USGA, R&A take next steps in distance discussion by zeroing in on Local Rule, equipment-testing measures

Almost a year to the day after the U.S. Golf Association and the R&A declared distance is taking the sport down an unsustainable path, golf’s governing bodies formally announced Tuesday they are interested in researching equipment topics related to distance.

The USGA and R&A want to work with manufacturers and other stakeholders to learn more about how potential changes in equipment standards and testing procedures could curb the growing distance trend at elite levels of play.

“After two years of research and crafting a statement of conclusions, it was our hope to say that now we are going to get into the beginning of the solution phase,” Mike Davis, executive director of the USGA, told Golfweek in an exclusive interview. “That was to be in March of 2020, and obviously, with COVID, we rightfully delayed that.”

With Tuesday’s announcement of two Areas of Interest – the potential use of a Local Rule and the conformance specifications for both golf balls and golf clubs – the USGA moves its distance conversation forward.

“The issue is complex, and this is not going to be easy,” said Davis, who has announced he plans to retire from the USGA at the end of 2021 to focus on building golf courses. “But this is an issue that has confronted the game of golf for well over a century. We are determined to solve what we believe is an issue that needs to get solved.”

The USGA and R&A will collect feedback regarding the potential use of a Local Rule that specifies the use of clubs and balls intended to result in shorter hitting distances. The idea is to give tournament organizers and course operators more flexibility. Thomas Pagel, the USGA’s senior managing director of governance, said this is not a step toward bifurcation or the creation of two sets of rules to govern golf.

“Model Local Rules are all about promoting flexibility or options in the game, and they have existed for a long time,” Pagel said. “We remain committed to a single set of rules. We think it is one of the great attributes of the game that ties us all together. We play the same equipment on the same golf courses under the same rules. No other sport does that, and we want to retain that.”

As a second Area of Interest, the USGA and R&A want a review of the overall conformance specifications for clubs and balls, including specifications that directly and indirectly affect hitting distances. This means the ruling bodies want to research topics such as the limitation of ball efficiency, golf ball sizes and weights, making drivers smaller in volume and shorter, and reducing the spring-like effect in faces and moment of inertia in club heads.

The comment period for both topics ends Nov. 2.

The USGA and R&A also asked for feedback and research on three proposed changes to equipment standards:

1. Club Length. As a Model Local Rule, reduce the maximum non-putter club length from 48 inches to 46 inches. This concept has been mentioned before, and now the comment period on this potential change ends March 4. If it is adopted a few days or weeks after that date, then theoretically Augusta National Golf Club (and any other facility) could implement a Model Local Rule limiting club length to 46 inches during competition for all clubs except putters. The decision would be entirely up to the tournament organizers. (Hello, Bryson DeChambeau!)

2. Update the method used to test golf balls. Instead of continuing to test balls by hitting them with a 10-degree test driver swung at 120 mph and measuring how fast the balls come off the face, golf balls could be tested for distance at multiple launch angles (7.5 degrees to 15 degrees) with varying amounts of backspin (2,200-2,500 rpm).

3. Change the characteristic time (CT) testing tolerance. The spring-like effect in a driver’s face is limited to 239 microseconds plus up to 18 microseconds for manufacturing tolerances. But manufacturing techniques are improving every year, so what effect could reducing the tolerance to 6 microseconds have on distance?

To be clear, the USGA and the R&A have not announced any rule changes regarding equipment. The clubs and balls you used last weekend are going to be legal for play next weekend and probably for years to come. In fact, Davis said the USGA and R&A have no intention of changing things significantly at the recreational level.

The USGA and R&A did effectively set the wheels in motion to learn more about how potential equipment changes and methods for testing equipment might affect distance. They want to discuss with equipment makers, who understand recreational golfers and elite players, what might happen if changes were enacted.

Some people believe distance has played an outsized role in elite players’ success, and they want to see equipment changes made quickly. That’s unlikely to happen.

In 2011, the USGA, R&A and equipment makers agreed to a process for changing testing methods and introducing new equipment guidelines. Commonly referred to as the Vancouver Protocols, they lay out a step-by-step series of events that must occur before equipment changes are implemented. The announcement of an Area of Interest notice is straight out of part 5, section 2 of the agreement:

The USGA and the R&A continually conduct various types of research concerning golf equipment. When a research topic has the potential to result in an equipment Rule change, an “Area of Interest” Notice will be published by the USGA and the R&A. Subsequently, and where applicable, the USGA and the R&A will publish any research which has been conducted and invite manufacturers, other involved entities and additional interested parties to comment and participate in the research.

“This is about long-term, for the whole of the game,” Davis said. “I think golfers need to understand that this every-generation-hits-the-ball-farther is affecting the game negatively. The cost of this is being born by all golfers. We’re just trying to fit the game of golf back on golf courses.”