Golf’s Version of Pros vs. Joes

It has been said that one of the many beauties of the game of golf is that the professionals play the same game as amateurs like you and I. We use the same equipment, can play many of the same courses, and can even play alongside of one another in the Open major championships. Everyone uses the same set of rules as governed by either the USGA or the Royal and Ancient. In other words, the difference — supposedly — between players on the professional tours and us Sunday hackers is, well, talent.

The problem, though, is that is not the reality of the game of golf today. With innovations in technology over the past 10 years, and particularly in the 1998-2002 time frame, the benefit that professionals see from the same clubs we all supposedly play is highly skewed to the professionals. According to the National Golf Foundation, the average golf score simply has not improved in that time frame. It is, at least in part, proof that the benefits of technology are not universally extended to amateurs.

Distance increases that have been seen by players on the professional tours — though leveled in the past two seasons — are still substantial and, on average, measure over 20 yards. In an effort to make the golf ball more resistant to the wind, the golf ball is more difficult to shape left and right, up and down. Still, the ball has an incredible spin rate out of the rough and allows for many more lies from off of the fairway to create green lights for players.

These significant benefits have resulted in a fundamental change in the professional tournament host course. Courses have been made dramatically longer by tournament organizers in an attempt to combat the skew to defenselessness that many lengthy players threaten to bring to tournament layouts. Many tournaments have inserted pin placements into the rotation that border on impossible. Rough has been grown to deep length in many tournaments — particularly the major tournaments, including the Masters' relatively deep "second cut."

In turn, the professional golfer has reacted to technology and these responses by playing a completely different style of golf as opposed to even 15 years ago. The style that professional golfers play today is much simpler. The goal of players — young and experienced alike — is simply to hit the ball as far and as straight as possible toward a selected target, and then repeat that task until they can putt the ball in the hole. In effect, the professional game has become simplified.

The days of strategy off the tee, working the ball in different ball flights and directions, and the general concept of shotmaking is on life support in the professional game. Some may argue that this simplification of the game at the professional level actually amounts to a change that reunifies the professional and amateur games. After all, most amateur golfers have very little control over their golf ball — much less the ability to customize their shot selection to the situation.

The difference, though, is that an amateur simply does not have the sophistication or know how to be able to delve into advanced shotmaking. It is certain, though, that almost any amateur would happily take the ability that the pros are not using to create shots. Professionals, on the other hand, are continually shunning their abilities to move the golf ball in favor of a style of play that simply tries to overpower a golf course when possible.

It is probable that many fans of professional game do not have a problem with the transition to a power game. In fact, I am sure that many fans do not even notice the change. Still, the purist desires to see a reversion back to the days when it was more difficult to hit the ball straight and the power game was not the usual — rather an extraordinary style. Many amateurs, though, would still like to be able to purchase the same types of technology that is available today. After all, amateurs will take any edge they can get in the hopes of improving their golf game, and the manufacturers of golf equipment will happily take their money.

When it comes to regulating the game, it seems that there is a conundrum. One option is that the governing bodies can choose to regulate technology for all golfers in an effort to not ruin technological advances for amateurs — which, in effect, is basically what the USGA's grooves proposal is. (That is serious editorializing there.) Or, the industry can decide that the days of denying the reality of bifurcation should end and that professionals should really have slightly different rules than those of the amateur golfer. Since I am convinced that the first option is not the correct answer to restoring strategy in golf, I think it is time to call for the official division of the rules for professionals and amateurs.

The problem to that suggestion is that it is basically impossible given the principles in charge of the game today. Tim Finchem, Commissioner of the PGA Tour, would not seriously entertain implementing rules and equipment standards that are specific to the PGA Tour. After all, Finchem's predecessor Deane Beman got into seriously hot water for taking a stand on professional-specific regulation. Finchem has also gone on record as saying that he feels it is not the responsibility of the PGA Tour to regulate golf equipment.

Further, even though the PGA Tour could decide to do something, it is not guaranteed that the other professional tours around the world would recognize those rules. In effect, a decision to bifurcate the game by the PGA Tour would actually create professional tours that respect the original rules of the game and trifurcate the sport. It would be a disaster.

It appears that the USGA and Royal and Ancient are not interested in bifurcating the game in the interest of returning shotmaking. Rather, through the USGA-sponsored grooves proposal, the governing bodies appear to be interested in bifurcating the game in the interest of preserving a specific aspect of the game — hitting the fairway. After all, USGA research on grooves was written toward the conclusion that there is little correlation between hitting the fairway and winning golf tournaments for professionals. The grooves proposal responds particularly to that fact. It does not, though, respond to the alterations in how far and straight that the golf ball flies. In effect, the USGA appears more interested in restoring hitting fairways and greens — the old U.S. Open mantra — as a key component to success in professional tournaments. That is their decision and they appear ready to stand by it, even if the manufacturing companies plan a huge lawsuit in response.

Unfortunately, my proposal is going to fall on deaf ears. Still, it is important to have the conversation about the future of the game with respect to the realities presented by golf technology. There are two games of golf now. I am not here to make a verdict on that situation, but it is the truth — a truth not uncommon to this sport.

What is left, then, is to question what is to be done about it. Is it to be embraced and rules are written to reflect that pros and amateurs need to be treated differently? Or is it to be denied and shunned in the interest of appealing to equipment manufacturers and allow the skill requirements of the pro game to continue devolving?

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