written by Timothy Pontzer
I’m a huge fan of science fiction. When I was growing up, I would read as much as I could. While I completed many famous novels, I was always intrigued by short stories. Usually up to 20 pages at most, a tale like that would drop the reader in with little to no backstory and immediately dive into a plot, usually showcasing a calamity or situation that often is left with either little or a sudden resolution.
One that always stuck with me was “Harrison Bergeron”, a dystopian tale by Kurt Vonnegut published sixty years ago. Vonnegut is obviously famous for Slaughterhouse-Five and many other acclaimed works, but this short story was one of my favorites. It is 2081 in the United States and the government has mandated that everyone be ‘equal’ in levels of intelligence, beauty, athleticism and other factors. This is regulated via forced ‘handicaps’ such as stronger people wearing weights around their necks, smarter people having loud radios implanted in their head and beautiful people putting on ugly masks.
I recalled this story seeing the results and subsequent decisions of the ‘Distance Insights Report’ from the United States Golf Association and Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews. A year-long project, golf’s two premier governing bodies studied the uptick in driver distance, ball flight and overall improvement seen in the game over the last several seasons. The factor of distance was their primary concern with professionals now routinely driving past 300 yards with ease.
With many pundits loudly complaining that most tournaments have now turned into only a showcase of the driver and wedge, the discussion of possibly limiting the equipment has been raised. In the report, the USGA and R&A specifically state:
“We will also evaluate the potential use of a local rule option to specify use of a defined subset of conforming clubs and/or balls intended to result in shorter hitting distances and/or an enhancement in the balance between distance and other skills.”
This week, they announced proposed changes including a limit on the maximum length of a driver from 48 inches to 46 as well as significant changes to how drivers and golf balls will be tested for distance. Bryson DeChambeau made headlines last year when he experimented with a 48-inch driver to try and achieve more distance off the tee. In 2020, he led the PGA with an average drive of 323 yards and hit drives of over 400 over 20 times in competition. For comparison, Dan Pohl led the PGA in 1980 with an average distance of 274.3 yards. In 1991, John Daly led with 288.9 and also in 2001 with 306.7. Ten years ago? That was J.B. Holmes with 318.4.
“The research clearly shows that hitting distances have consistently increased through time, and if left unchecked, could threaten the long-term future of our game at every level and every golf course on which it is played,” said Mike Davis, chief executive officer of the USGA. “This is the first forward step in a journey and a responsibility the USGA and the R&A share with the worldwide golf community, to ensure that golf continues to thrive for the next hundred years and beyond.”
Yesterday, four-time major champion Rory McIlroy came out swinging at those comments and the report.
“I feel like the R&A and USGA are looking at golf through a tiny, narrow little lens that pertains to 0.1% of golfers. Yes, of course the ball goes a long way with top level professionals. But, 99.9% of golfers don’t do that,” McIlory said. “They don’t want the ball to go shorter. They need help for the ball to go in the air! Golf has had an unbelievable boom in 2020. This pandemic has been so good for golf. They’re looking at the wrong thing. They spent millions of dollars doing this Distance Insights Report. It’s not going to change the game of golf. They might put new regulations on manufacturers, but manufacturers are going to find ways around them, that’s just how good they are. Those millions of dollars should’ve been put back into the grassroots of the game. Because golf is experiencing a boom, we need more younger people in the game. We need more minorities in the game. That’s how we keep the game going for the next 100 years. Not by looking at the ball or looking at the driver.”
“I’m probably going to get in trouble for saying this, but it reeks of self-importance,” McIlroy continued. “Their job is to make sure the game thrives for the next 100 years and this is not the way to do it. If you’re just piling rules on the whole time that isn’t good for the game.”
I agree wholeheartedly with Rory. This idea of ‘bifurcation’ in golf (essentially having two different sets of clubs, balls, etc. for pros vs. average golfers) is completely misguided to me. I would never want Tyreek Hill to be forced to wear different cleats because of how he zooms around the gridiron. I don’t want to see Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid have to use a different stick because of how well they can deke around defenders. That’s the point of the professional game! To see the very best do their very best on the highest of stages.
Sure, distance has grown in the game and teeboxes are continuously moved back at courses around the globe. But by limiting golfers of their full potential, we as viewers and fans are robbed of seeing just how good someone can be. Sure, a ‘handicap’ is commonplace in the game, but I would never want to see Vonnegut’s version ruin the literal and overall trajectory seen in golf.
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