In the coming months I'm going to start rolling out "Eye On Design" videos focusing on various design elements in golf that either interest me or need to be reconsidered. While it's not sexy to kick off with the "variable distance" ball topic, we might as well try to wrap our heads around what I anticipate will be a lively debate centered around golf course design.
To set this complicated topic up, here are my thoughts presented in digital video form. I flesh a few more thoughts out to (hopefully) better inform your votes...
For us technophobic, distance RIPer's, things have come a long way over the last decade. Just look at your reaction to the WGC Dell Match Play last week where we saw epic driving distances on fairways playing at a nice, normal firmness.
A consensus of serious golfers see that distance increases for elite players have altered the brilliance and safety of our best-designed courses. This combination of improved technology, blatant outsmarting by manufacturers and a host of other elements like Trackman and instruction, have forced the governing bodies to defend expensive and offensive alterations to works of art.
No other sport pats itself on the back more than golf for upholding its traditions and integrity. Yet no the other sport has sold its soul to protect a relationship between participation and the equipment professionals play. A relationship, which I might add, will continue even after a bifurcation of the rules.
Fast forward 22 years and the amazing synergy of athleticism, fitting, instruction and technology has produced super-human driving distances for decent golfers on up to the best. No other sport on the planet has tolerated such a dramatic change in short time, so should we see 10% taken off the modern driving distance average of an elite golfer--at certain courses and events--the sky will not fall. The players who use such a ball would restore the strategy and intrigue of most golf courses built before 1995. (That was the year, not coincidentally, when things started to change.)
Several solutions that do not fundamentally alter the sport have been offered endlessly. They've also been resisted even as the game has not grown during a technology boom that has seen golfers offered the best made and engineered equipment in the game's history. Solutions such as reducing the size of the driver head for professionals and tournament-specific golf balls have not been welcomed or even tried.
The growing sense that a first step solution is on the way arrived when the USGA’s Mike Davis suggested at the recent Innovation Symposium that a “variable distance” ball could be an alternative for select courses and select social situations.
From Mike Stachura’s Golf World report, quoting Davis:
“We don’t foresee any need to do a mandatory rollback of distance. We just don’t see it. But that’s different than saying if somebody comes to us and says I want an experience that doesn’t take as long or use as much land, can we allow for equipment to do that?”
As we know, the proposed rules of golf re-write emphasizes speeding up the game and everyone knows adding new back tees has never helped on this front. For the first time, elite golfers are suggesting they see the correlation between distance and new tees, but are also tired of walking back to such tees on golf courses where the flow of the round is fundamentally altered.
Beyond the pace and silliness of it all, all indications suggest the USGA and R&A have also developed ways for the handicap system to address a variable distance ball that could be used in select circumstances.
Perhaps it's a club championship and is employed in lieu of extra rough or greens Stimping 13 feet. Or it's an invitational tournament played from tees other than the back. Or maybe there are golf courses experiencing pace of safety issues that will require golfers use such a ball?
On the social side, I expect the case to be made for golfers of different levels playing the same tees thanks to the variable distance ball, Since Davis’s remarks, I have been surprised how many golfers have told me this would make their Saturday foursomes a more cohesive affair, with everyone playing the same tees and the short hitters not frightened by getting fewer shots from a scratch golfer using a shorter flying ball.
Most of all, such a ball on certain courses would return certain skills (hitting a long iron approach?) and end decades of pretending golf does not have an integrity problem.
I point all of this out because Davis’s remarks were no accident. Whether anyone likes it or not, this ball is coming. The variable ball will not be forced, just another way to play the game. The British ball did not break the sport and neither will this option. Because that's all it is, an option. Given that The Masters arrives next week featuring long fairway grain mown toward the tee to prevent roll, I believe the variable distance ball will again be on the minds of all watching.
With that in mind, your votes, please!