USGA and ShotLink

Long post. My apologies. Here goes.

In the October newsletter essay telling USGA members how change has always been a positive part of golf (and how they are going to put an end to it), the USGA Communications Committee seems to have chosen the words of PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem very carefully to back up their point.

The newsletter story touts the PGA Tour's ShotLink, which the USGA has refused to use at the U.S. Open for unknown reasons (even as it proclaims to be collecting as much data as possible).

So, from the original press conference where Finchem was asked about the distance issue, with the newsletter's lifted comments from Finchem in bold below, here goes:

Q. I got a little bit lost on the ball. I wonder if you could very simply explain what might have to happen hypothetically for you to consider working with the USGA in scaling it back or deadening it or whatever the word is that you used?

COMMISSIONER TIM FINCHEM: Well, we are working with the USGA and the R & A and the other golf organizations. I think the change in the industry the last ten years has been -- in all of these kinds of areas, that's much more discussion, much more interrelationship between the various entities about these kinds of issues. I don't think there's a particular litmus test. I think with ShotLink -- the interesting thing about ShotLink is we created ShotLink really to help the television and to help with the Internet in communicating what's happening, and we found that an equally vital role of ShotLink is the ability to use it as a tool if you're changing a golf course or evaluating the competition.

So what do we measure? We measure public opinion and attitude. Golf course owners and organizations are looking at it, as we are, from a competitive challenge standpoint, shot values, how the golf course was designed versus how maybe it's being played now, given where the golf ball is going and what it does and how equipment performs, plus how the athleticism of the players. So all those things combine to create some questions; are you comfortable with the way the golf course is playing, is the fan as excited about the golf course playing this way versus some other way, what things would you have to do to the golf course to get it to a point where you are comfortable, and do you really want to do that.

Obviously when the changes were made at Augusta National, there were a lot of people in the mix, and certainly a number of players, who felt like there had been a movement away from the traditional way that golf course had been played, and when you have to move away from tradition, at least at this point, it troubles people. I think you take all those things into consideration and ask yourself do we need to make a change, and that will be a conversation that goes on every year among a variety of different parties. There is no litmus test.

Notice the comments left out about the impact on golf courses and owners. The entire essay in the newsletter pays no attention to the possible notion that a burden has possibly been placed on golf courses to change for no good reason other than to allow the USGA and R&A to escape scrutiny and possible criticism. Instead, they wheel out the creation of Merion and Woodhall Spa in response to the Haskell ball to prove change has always been good (but they are drawing the line now...).

Here's the rest. Again, newsletter quotes in bold, the rest was left out.

Q. I think I get the gist of what you're saying, but I wonder if it's a combination. When it comes to how the course is being played, when Augusta made the changes one thing that was brought up wasn't so much how low the scores were but guys hitting driver, wedge, driver, 9-iron. Is that what you're speaking about when it comes to the ball is how the course is being played, or is that a combination of what the scores are?

COMMISSIONER TIM FINCHEM: A combination. Let me just give you one example and maybe this will put you in perspective. At 16th hole at the Players Championship, reachable par 5, on occasion there's been discussion that we should lengthen that hole, the reason being the ball is going farther, and my response has always been, yeah, but how many players are trying to reach the green in 2, how many players are successfully reaching the green in 2,what does the fan see, what's happened five years ago, what's happening today, has it really changed, is the fan less interested, is the player less challenged, more challenged? Those are questions that are more difficult to answer until ShotLink. ShotLink tells us a lot of those answers.

Now, let's say that at the 16th we concluded that instead of 50 percent of the field trying to reach the green, which is roughly the case now, and 50 percent of those being successful, that 96 percent of the players were trying to reach the green and 90 percent of those were successful. Well, you might want to bring the tee back to a point where you've got numbers that you used to have arguably if that's what you wanted to do. I'm just giving you a real example for a hypothetical question. Let's say you couldn't take the tee back, that there was no room to take the tee back. We have a little bit of room there. We could take the tee back. On another golf course you may not have that option.

So the shot values have changed over the years. You're not comfortable but you're -- those are some of the constraints that some of the older golf courses that we have on the TOUR are facing as they do those kind of evaluations.

One of the things ShotLink does is it provides them the too,however, to really know whether it's their gut that tells them something has changed or whether something has really changed, and hopefully we can come behind that and do some reasonably big research in terms of what kinds of people in this room think as well as the fans generally. I think that we can't wait around until we know we have a problem and get ahead of it a little bit because sometimes in sports if you wait too long, catching up is tougher. That's why we've been more aggressive in this area, but we're not making any assumptions that X needs to happen, either. We're just saying let's get all on the same playing field, get out there and evaluate what's happening as things develop and as these players continue to come to the scene with more athleticism, as they will.]]

Again, this raises the question, why is the USGA not interested in ShotLink for its own championship, yet praises it as part of their research program? Does this undermine the research?

ShotLink provides amazing information, particularly if you want to analyze the impact of today's play on architecture and what exactly is going on during a tournament. What better place to analyze play than at the majors?

The other reason I subjected you to all of Finchem's comments: he gives his annual state of the Tour press conference at East Lake in a couple of weeks. Hopefully it won't be all "Drive to a Billion" and 2007 schedule questions.