The United States Golf Association acknowledged Wednesday that it had heard fierce 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 for the next several years.
The association and the R&A, a governing body based in Britain, had proposed a rule in March that they estimated could trim top golfers’ tee shots by an average of about 15 yards. Framed as an attempt to preserve the sport and the relevance of many of its finest courses, the proposal provoked a backlash among hard-driving pros, who routinely hit tee shots at distances almost unthinkable just a few decades ago, and equipment manufacturers , who enjoy selling weekend money, the same balls the stars hit at events like this week’s US Open.
“Our intention is pure; it’s not malicious,” Fred Perpall, USGA president, said at a news conference at Los Angeles Country Club, where the Open begins Thursday. “We’re not trying to do anything to hurt anybody. We’re thinking about all the good that this great game has given us and we’re thinking about what’s our responsibility to make sure this game is still strong and healthy if 50 years for our children’s children.”
The debate over distance in golf has played out for years, with managers increasingly chagrined by stopgap solutions, such as redesigning holes to accommodate the game’s most potent hitters. Some of the sport’s retired greats, including Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, have pushed the authors of the Rules of Golf to take direct and urgent action.
“Not everyone has the opportunity to 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 on. We used to have in this country probably a couple of thousand golf courses that could be tournament golf courses. Today we have maybe 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 is nearly 298 yards. About 91 players — an increase of nearly 10 percent since the USGA and R&A released their proposals — exceed 300 yards on average.
Under the plan, balls traveling more than 317 yards when hit at 127 miles per hour would generally be banned.
The USGA and R&A are gathering feedback on their proposal, which won’t take effect until at least 2026 and would be classified as a model local rule, allowing individual tours and events to adopt it. The USGA and R&A would almost certainly introduce the rule at the events they control, including the US Open and British Open, two of the four men’s major championships.
But other golf brokers, including the PGA Tour, have not embraced the plan, and many of the game’s biggest stars have openly resisted the idea of deliberately limiting the distance.
Even those who have been receptive to the prospect of making balls seem a little less like long-range missiles have urged golf’s leaders to have a uniform standard throughout the game, with no distinctions for top 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 US Open. “I don’t think that would work.”
Tour players recently met privately in Ohio with USGA 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.
“It seems like golf is a good place and to do anything that could potentially hurt would be foolish,” Cantlay said.
Mike Whan, the USGA’s executive director, said Wednesday he was sensitive to the concerns bubbling up from players and suggested the governing bodies could adjust their proposals in the coming months. But he emphasized that the USGA is also concerned about the millions of golfers who are not professionals, and neither he nor Perpall hinted at plans for a wholesale surrender.
“If you’re going to make major decisions about governance that you think will help the game be stronger in 20 and 40 years, you can’t expect everyone to like those decisions, and that’s part of governance,” Whan said. “You have to decide whether you can stand up for what you think is the game in the 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 when one of golf’s most influential figures, Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour commissioner, was absent from the US Open course. The tour revealed late Tuesday that he was “recovering from a medical situation” and that two other executives, Ron Price and Tyler Dennis, had assumed day-to-day oversight of the circuit’s operations indefinitely.
The announcement that Monahan had stepped down followed seven days of turmoil in professional golf. Last Tuesday, the tour announced it planned to partner with Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the force behind the LIV Golf league that brought the sport to life, after months of portraying Saudi money as tainted. Monahan, who helped negotiate the deal, was criticized as a money-hungry hypocrite, but at least he has retained some crucial allies on the tour.
“Jay is a human being,” Webb Simpson, the 2012 US Open winner and a member of the tour’s board of directors, said in an interview Wednesday. “Golf is a game and often we make golf into something that is 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 original statement. The tour has declined to elaborate or provide an expected timeline for Monahan’s return.
Price and Dennis said in a statement that their priority was “to support our players and continue the ongoing work to further lead the PGA Tour and the future of golf.”
In its own statement on Wednesday, the wealth fund committed to working closely with PGA management and the Board of Directors 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 .”