The letter of the law

LENGTH OF DRIVERS ARE LIMITED

The venerable group of golf administrators that control the rules of the game obviously feel that it is again time to shake up the status quo, which has unsurprisingly elicited howls of protest from certain professionals. The United States Golf Association and the Royal and Ancient, the two governing bodies that lay down golf’s laws worldwide, have now decided that the length of drivers should be limited to 46 inches. Hardly a big deal, but some believe it is.

In fairness to the administrators of golf, about two years ago the custodians of the sport instituted a raft of changes to rules, most of which made sense. Whether to speed up the game, or to eliminate situations where players could be penalized even if they had no intention of gaining an unfair advantage, these changes were mostly welcomed.

But every so often the USGA and the R@A decide that to safeguard the integrity of the game, they are required to cry foul as soon as new technology (or creativity) threatens to upset the skill levels required to play the game well. Some years ago, there was the feud between golf equipment manufacturers and governing bodies over the profile of grooves machined into the faces of clubs. It was proven at the time that the offending, non-conforming grooves imparted too much spin on the ball, particularly when played from areas of rough, so the game would effectively become too easy.

Equipment companies had spent considerable amounts of money developing, manufacturing and distributing these clubs around the world before the decision was made to ban them. Major litigation was threatened before a compromise was reached, and a period of grace was allowed to phase out these clubs. Then there was the war against long putters, and after protracted legal debate, it was grudgingly decided that they could remain, providing the end of the grip was not “anchored” against the player’s chest, as that did not constitute a “stroke.”

New drivers are constantly being scrutinized by the guardians of the sport, and there has been concern that their heads were becoming too big, and that the “trampoline effect” was resulting in the ball flying too far. The ball itself has evolved to the point where it skirts the boundary of what is considered legal, because limits are set on initial velocity off the clubhead, aerodynamics which governs flight time, and a host of other arcane parameters about which the average gofer neither knows nor cares about. The equipment industry, which is worth an eye-watering amount of money, continues to promise the gullible consumer that their products are superior, and that anyone shelling out money for their latest offerings will hit the ball further, straighter and will instantly be transformed into a better golfer.

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The latest ruling regarding the maximum length of a driver, which will come into effect next year, drew harsh criticism from Phil Mickelson, who used a 47.9-inch driver when he won the PGA Championship – becoming the oldest player to win a major. The 51-year-old “lefty” described the new ruling as “pathetic” and “stupid,” and the likes of Rory MacIlroy, Justin Thomas and Colin Morikawa seem to agree with him.

Long-hitting Bryson DeChambeau, who has experimented with a 48-inch driver, stopped short of complaining about the new rule, and most believe that he will remain the longest driver on Tour (averaging around 320 yards). Most agree that while a longer club will allow a player to generate more clubhead speed and hit the ball further, this advantage will result in accuracy being compromised.

There will always be arguments around whether rules for professionals should be the same for amateurs, and for some time now many of the older generation of pros have suggested that limits should be placed on the performance of equipment to place a premium on technique rather than brute strength. For the millions of amateurs who effectively keep the game alive, most of whom would gain no advantage from hitting the ball further, the new rule doesn’t make too much sense.

The equipment debate will no doubt continue, and while the misty-eyed, so-called “purists” will bemoan the fact that old championship golf courses are becoming obsolete, and that a mockery is made of scoring records, professionals are today fitter and stronger. If they can benefit from technology that allows for the measurement of launch angles and spin rates (or longer drivers) to shoot lower scores, so be it.

In the ongoing battle for golfers to “find an edge”, I am remined of a rather amusing story of a player who dreamed of playing on the Pro Tour. By all accounts this fellow had no chance of making a living playing golf, but this didn’t deter him, and he entered the Pro Qualifying School. He had decided to model his swing on that of Nick Faldo, and after investing a lot of time and effort studying the method of the six-time major champion, this strategy failed to produce the desired results on the practice tee.

He then had a brain wave and evidently discovered the flaw in his plan – Faldo was quite a bit taller than him! The solution to this impediment was to construct golf shoes that elevated him some four inches. It is not known whether these shoes also elevated his game, but undaunted, he arrived at the venue for the Q School and donned his platform spikes.

Looking more like a performer from the “glam rock” era rather than a professional golfer, the aspirant pro’s curious footwear caught the attention of the officials. He was immediately informed that his shoes were deemed illegal, and he had to change them. He never came close to earning his Tour card wearing conventional golf shoes, and perhaps to this day he will maintain that a “stupid, pathetic” rule prevented him from achieving his dream.

Until next time!

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