There is a lot of doubt as to whether the latest decisions taken by the ruling bodies will have any effect on the professional game.
The first real salvoes in limiting the distance a golf ball can fly have come thanks to research that was begun in 2014. Armed with results and ‘facts’, the governing bodies, the R&A and the USGA announced that from the beginning of 2022 club length limits may be restricted to a maximum of 46 inches.
This isn’t a rule set in stone, but instead the authorities have allowed it to be an optional choice as a ‘Model Local Rule’ for top-level tournaments. For those who are going down to their local club to play their midweek and weekend rounds, there’s no need to take along a tape measure just yet as the recreational game will not be affected.
However, the first shots have been fired. The timing is ironic, given that ‘fierce rivals’ Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau will face off in a 12-hole match on 26 November at Wynn Golf Club in Las Vegas.
That ‘showdown’ will be the fifth edition of ‘The Match’ and the first since DeChambeau and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers faced off against Phil Mickelson and Tom Brady on 6 July. It will also be the first that will be a one-on-one since the initial encounter between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in 2018.
Back in the July issue, this magazine’s editor, Gary Lemke, was sceptical of the ‘DeChambeau-Koepka feud’, which dates back to early 2019 when Koepka was critical of DeChambeau and his slow play.
‘What if the spat between Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau was just a bit of “theatre?”’ he wrote. ‘What if it was golf’s version of boxing’s Floyd Mayweather versus Logan Paul? Where something is hyped up to create interest, only to discover that there are no hard feelings at all and behind the scenes there’s a couple of laughs and fist bumps?
‘In Mayweather’s case, he stood to bank some $70-million for keeping a YouTuber with a 0-1 “professional record” upright for eight rounds of boxing, and Paul received upwards of $20m.
‘Which brings me to Brooks and Bryson. I’ve convinced myself that their dislike for one another is a sham, a publicity stunt,’ Lemke wrote.
‘For years we’ve been looking at how to grow the game and here we have it. Get a couple of golfers to share a public dislike for one another and ramp up the social media hits. You will know by now that the PGA launched a PGA Tour Player Impact Program. Basically, it will identify the 10 biggest “needle-movers” in golf and reward them from a $40m fund. Players who receive the most social media engagement will share the jackpot.’
The ‘feud’ escalated to the point that US Ryder Cup captain Steve Stricker had to defuse matters before the event. DeChambeau and Koepka didn’t practise or play together at the Ryder Cup but they did shake hands after the event.
The decision to limit golf club lengths to 46 inches, with a ‘local rules’ scenario, might also turn out to be something that doesn’t really go further. If it is not mandatory, then why invoke the rule to begin with?
Phil Mickelson, the 51-year-old six-time Major champion, who is now winning events for fun on the Champions Tour, is one of the leading lights to criticise the decision to restrict club lengths to those 46 inches.
‘Stupid is as stupid does, Mrs Gump,’ he tweeted in what was a reference to a line from the 1994 classic Forrest Gump. ‘Really, though, are the amateurs trying their best to govern the professional game the stupid ones? Or are the professionals the stupid ones for letting them?’
In reaction, USGA chief executive Mike Whan said: ‘Admittedly, this is not the answer to the overall distance debate/issue but rather a simple option for competitive events. It’s important to note that it is not a “rule of golf”, and as such, it is not mandated for the average, recreational golfer. Rather, this is an available tool for those running competitive events.’
Gary Player, South Africa’s most decorated golfer, has long maintained that the answer to restricting the distance a ball flies is the ball itself. He has been adamant that manufacturers can easily reduce the distance a ball will travel.
‘I don’t know how far the ball can go, I don’t know what the limit may be, but don’t be surprised if you see them hit it 500 yards because these guys are so big and so strong. It’s frightening,’ he said.
Player got an up-close display of DeChambeau’s raw power off the tee when he and Jack Nicklaus hit the opening ceremonial shots at the 2020 Masters. DeChambeau had described the par-72 Augusta National layout as closer to a par 67 for a player with his power, and Player said: ‘Bryson is a scientist. He’s taken it to another level, and we’ve seen things we never thought would ever happen.
‘Obviously the equipment also does help to a large degree, and this is something Jack and I have been advocating for I don’t know how long. They’ve got to cut the ball back, and they will cut the ball back.
‘They’re going to drive this 1st green at Augusta. In fact, DeChambeau, if it was not this wet weather, if it was firm weather, he’d drive it on the green, and take a 3-wood and put it on the 3rd green.
‘We’re seeing things we never thought of, and we’re in our infancy. You’ve got players coming along who will carry the ball past where DeChambeau ends up now. I said 20, 25 years ago that players would be hitting the ball 400 yards, and I was scoffed at.’
So, between then and now, the golfing authorities have taken some concrete action. But it’s a cop-out, especially given they’ve left the final decision on restricting the length of golf clubs in the hands of those staging professional tournaments.
The poster boy for the ‘gorillas’ is DeChambeau. In early October he entered the World Long Drive Competition and didn’t disgrace himself at all, eventually falling by the wayside with a longest drive of 412 yards (377m) to place seventh. He attained a ball speed of 219mph (137km/h). ‘Getting the 219mph ball speed out here was a dream come true,’ the American said. ‘I never thought I would get to that type of speed. I broke the barrier by three miles an hour faster than I’ve ever gone in my life.’
Afterwards, he offered his thoughts on the decision to restrict the length of his clubs. ‘I think the most important factor in this whole discussion is that golf’s governing bodies are focused on keeping the integrity of the game and trying to make it more of a fair playing field while not taking out the human element.
‘I’m still playing the 45.5-inch driver and it’s suiting me perfectly well. So if someone was trying to go to the 48-inch driver, they could gain six, seven miles an hour pretty quickly, but now it’s not a possibility.
‘And I think it’s going to be more difficult for people to gain speed easily. They are going to have to work really hard, just like I have. I feel like it’s a pretty good advantage from the way I look at it.’
It’s not surprising to hear the 28-year-old talk up the club length restriction. Because that strengthens his advantages when it comes to distances off the tee – and from there the game becomes easier. It stands to reason he wouldn’t be in favour of his peers being able to close the distance on him.
And what about ‘The Match’ and that feud with Koepka? ‘A lot of this social media stuff has definitely been driven by external factors, not necessarily us two,’ said DeChambeau. ‘We had some great conversations at the Tour Championship week when we had dinner, and then also during Ryder Cup week. I sat down and had dinner with him last night and it was fine.’
At the end of the Ryder Cup, where ‘observers’ wondered how Koepka and DeChambeau could be in the same team, fellow US winner Justin Thomas called for them to hug in the middle of the interview room with the trophy. They both obliged.
Were you surprised?
– This article first appeared in the November 2021 issue of Compleat Golfer magazine. Subscribe here!