The first two weeks of PGA Tour tournament activity in March created a dilemma for the governing bodies of golf taking a hard look at reigning in modern distance off the tee.
Those who advocate rolling back the golf ball or shrinking driver heads to address a perceived problem in the men’s professional game likely watched in horror as Bryson DeChambeau tried to drive the sixth green at Bay Hill during the Arnold Palmer Invitational. And they likely were unamused when DeChambeau hit driver and 9-iron into the shortish par-5 16th hole of the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, during the first round of the Players Championship.
This, they likely thought, is exactly what is wrong with the game. And it must be fixed, quickly.
But those relatively small numbers of spectators on the ground at these two events were enthralled. And judging by social media posts – the modern-day equivalent of the office water cooler – golf fans of all ages were amazed by DeChambeau’s performances.
The TV ratings also suggest that fans at home love it as well. NBC enjoyed the largest final-round viewing audience for the API in three years. And the network averaged 4.6 million viewers for the final round of the Players the following week, marking the best PGA Tour final round since the 2018 Tour Championship, which Tiger Woods won.
No doubt that DeChambeau water-cooler chatter fueled some of the viewing growth.
Yes, DeChambeau is hitting it farther than anyone has ever seen. He is consistently longer than Tiger Woods or John Daly ever were. He leads the PGA Tour so far this year with an average of 323.5 yards, almost 4 yards longer than Rory McIlroy. At the Players, paired with long-hitting Dustin Johnson (who is ranked fifth so far this year at 314.9 yards) in the first two rounds, let’s just say that Johnson usually hit first from the fairway when they both hit drivers.
And yet – and this is key – DeChambeau shot 11-under par to win at Bay Hill. His prodigious length did not result in some mind-blowing low score. Those opposed to a rollback ask, if he averaged less than four strokes under par for four rounds, where is the harm to the game?
Look at some of the early-season winners on the PGA Tour: Max Homa, Collin Morikawa, and Daniel Berger, for example. What they have in common besides a 2021 win is this: They won’t be labeled as bombers. There is more to tour success than distance off the tee.
Where the rollback advocates see a problem, most regular golfers see fun and excitement. Let’s face it: We watch pro golf on television and in person to see highly skilled athletes do things we can only dream of doing. This includes not just herculean drives, but unimaginable rescue shots from deep rough and chip shots onto lightning-fast, undulating greens that roll up next to the hole. We watch, we attempt to learn, and we admire and applaud.
Golf fans of all ages are amazed by Bryson DeChambeau’s performances.
Former tour bagman-turned TV analyst Jim “Bones” Mackay spoke for many of us when he said on Friday of the Players, after walking with DeChambeau, “what a joy he is to watch.”
But some of the contemplated equipment changes threaten to restrict one of those elements that generates that joy – the hard-to-imagine distance that DeChambeau and McIlroy and their lodge brothers can reach.
Golf is in a Notice and Comment period about rules changes proposed by the USGA and the R&A, and this comes on the heels of an unprecedented massive surge in participation around the world in 2020, thanks to the pandemic. These proposed changes come just ahead of the unveiling of a new American initiative, led by the PGA of America, the LPGA, the USGA and the PGA Tour to retain those who came to the game for the first time in 2020 and those who returned to the game after taking a hiatus.
Golf, globally, is in a very good place currently. Nothing is broken, little needs fixing.
The rulesmakers need to consider this notion expressed in the American Declaration of Independence: to govern with the consent of the governed. In tweaking the rules to make the pro game less joyful to watch, rulesmakers risk creating a schism between the golfing public and the governing bodies.
Such a situation presents a slippery slope. If the pro game is less fun to watch or attend, there are serious ramifications for the PGA Tour, its players, sponsors and charities. And if the governing bodies become alienated from the general golfing public for taking some of the fun out of the game, the general golf populace may ignore them. If that happens, how long before non-conforming equipment becomes acceptable? How about 16 clubs or mid-round mulligans?
It is, as I said at the top, a dilemma for those responsible for addressing the distance issue. There is risk. And that risk factor needs to be considered in the deliberations to come on the issue of modern distance.