Distance issue looms large for USGA executive director Mike Davis

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – U.S. Golf Association executive director Mike Davis met with selected media members Tuesday at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, previewing this week’s U.S. Open.

Davis addressed changes to the Rules of Golf that go into effect in 2019 and the worldwide handicap system that is expected to roll out in 2020. But the topic that dominated discussion was distance.

Last month, the USGA and R&A announced the start of a Distance Insights Project that Davis and Rand Jerris, the USGA’s senior managing director of public services, explained would gather information from stakeholders (equipment makers, golf course operators and course architects). The goal is to get a deeper understanding of how distance affects golf.

“Despite what some think, and despite what some write and what you hear, we have no preconceived notions about what the outcome is going to be,” Davis said. “This is not just about the male elite game. So many people think this is just about the PGA Tour. It’s not.”

USGA CEO Mike Davis, second from left, talked distance Tuesday ahead of the U.S. Open. (David Dusek/Golfweek)

Davis, Jerris and other USGA officials have said they want to take a holistic approach to the distance debate. They insist data needs to be collected and studied so the governing bodies can learn how distance affects every aspect of the sport.

But overcoming the perception that the distance debate is really about shot values, protecting the viability of old courses and how far players such as Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson and Rory McIlroy hit their drives, is going to be a massive challenge.

Hard to sway public opinion

“Communication in that regard is going to be important,” Davis said, acknowledging that it will hard to sway public opinion in the distance debate. “If this was just about the elite game, you could solve that very easily, if there is a problem and I think there are a lot of people who would say there isn’t a problem. We believe that this is something that has gone broadly into the game and that’s why we’re looking at it broadly.”

The deep dive into data is not going to produce answers right away. The USGA and R&A are going to be quiet for the next year to 18 months. But it is evident water consumption and the costs associated with running a golf course — especially long golf courses — are significant points of concern. In the minds of the people who run golf, the sport’s environmental footprint needs to get small.

“Our North Star is all about making sure the game is sustainable, that it’s enjoyable and that it remains a challenge,” Davis said. “The notion that we are going to be rolling the ball back next year is simply not the case. The notion that it is just about the PGA Tour is just not the case. It’s about collecting data that we simply do not have.”

If the data collected reveals distance has been harmful to the game in terms of cost, environmental impact, pace of play or other factors, Davis knows he will have to make decisions that will not be popular with some. The luxury of a consensus is not something he anticipates having.

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