The distance debate is one of golf’s hottest topics and the recent report from the R&A and United States Golf Association (USGA) has got everybody talking. If you’re not already aware of this report, these governing bodies are considering introducing equipment restrictions and regulations in order to curb the distance players are hitting balls. We speak to Bernard Gallacher to get his thoughts.
You called it golf’s great dichotomy: modern equipment helps the pros hit it farther and score lower, while an amateur golfer’s handicap average doesn’t get lower. With this in mind, how do you feel that curbing distance could affect amateur golfers?
I’d imagine 99% of them are happy with their equipment. They don’t feel like it’s enabling them to hit the ball further or that they’re getting an unreasonable amount of help from it. They will be concerned if there are restrictions imposed.
People enjoy playing golf with modern equipment. Whether it’s the new shafts that are coming out, the titanium heads or the range of golf balls, modern equipment offers so many options to the amateur golfer. People like me who have been in the game long enough to remember using headed woods and steel shafts are especially grateful for it.
But amateur handicaps aren’t getting any lower than they were 20 years ago. The modern equipment only really benefits a small pool of world-class golfers.
Another reason professional scores are so low is that courses are in such beautiful condition now. You’ve got the perfect fairways, teeing grounds and greens. When I played, the greens were bumpy and full of spike marks, but since then there have been great advances in greenkeeping and people use soft spikes.
There is a whole array of reasons the pros are scoring so low. Golf is a game of skill and I wouldn’t like to see that diminished, but I feel that treating all golfers the same way would be the wrong approach.
How much do you think golf has evolved over the last 20 years or so and does this have to be taken into account when we’re having this debate?
The sport has evolved to suit all types of golfers. As I get older, I’m still enjoying recreational golf because I don’t find the course is out of reach. When I play at Wentworth, I’m still quite close to parts of the course off the tee that I was able to reach in my 30s.
However, I would be less inclined to play if I couldn’t hit it far enough to enjoy the game. Ultimately, the evolution of golf is a good thing and we can’t stop progress. I don’t know why the powers that be are so bothered about a very small percentage of the world’s golfers.
It seems that a few people are hung up on this issue and I can’t understand why. From the perspective of courses that aren’t tournament courses, I can’t imagine why their owners would be bothered about a bunker at 220 yards off the tee now being placed at 240 yards off the tee.
I’m sure amateurs at these clubs are still going in that bunker, even though they’re carrying the ball much further! It’s about accuracy as much as distance.
A lot of professional golfers seem to be in favour of this bifurcation in golf, whereby there are separate equipment rules for professionals and amateurs. Do you think this is important in terms of allowing amateur golfers to continue enjoying the game?
Yes, because over the years there have separate rules for professionals and amateurs anyway. The pros are allowed to play in tournaments under a special local rule, whereas the amateurs aren’t. There’s the club ball “through the green” rule, where in amateur golf it’s only on the fairway. Also, in the past, pros have been able to take stones out of the bunkers but the amateurs haven’t. So, over the years, an element of bifurcation has always been there.
For me, having separate equipment rules would be a very easy solution. For example, you could have a tournament ball that doesn’t go quite as far to curtail distances. I fully agree with Jack Nicklaus’ stance on this: bring the ball back 20 per cent and amateurs and professionals can use the same ball. I don’t think this would have unintended consequences.
I think, if we’re discussing adjustments of this nature, Jack Nicklaus should be involved in these discussions. Don’t forget, he’s not only one of the greatest golfers who’s ever lived, he’s also a great visionary who’s designed over 400 golf courses. Jack can see into the future, he’s on the ground and he’s aware of the problems facing golf, so the R&A and USGA should be taking their lead from people like him if they haven’t done so already.
You touched on the fact that you’d be in favour of having a pro golf ball, as has been seen in tennis. What do you think would the main benefits of this?
We’re seeing longer rallies in tennis because of the ball’s reduced compression. I’m not saying golf should follow exactly the same path as tennis has, but tennis is the perfect blueprint in terms of equipment adjustments making the sport more enjoyable.
It would be so easy to bring out a ball just for the pros. Companies like Titleist, Callaway or TaylorMade would be able to manufacture a less compressed ball that doesn’t go quite as far, while still developing golf balls which can go further for the amateurs.
That’s why golf equipment manufacturers are against what’s come out from the governing bodies. They’re producing great products that keep people in the game and make golf more enjoyable for everyone, and yet they must feel like they’re acting alone at times.
They’re the only people keeping golfers playing into old age, which is possible if we make the aforementioned compromise. We have to be careful that we don’t stop making golf enjoyable.
On the flipside, there are people who are against bifurcation, who argue that it would disadvantage to aspiring amateurs who want to turn pro. What would you say to this argument?
My view is that it would only take a few days to get used to a ball that doesn’t travel as far. It’s all about technique and I don’t see how having separate golf balls would significantly disadvantage aspiring amateurs.
When I was on the verge of turning professional, we played a different ball to the pros. We played the small ball and the pros played the big ball. However, even though under the rules I could play the small ball – which in theory was much easier – I knew I was going to turn professional and so I often played the big ball. And yet, it made no difference to my scores.
The key point here is we’ve had bifurcation in golf before. In the late 60s, the British pros competing in the Ryder Cup were playing the small ball, while the American pros were playing the big ball. This meant that, when the tournament was played in America, the players used the big ball and when it was played in Britain, they used the small ball. The Americans used whatever ball they wanted! Even though the big ball didn’t go as far as the small ball and was difficult to control in the wind, some of us still used it.
I do agree that bifurcation would affect amateurs who are on the verge of turning professional if they’re still playing a different ball to the pros, but I think they would adapt very quickly, just as we did.
The driving distances of Masters winners has increased notably over the last 20 years – as our Masters index shows. The average driving distance of every Masters winner between 1980 and 1997 was less than 300 yards, whereas from 2000 onwards, seven Masters winners have achieved average driving distances of in or around the 300 mark.