During a lengthy closing address at the North American Golf Innovation Symposium in Canada, Davis said the increased distances the modern golf ball travels was one of his ‘regrets’ and that no good had come of advancing distance in the last 100 years.
“You know, we all have regrets in life,” he said.
“When I think about some of the things the USGA has done over the years, and one that comes to mind is the whole distance issue. Anybody is hard pressed to say that, as distance has increased as it has in the last 100 years, that that’s been good for the game.”
That blunt assessment is the first public acknowledgement by the game’s authorities that modern distances, particularly at the professional level, are having a negative impact on the game.
“We all want to hit the ball further, we get that,” he continued.
“But distance is also relative, and you think about all the billions and billions of dollars that have been spent to change golf courses and you say, ‘Has that been good for the game? Has the fact that Shinnecock Hills went from 5500 yards [when it hosted the first US Open in 1896] to 7500 yards (which it will play for next year’s US Open), what has that done good for the game? It’s increased expenses to maintain it, it’s cost us time to walk an extra 2000 yards, but you say, ‘What has that actually done?'
"I think, as we look to the future, we need to be open to what is in the best interests of the game.”
The comments came as part of a lengthy and heartfelt speech about what the future might hold for golf in which Davis said the game found itself in the unusual predicament of allowing equipment to dictate the playing field.
“I don’t think that you could find another sport that has allowed equipment to dictate how playing fields have changed,” he said.
“Think about baseball in the United States. If they were using titanium bats and a hot baseball, and they had to go to Fenway Park and say move the Green Monster out another 75 or 100 feet? That’s exactly what’s happened in the game of golf.
“And you have to say, ‘what good has that done?’ I can’t think of a good reason for it. Maybe it’s helped architects and construction companies but, by and large, it’s cost a lot of money.”
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While Davis lamented that reigning US Open champion Dustin Johnson – who averages almost 290 metres in driving distance in 2017 – could no longer enjoy a course like Myopia Hunt Club at just under 6000 metres, he was adamant there was no need for a ball rollback.
“Despite what some people write, we’ve seen roughly 13 years in a row where distance at the elite level is hardly moving, which is where we wanted to get it to,” he told GolfDigest.com’s Mike Stachura.
“This notion of people saying that the USGA and the R&A had their heads in the sand, well, this is not our data and you can extrapolate it however you want it, but the stark reality is it’s hardly moving. 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?'"
That last quote references another idea Davis flagged in his remarks, which is the notion of a ‘variable distance’ golf ball. According to Davis, the idea may seem radical but has several potential benefits.
“If you think about it, we already bifurcate distance because we play from different teeing grounds,” he said.
“The other thing it might do [a variable distance ball] is take some golf courses that have had their architectural integrity compromised - at least by some - and say, ‘OK Dustin Johnson, we’re going to go play Myopia Hunt Club, this wonderful golf course that’s hosted four US Opens, and say maybe they can stretch Myopia to 6500.
“Throw Dustin an 80 per cent golf ball and say ‘We’re going to go play the back tees’ and guess what? It would be a great experience for him and he would be able to play this wonderful, historic golf course that, by and large, he can’t play any more.”
Despite admitting there was an issue with distance, Davis suggested regulation was not the only potential while outlining a new paradigm that could have multiple benefits.
“If that [variable distance ball] was one day done and it was not mandatory, in other words, if golfers were given a choice to say, ‘I’m going to fit the golf ball to the player or the golf ball to the course’,” he said, “imagine that a golf course could reduce its footprint. Because we’ve seen footprints expand with distance but you may see under that the golf course actually reduce its footprint.
“If you reduce your footprint, what happens? Less inputs, less water, less fertiliser, less labour, less mowing, less time to play. Right now, there’s nothing in the rules saying you can’t create a golf ball that goes shorter.
“Instead of mandating everything, maybe there’s a way to give golfers choices to say, ‘If it's right for a certain golfer, if it's right for a certain golf course, we shouldn’t shy away from it’.”
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