This year, 2022, will be the most important in the history of golf equipment in decades, if not centuries.
A storm that has been developing offshore for two years is about to make landfall, but unlike hurricanes that meteorologists can see and predict, we have no idea how big this storm will be or where it will strike. All we know is that it will happen.
The storm, of course, is the announcement of what the USGA and the R&A plan to do together to address the “unsustainable trend of growing distance,” as they put it. After completing research studies and studying trends, the game’s regulatory organizations announced last year that they believed the trend of increasing distance and lengthening courses needed to be halted. Golf would become unsustainable in the future due to the environmental and financial effects of distance, and if this is to be avoided, measures must be made today.
In February, you can expect announcements. When it’s time for someone else to shine, there’s an unspoken rule among golf’s dominating organizations: don’t make announcements or news. The PGA of America hosts the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando in late January. In March, the Players Championship will be held on the PGA Tour. The Masters in April, the PGA Championship in May, the US Open and US Women’s Open in June, and the British Open in July kick off the major season. The USGA and R&A do not want to make their announcement until after the FedEx Cup Playoffs and the Presidents Cup, so February is the most reasonable time.
The USGA and R&A’s first step to reign in distance, introducing a Model Local Rule to limit the length of clubs (apart from putters) to 46 inches or fewer, was met with little a passing notice, except from some concerns from Phil Mickelson. The rule was created for elite golfers alone, according to the USGA and R&A, and should not be in force for weekend games among amateur players. Because few professionals use a driver longer than 46 inches, shutting down that potential speed boost did not effect many people.
My intuition tells me that the following step will take one of two directions:
Model Local Rules are being developed in order to reduce distance at the elite level.
For years, the USGA and R&A have been adamant in their refusal to consider bifurcating the Rules of Golf and adopting separate rules for professionals and amateurs. “One of the things that makes golf great is that we all play by the same rules, and that shouldn’t change,” men and women in blue blazers on both sides of the Atlantic have remarked.
Most clubs, and nearly all club players, would be impacted by the adoption of Model Local Rules, which would circumvent that position with semantics.
Requiring Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Lexi Thompson, and Jessica Korda to use distance-reducing clubs and balls would remove the incentive for course designers to create longer courses, keeping historically significant courses like Merion Golf Club (host of the 2030 US Open), Los Angeles Country Club (2023 US Open), and Colonial Country Club viable for decades to come.
However, two things are required to make this option a reality.
The PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, DP World Tour, and other professional tours would have to implement the Model Local Rules at all of their events. Remember that the commissioners of those tours are accountable to the players, so if the majority of the pros (especially the stars) don’t want this to happen, individuals like Jay Manahan and Mollie Marcoux will have to choose between keeping the players happy and agreeing to the USGA and R&A’s demands. They’re following the Model Local Rule on club length, which was released in October. It will be more difficult to sell this one.
The second step would be for companies like TaylorMade, Titleist, Ping, and Callaway to agree to produce distance-reducing equipment, which will cost the company money and never be sold at retail. Why would a club player desire a driver with a slower face or a ball that doesn’t go as far as a ball with a faster face? Equipment manufacturers, understandably, would be unhappy with these additional charges, and they may sue the USGA and R&A over them.
Roll the ball backwards.
Although this concept is popular among many traditionalists, it is rarely defined explicitly. What exactly do people mean when they say “roll back the ball”?
The regulations governing the size and weight of a golf ball are well-defined, but changing the laws governing the size, weight, or aerodynamic qualities of golf balls could be the most straightforward approach to lower distance across the board.
In theory, the faster a player swings, the greater the impact on shots if balls are made less efficient or more spinny, hence pro players may be more affected than club players. Will you be content if your 200-yard drive only goes 190 yards if you’re a recreational golfer? Is golf more enjoyable if balls get more spinny, causing pros to lose distance yet magnifying your slice?
This narrative has the potential to change the game, but nothing will change in 2022, regardless of what is announced or not. The storm is approaching, but the USGA and R&A will provide plenty time for everyone to prepare. The driver you buy this month, or the golf balls you buy next month, will comply for years. Golfers will look back on 2022 in a few decades and say it was the year when the big one struck.
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