed training as long as I can tolerate it. I really don’t know how fast I can go. I’m going to keep pushing the boundaries.”
Boundaries being pushed scares the USGA and R&A but more so those who own and operate historic golf courses, such as Augusta National.
Six months after Bryson’s ‘boundaries’ comments, Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley, pictured below, spoke about protecting Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie’s design, effectively putting pressure on the authorities to get the distance issue under control.
“I know there’s been some talk in the past of possibly a Masters golf ball or something like that,” Ridley said. “I would think that would be highly unlikely and would, in my view, be an absolute last resort.”
Perhaps the last resort is the MLR ball.
Augusta National, so far, has said nothing about the proposals.
The PGA of America has said it’s not in favour of bifurcation and will adopt a ‘wait and see’ policy.
The PGA Tour wants to do its own research. It has the biggest data bank in golf history, so it’s hard to blame them.
LIV, the new Saudi-backed tour, has said nothing. Reminder: it paid Bryson a reported $100m to help front its new tour and he’s no fan of the proposals either.
The USGA and the R&A have said the Model Local Rule will be adopted in their marquee events. So, the Open and US Open. The joint press release stated ‘elite’ events, but it is unclear as to how far down the pyramid that goes.
One thing we do know is that it will only be adopted for men’s and boys’ golf. The women’s game is not impacted by these proposals.
The big question is this: will all this upheaval be worth it in the long run? According to Slumbers, that’s a massive ‘yes’, because none of this is about now.
“We’re not so much trying to solve a problem today,” he said. “We’re trying to solve where we believe it’s going.”
Looking to the past to protect the future.
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