The golf industry has shown its division over the issue of how far top players hit the ball with a mixed response to the R&A and USGA report on increased hitting distances and its consequent impact on golf courses.
The American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA) supported the report’s findings, having provided information and data to the project over the past two years.
“We look forward to reviewing with all ASGCA members the complete findings which appear to confirm what members have seen from their work for some time: increased hitting distance can lead to golf course lengthening,” said president Jan Bel Jan. “This cycle may have a negative impact in a number of areas, including economic sustainability of facilities, their environmental footprint, the strategic challenge of playing the course as designed by the golf course architect and the pure fun that comes from playing the game from tees that match a player’s skill level. Just as ASGCA members design courses for all players – not only championship-calibre layouts – we are glad to see the USGA and R&A looking at the entire golfing public.”
The PGA Tour issued an official statement committing to collaborating with the R&A and USGA in further research but emphasised its belief that the current professional game was more exciting than ever, with the skills required remaining “largely unchanged”. This contradicts the governing bodies’ view that increased hitting distances “can begin to undermine” the principle of golf being a game that requires “a broad range of skills”.
“Since 2003, we have been working closely with the USGA and the R&A to closely monitor distance, and this latest report is an expanded and thorough review of the topic, and others, which are all important to the game,” said the PGA. “We believe the game is best served when all are working in a unified way, and we intend to continue to approach this issue in that manner. The PGA Tour is committed to ensuring any future solutions identified benefit the game as a whole without negatively impacting the Tour, its players or our fans’ enjoyment of our sport. At this point, we feel today’s game is more exciting than ever for our fans and the integrity of the competitions are intact.”
The LPGA highlighted the report’s finding that many recreational players of golf struggle with the distance of forward tees and the increased costs of playing as courses have lengthened.
“We do not see distance as a hindrance towards the growth of the LPGA tour or to the courses on which we can compete,” the organisation said in a statement. “However, the data shows there are some aspects of increased distance which are making the game more expensive and more difficult for recreational players, and we see opportunity in exploring ways to remove some of the long-time barriers of the game such as cost, limited teeing ground options, length of courses, time to play, etc. It is important to us that there is a healthy future for golf and that the game can be more affordable and enjoyable for all who play it."
Among professional players, Phil Mickelson was critical of the report, describing the governing bodies as being comprised of “amateurs” who were taking the sport in “questionable directions”. However, he admitted to not being familiar with all the implications of increased hitting distances on the sport.
“I also don't feel that you should punish the athletes for getting better,” he said. “I don't think that we have had massive equipment changes. We have just had athletes that have been able to take advantage of the equipment, more so than in the past. And I hate to see that discouraged. I also don't really understand the whole scope of how it affects the game and how it affects agronomy and golf courses and so forth, so I'm not sure I'm the best one to really comment on it. I just know from the small little bubble of the PGA Tour, I hate seeing the athletes be punished, or discouraged from continuing to work and get better.”
Mickelson’s fellow professional Graeme McDowell disagreed, saying that the current trend was unsustainable.
“When it starts to affect the integrity of some of the greatest courses in the game, where you don’t have a lot of real estate left to make changes, there’s a problem,” McDowell told GolfChannel.com. “If this continues, continues, continues, and we fast forward into the future, it could become silly.”
“We believe we have reached a pivotal moment in golf,” said Martin Slumbers, chief executive of the R&A, on the release of the report. “Our objective as governing bodies is to work with the key stakeholders in golf to address this issue in a way that brings the sport together and which ensures it continues to thrive for many years to come.”
“This is not about the last few years or the next few years but rather about the long-term future of the game,” said Mike Davis, CEO of the USGA. “We believe this problem will continue unless this cycle is brought to an end. With collaboration from the entire golf community, we have an opportunity to stem this tide and help ensure golf remains sustainable and enjoyable for generations to come.”