5 Takeaways For The Recreational Golfer From The USGA Distance Report

The USGA and R&A released the results of their Distance Insights Report on Tuesday, “which provides comprehensive research and analysis on the contributors to, and long-term impacts of, hitting distance in golf,” according to the USGA’s “Key Findings” page

The full report spans 102 pages, and the conclusions document is 16 pages long, but what most golfers really want to know is, “What is the crux of the report and how does it impact me?”

In an effort to make this massive — both in the literal and figurative sense — document digestible, let’s take a look at five key takeaways that impact average golfer.

1. Distance is a problem that has been festering for over 100 years.

According to the report, “there is a 100-year trend of hitting distance increases in golf, as well as a corresponding increase in the length of golf courses, across the game globally The USGA and The R&A believe this continuing cycle is detrimental to the game’s long-term future.”

This is the groundwork and the starting point for everything else in the report.

“This is not about the last few years or the next few years but rather about the long-term future of the game,” Mike Davis, chief executive officer of the USGA, said. “This report clearly shows a consistent increase in hitting distance and golf course lengths over the last 100-plus years. These increases have had a profound impact on costs to build, modify and operate golf courses and they have impacted golfers at all levels.

“We believe this problem will continue unless this cycle is brought to an end. With collaboration from the entire golf community, we have an opportunity to stem this tide and help ensure golf remains sustainable and enjoyable for generations to come.” 

2. If allowed to continue, distance increases will leave amateur golfers to foot the bill.

By and large, the debate over increased distance has been discussed with a tiny percentage of elite professional golfers driving the conversation. However, the recreational player has also enjoyed a distance increase over the past centrury-plus, and it’s the governing bodies’ position that if it the problem isn’t addressed, a portion of what is harming the professional game will trickle down into the recreational ranks as well.

“Longer distances, longer courses, playing from longer tees and longer times to play are taking golf in the wrong direction and are not necessary to make golf challenging, enjoyable or sustainable in the future,” the Conclusions document reads. “In reaching this conclusion, our focus is forward-looking with a goal of building on the strengths of the game today while taking steps to alter the direction and impacts of hitting distances in the best interests of its long-term future.” 

What this boils down to is the bigger the courses, the more resources required, which means more money required to maintain. The money to pay for these advancements and elongations isn’t coming from Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy; it’s coming from your greens fees and member dues.

3. A widespread equipment roll-back doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

While this report was more or less a way to broach the topic officially, there weren’t many specific solutions offered up by the USGA and R&A. A common refrain from distance detractors has been to rollback equipment, but that’s not likely, according to Davis.

“We’re not looking backwards to some bygone era,” Davis told Golf.com. “We want to work with the industry and do what’s right for the game short-term and long-term.”

The USGA and R&A basically “we’re not coming for your new drivers.” Among amateur golfers, souped-up drivers and hot golf balls haven’t made large strides over the past 25 years for club golfers of any skill level. 

Instead, there have been intimations to other options put on the table as possible solutions, especially as it pertains to the competitive sphere.

4. The proposition of a Local Rule could be how the governing bodies avoid bifurcation.

Critics have been banging their fists on tables for years in the name of bifurcation, or a separate set of rules for competitions as opposed to recreational play. While there are inherent issues and pitfalls that will occur (read: cost of separate conforming equipment), the USGA and R&A opened the door to the possibility of a modified bifurcation in which a local rule can be enacted.

“We are steadfast in our belief that one set of rules is in the best interest of the game for everyone,” Davis said. “The concept of the local rule goes back to the 1700s and allows courses or tournament committees to have flexibility where it makes sense.”

This seems to be the first step by the governing bodies towards some kind of reduced-distance equipment, potentially for elite-level competitions.

“We put that out there as a concept to assess as part of this next phase,” Thomas Pagel, the USGA’s senior managing director of governance, told Golfweek.com. “We don’t even know what that might be. There may not be a Local Rule. It’s just something we want to look at.”

5. Nothing significant is going to happen any time soon.

As stated above, this report was simply the groundwork document for a larger — and longer — debate on the distance at large. 

“After this process is complete, 9-12 months from mid-March, we anticipate releasing a set of solutions,” a USGA representative told Golf.com. “Those include changing equipment specifications, and that’s when we’d propose specific rules changes. This is a long-term play, a multi-year process.”

As Golfweek’s David Dusek points out, once the observation and information-gathering process is finished and the data is reviewed, we’re already going to be bearing down on 2022. That’s not to mention the time and effort that would be required from equipment companies to make changes or put into production any adjustments that have been mandated, which will take at least another year.

We’re now looking to the mid-2020s before anything actually impacting the playing of the game will be put into place. It’s important to note as it pertains to equipment as a whole, we’ve seen something similar to this before.

“Let me say this, we don’t have an emergency here. We’re not in a crisis,” Davis said. “Frankly, we are just seeing more pressure than we’ve ever seen on golf courses. When you look at the data in the U.S., there are many golf courses that have razor-thin profit margins and anything like having to build new tees, adding water, anything like that (can cause problems).”

As GolfDigest.com’s Mike Stachura astutely pointed out, “when the rules were changed regarding grooves on wedges, that process began in 2005 and while it was applied widespread in five years, it still doesn’t require average golfers to change before 2024.”