USGA, R&A propose equipment standards changes that could include different rules for elite players

For the first time, golf’s governing bodies appear poised to allow for significant rules differences between elite players and other golfers as a way to combat the distance gains the sport has seen with the advancement of technology.

Known as “bifurcation,” it would mean the professional tours and elite amateur competitions could require competitors to use equipment that is restricted while allowing everyday players the benefits that those technological gains bring them.

The United States Golf Association and the R&A jointly announced Tuesday that they are proposing equipment standards changes, including a potential local rule for club and ball specifications. They are also proposing changes to club length.

A year ago, the USGA and R&A released their “Distance Insights Project,” in which they stated that the continuing increase in length was “detrimental’ to the game.

On Tuesday, they announced three proposed changes:

  • A limit on the maximum driver length from 48 inches to 46 inches. U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau is one of the high-profile players who has experimented with the longest-shafted driver in order to attain more distance off the tee.
  • Changes to how drivers are tested for distance, which is known as the spring-like effect, and changes to how golf balls are tested by revising the conditions.
  • The driver-length maximum will have a one-month review period, while the other testing proposals will be reviewed over six months.
  • As part of the proposal, the governing bodies gave the example where a committee could limit the maximum driver length through a “model local rule” and that the change is ”recommended for use only in competitions limited to highly skilled players.” That means golfers at the recreational level would still be playing by the rules even if using the longer clubs.

    The professional tours, including the PGA Tour, European Tour, LPGA Tour as well as the major championships, all play by USGA or R&A rules, depending on jurisdiction. The exceptions made at the highest levels — such as the “one-ball” rule used on the pro tours — are all covered in the rule book, typically under local provisions.

    After years of discussion on the topic, the governing bodies now appear ready to act on distance gains.

    “The research … clearly shows that hitting distances have consistently increased through time, and if left unchecked, could threaten the long-term future of our game at every level and every golf course on which it is played,” said Mike Davis, chief executive officer of the USGA. “This is the first forward step in a journey and a responsibility the USGA and the R&A share with the worldwide golf community, to ensure that golf continues to thrive for the next hundred years and beyond.”

    Said Martin Slumbers, chief executive of the R&A: “The research topics and the proposed changes we have announced will be the focus of our attention in the coming months, and we look forward to gaining insights from the golf industry and fully understanding their perspectives in key areas. We remain fully committed to conducting this hugely important exercise for the sport thoroughly, efficiently and collaboratively.”