Blog: Golf’s power brokers seem relaxed so does length matter?

Our publisher writes from Shanghai, where the Golf Business Forum in Shanghai, sponsored by HSBC and run by IMG, is underway

The Golf Business Forum is an annual get-together of many of the game’s power brokers who meet to debate, discuss, and share their thoughts on the state of the golf business worldwide.

On the table are the threats to the game and, this year particularly as we head into a year which will see golf take its place in the Olympics, the opportunities. With those running the main tours and the R&A in situ, though, it was inevitable that talk would turn to the rules surrounding equipment legislation.

The round-table debate included Keith Pelley, eight weeks into post as CEO of the European Tour, and Martin Slumbers, the recently appointed chief executive of the R&A.

They discussed the distance the ball travels and how this is affecting both coursedesign and the way the game is played.

The response from both sides was unequivocal. 

Slumbers, like his predecessor Peter Dawson, sees no problem with the current scenario, citing as-yet-unpublished research that demonstrates no significant change in tour average driving distance since 2003 ‘around three or four yards’. 

He said: ‘We are very comfortable with the distance people are hitting it. It isn’t out of control, it is single-digit people who are hitting it 320 yards plus, and the average is in the mid 280s. As long as it stays within those parameters, I am celebrating that skill.

When you look at amateur stats, you are in the low 200s, so there is championship golf and everything else golf,” he said.

This is pretty significant. While happy to ban anchoring because it was deemed ‘not a stroke’, those running the game worldwide seem disinclined to reign in either the golf ball, or the equipment used to propel the golf ball.

Indeed, it sounds like the opposite is true.

Pelley added: “There is nothing like watching a pro launching a driver. You watch Rory launch it and the difference between that and the guy who launches it 260 – it’s amazing.”

Slumbers says that tour distance increases since the 1990s are only partially down to equipment.

The analytics are that it’s a third the ball, a third club fitting and optimisation, and a third the athleticism of the player,” he said. So it is this athleticism that we should be celebrating – not seeking to reign in the hitting capabilities of these phenoms.

In a time when golf is under pressure to create shorter formats, when research is telling us the game is ‘too hard’, and when the ecological impact of building huge new courses is under increasing scrutiny, this is a very interesting position for the game’s power brokers to take.

If the ball is going to keep going further then the natural requirement is for more, longer courses.

Do we really want more 7,500-yard golf courses? Or, as Slumbers indicates, perhaps we are heading towards one course for the tours and one course for the rest of us, so we can no longer test ourselves on the same course our heroes play.

The celebration of distance hitting also seems to ignore the variety of skill the game requires. Is this to be lost as it is increasingly dominated by those that can hit the ball furthest?

For me, though, what is perhaps most depressing is that a continuation of current trends might see the total disappearance of links golf and heathland golf from tour and elite amateur schedules – not only the game’s roots but also where the game is inherently more complex as ball moves on the ground.

In England, the great inland courses have already been lost from tour schedules. How long is it before many of the Open rota go the same way? They can’t continue to lengthen these courses and they will therefore surely eventually have to move.

Perhaps this is just golf moving with the times, embracing the same obsession with power hitting that adds to the success of T20 cricket, but to me too much is sacrificed from the game: namely its heritage, the bond between professional and amateur and the potential embarrassment of our great venues if current trends continue.

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