4 Unintended Consequences of the USGA's Bifurcation Proposal
Augusta National can only move the 13th tee back so many times.
On March 14, golf’s two governing bodies laid out a proposal for a Model Local Rule (MLR) that would make tournament organizers decide whether or not to require limited-distance golf balls in their events.
In other words, the USGA and R&A are proposing bifurcation.
The USGA estimates that balls that conform to the MLR would reduce hitting distance by 14-15 yards for elite golfers with the fastest swing speeds. The goal is to address the cycle of distance increase, followed by course-lengthening, while maintaining the principle that a “broad and balanced set of playing skills should remain the primary determinant of success in golf.” All without impacting the recreational game.
“We don’t see recreational golf obsoleting golf courses anytime soon,” Mike Whan, CEO of the USGA, said.
If you're not already familiar with the proposal, check out the USGA's announcement of the Model Local Rule.
While the intention is not to fix the game today, but to leave the next generation, and the one after that, with as good of a game as we have today, there are always unintended consequences.
Too Much Gray Area in Determining “Elite” Events
It would be up to each tournament organizer to decide whether or not to enact the Model Local Rule. While many tournaments would be clear cut, far too many would fall into a gray area.
Between the PGA Tour and the four men’s major championships alone, there are five different tournament organizers. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where the U.S. Open and British Open – two of the most important events on the golf calendar each year – require limited distance golf balls, while the other major championships and week-to-week PGA Tour schedule don’t.
There isn’t a ton of sympathy for the best 150 golfers in the world, but asking them to play a golf ball that’s 15 yards shorter than their gamer and reacts differently on every shot in two of the four majors every year? That can’t be what the USGA wants, but it’s a distinct possibility.
Distraction to Aspiring Elite Golfers
There are so many problems with implementing this Model Local Rule only in “elite competitions.”
First of all, since it’s up to individual tournament organizers to decide if they want to enact the MLR, it’s all but guaranteed that there will be no consistency at the elite amateur level.
Just this year, the USGA announced that it will begin giving U.S. Open exemptions to the current NCAA Division I men’s and women’s individual champion. Since the USGA has stated it sees using this MLR in the U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur at the very least, would the MLR be in effect at the NCAA Championships, now that it’s a defacto U.S. Open qualifier? If so, what about the rest of the college season? For consistency sake, college players may prefer to use the same ball all the time, even if it’s the limited-distance ball, rather than only use the short ball in the most important events.
Where does it end? What about the elite junior golfer who wants to put up impressive scores to attract college attention, but also wants to be prepared to succeed at the next level? When is that elite junior golfer supposed to take the time to learn the new ball while trying to gain an edge on the competition with their old one?
Golf’s hard enough, but college and elite junior golfers may also have to navigate this complex scenario within the next few years.
The Handicapping Mess
Handicapping with two sets of golf balls would be a nightmare.
Even if the USGA and R&A come up with a plan to address this, it’s highly unlikely it will be as accurate or fair as the current system. There are too many questions to answer.
In addition to accounting for elite amateur competitions that require the limited-distance ball, how does the handicapping system account for golfers who occasionally train with the limited-distance ball to prepare for an upcoming tournament or qualifier? What about golfers who – knowingly or unknowingly – use a mixture of both balls during a single round?
Of course, the elephant in the room is the added opportunity for sandbaggers to post scores claiming to have used whichever ball suits their current handicap goals. Some days that might be to lower the index to qualify for certain events, others it might be to intentionally inflate it to get some insurance strokes in an upcoming hit-and-giggle.
Impact on the Retail Market
You know Titleist as the number one ball in golf, and its parent company, Acushnet is also the number one opponent of bifurcated golf.
“Unification is a powerfully positive force in the game, and we believe that equipment bifurcation would be detrimental to golf’s long-term well being,” David Maher, Acushnet President and CEO said in a pointed statement responding to the USGA and R&A proposal.
Who knows what will happen in the golf ball retail market if all levels of professional golf adopt the model local rule, and recreational golfers no longer play the same balls as pros (they could play the limited distance ball, but unless they’re trying to qualify for the U.S. Amateur, why would they?). It’s hard to speculate, but Titleist’s opposition to bifurcation hints they’re not eager to find out.
The USGA says it does not intend to interfere with the retail market, but based on Titleist’s reaction, that seems impossible.
The Distant Future
There is so much that remains to be seen. The USGA and R&A will accept feedback on this proposal through August of 2023. Even if the MLR goes through, it wouldn’t take effect until 2026, and even then, it’s ultimately up to tournament organizers to decide whether or not to implement it.
The focus of the proposal is to ensure that golf can thrive long-term. While there are strong opinions on both sides of the bifurcation argument, it could be 40 years before we know if this move achieved its intended consequences.
In the meantime, we’ll have to live with the unintended consequences.