Pros Won’t Be Hitting Golf Balls This Far Forever, Whether They Like It or Not

Pros Won’t Be Hitting Golf Balls This Far Forever, Whether They Like It or Not

The United States Golf Association acknowledged Wednesday that it had heard ferocious opposition to its proposal for professional players to use balls that travel shorter distances — but it also signaled no interest in abandoning its ambitions to rein in equipment in the next several years.

The association and the R&A, a governing body based in Britain, had in March proposed a rule that they estimated could trim top golfers’ tee shots by an average of about 15 yards. Framed as an effort to preserve the sport and the relevance of many of its finest courses, the proposal provoked a backlash among hard-driving professionals, who are routinely hitting tee shots at distances that were all but unimaginable only a few decades ago, and equipment manufacturers, who relish selling weekend duffers the same balls the stars strike at events like this week’s U.S. Open.

“Our intent is pure; it’s not malicious,” Fred Perpall, the U.S.G.A.’s president, said at a news conference at the Los Angeles Country Club, where the Open will begin on Thursday. “We’re not trying to do something to damage anyone. We’re thinking about all the good that this good game has given us, and we’re thinking about what is our responsibility to make sure that this game is still strong and healthy 50 years from now for our children’s children.”

The debate about distance in golf has played out for years, with executives increasingly irritated with stopgap fixes, like redesigning holes to accommodate the game’s most potent hitters. Some of the sport’s retired greats, including Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, have pressed golf’s rule book writers to take blunt and urgent action.

“Not everybody’s got the ability to go buy the golf course next door, like you do at Augusta,” Nicklaus said in an interview with The New York Times at the Masters Tournament in April. “You can’t just keep buying land and adding. We used to have in this country probably a couple of thousand golf courses that could be tournament golf courses. Today, we maybe have 100.”

In the 2003 season, PGA Tour players recorded an average driving distance of about 286 yards, with nine golfers, including Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and John Daly, typically hitting at least 300 yards off the tee. So far this season, the tour’s average driving distance stands at nearly 298 yards. Some 91 players — up nearly 10 percent since the U.S.G.A. and the R&A released their proposal — exceed 300 yards on average.

Under the plan, balls that travel more than 317 yards when struck at 127 miles per hour would generally be banned.

The U.S.G.A. and the R&A are gathering feedback about their proposal, which would not take effect until at least 2026 and would be classified as a model local rule, empowering individual tours and events to adopt it. The U.S.G.A. and the R&A would almost certainly impose the rule at the events they control, including the U.S. Open and the British Open, two of the four men’s major championships.

But other golf power brokers, including the PGA Tour, have not embraced the plan, and many of the game’s biggest stars have openly resisted the thought of deliberately curbing distance.

Even those who have been receptive to the prospect of making balls seem a little less like long-distance missiles have urged golf’s leaders to have a consistent standard throughout the game, without differences for top-tier professionals.

“I just don’t think you should have a ball for the pros that might be used some tournaments, might not be used some tournaments, then amateurs can buy different golf balls,” said Matt Fitzpatrick, who won last year’s U.S. Open. “I don’t think that would work.”

Tour players recently met privately in Ohio with U.S.G.A. officials and manufacturers to discuss the proposal, and Patrick Cantlay, who is No. 4 in the Official World Golf Ranking, said this week that “tensions were high” in those sessions.

“Seems like golf is in a good spot, and doing anything that could potentially harm that would be foolish,” Cantlay said.

Mike Whan, the U.S.G.A.’s chief executive, said Wednesday that he was sensitive to the concerns bubbling up from players and suggested that the governing bodies could tweak their proposals in the months ahead. But he emphasized that the U.S.G.A. is also concerned about the millions of golfers who are not professionals and neither he nor Perpall indicated plans for a wholesale surrender.

“If you’re going to take on significant governance decisions that you think are going to help the game be stronger in 20 and 40 years, you can’t expect everybody to like those decisions, and that’s part of governance,” Whan said. “You have to decide whether or not you can stand up for what you think is the game long-term, knowing that maybe 20 percent or 30 percent or 50 percent like it and the others don’t. But I think the feedback process is important and it makes us better. Even when we don’t like the feedback we get, it makes us better.”

Whan and Perpall’s impassioned defense unfolded as one of golf’s most influential figures, Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour commissioner, was absent from the U.S. Open course. The tour disclosed late Tuesday that he was “recuperating from a medical situation” and that two other executives, Ron Price and Tyler Dennis, had indefinitely assumed day-to-day oversight of the circuit’s operations.

The announcement that Monahan had stepped back followed seven days of turmoil in professional golf. Last Tuesday, the tour announced that it planned to partner with Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the force behind the LIV Golf league that upended the sport, after months of depicting Saudi money as tainted. Monahan, who helped to negotiate the deal, was criticized as a cash-hungry hypocrite, but he has retained at least some crucial allies inside the tour.

“Jay is a human being,” Webb Simpson, the 2012 U.S. Open winner and a member of the tour’s board, said in an interview on Wednesday. “Golf is a game, and oftentimes, we make golf into something so much bigger than it is and we dehumanize people.” Perhaps, he said, Tuesday’s announcement would give “people a little perspective.”

But Simpson said he knew nothing about Monahan’s status beyond the tour’s initial statement. The tour has declined to elaborate on it or to give a projected timeline for Monahan’s return.

Price and Dennis said in a statement that their priority was “to support our players and continue the work underway to further lead the PGA Tour and golf’s future.”

In its own statement on Wednesday, the wealth fund “committed to working closely with the PGA leadership and board to advance our previously announced transaction to invest significantly in the growth of golf for the benefit of players, fans and the expansion of the game around the world.”

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