(Written By: Tony Covey - @GolfSpy T) In the span of only 4 days the CEO's of two of the largest companies in golf – and arguably two of the most influential guys when it comes to the equipment side of things – each made a very public statement about bifurcation (different rules for amateurs and pro golfers), and by extension golf’s governing bodies, the USGA and R&A.
Titleist’s Wally Uilhein said stuff, and then TaylorMade’s Mark King said stuff, and even if they weren’t saying stuff to each other, based on the stuff that was said, it seems pretty clear to me that they’re on opposite sides of the debate.
The Brands Reflect the Men
What I found intriguing, though certainly not surprising, is that the individual positions of Mr. Uilein and Mr. King very closely mirror how many perceive the brands they represent.
The views expressed by Titleist’s Wally Uihlein in his recent essay can reasonably be described as traditional, old school, and potentially antiquated, while depending on your perspective, TaylorMade CEO Mark King’s position, can be described as aggressively modern, forward-thinking, or clinically insane.
Such is the way of the golf equipment world. TaylorMade pushes ahead, occasionally takes chances, and sometimes frustrates others in the industry. Titleist clings to its traditions and the status quo. What was is, and what is will always be…or something like that.
The arguments in Mr. Uihlein’s The Case for Unification center on need for the USGA and R&A to unify their respective rulebooks, he also makes it abundantly clear that’s he opposed to a separate set of rules governing the amateur game. Bifurcation is a dirty word.
In an interview conducted by Score Golf’s Rick Young, Mr. King makes it equally clear that he believes the USGA has “taken it too far”.
The implied “it” is the proposed anchoring ban, and more generally the USGA's propensity for over-regulating the game at the expense of the amateur.
It’s possible that last bit is just my own inference.
Mr. King goes on to say that he believes that within 10 years the USGA will be a “non-entity”, and that because of their behavior “the industry is going to move away from them and pass them”. Dropping the biggest bomb of all, Mr. King finishes his answer by saying “They’re [the USGA] obsolete”.
Mr. Uihlein feels differently. In his role as an advocate for the traditions of the game he clings to what I call the defeatist’s position while making his case that a 2nd set of rules for amateurs would serve no purpose:
"If golfers don’t play by the one set of rules that exist today, why are two sets of rules required? If the argument is that golfers don’t play by the rules and bifurcation will help grow the game, then how will two sets of rules contribute to additional participation? The logic is flawed." - Wally Uihlein, CEO, Acushnet Company
Perhaps, but I’d argue the logic is less flawed than the idea that if things keep moving in the direction they’re headed everything will be just fine. It won’t.
Today’s Rules Do Not Reflect the Traditions of the Game
Of course it’s more than slightly ironic that Mr. Uihlein would champion the traditions and history of the game while apparently supporting the entities that helped bastardize 13 simple rules by turning them into 100 plus pages of bloviating verbosity, obscure decisions, and such egregious complexity that a rules official is required on every hole of a PGA event just to try and make sense of it all – and even then they still don’t always get it right.
The rules of golf as they exist today are not the game’s history…they are not its tradition. They are overly complicated nonsense and it’s time to do something about it.
The history ship sank off the coast of Pebble Beach quite some time ago. It’s time we stopped pretending otherwise.
If that’s anything close to the message Mark King was trying to convey, I’m with him (mostly). If it’s not, well…then it’s just what I think.
I’m certain some will look at Mr. King’s statements and see ideas that are self-serving where the sales of TaylorMade products are concerned. That could be true, but in this particular case I would suggest that what’s good for TaylorMade also happens to be good for the game – and more importantly – the people who play it.
Hey USGA, you remember the people, don’t you?
Everything that’s happening right now – rule changes, suggestions that the USGA is managing its way into obsolescence, the decline of the game itself are symptoms of one undeniable reality.
The USGA Has Lost Its Way
As a governing body, the USGA has grown to be nearly useless for the average golfer. They continually overstep. They focus almost exclusively on the Pro game to the exclusion of nearly everything else. They’ve lost touch with the average golfer, and over the last several years have done absolutely nothing to effectively grow the game.
If you’re trying to kill golf, these are your guys.
Nearly every adjustment the USGA has made to the rulebook in a futile attempt to regain control of the pro game (ignoring for a moment the fact that despite all their meddling, scoring remains effectively unchanged), has negatively impacted the recreational game. It’s completely ridiculous especially when you consider who comprises the majority of the USGA’s constituency.
How contradictory is it that the USGA has limited driver distance (at every level…not just the pro game - because bifurcation is bad), and has started discussing limiting golf ball distance (because the pros hit it too far) while at the same time saying that golf courses are too long for the average golfer and the rest of us need to Tee it Forward. Talk about both sides of your mouth…or ass.
Two sets of reasonable rules that govern both the game and the equipment might solve the problem, although I’d argue that the USGA has spread itself too thin and that it would be in the best interest of both the USGA and the game if they got out of the rules business to better focus their efforts on actually growing the game.
Let the PGA Manage its Own Rulebook
Having a separate and independent agency that governs the rules of golf for both the professionals and amateurs is both unique and ludicrous. Golf is the only major sport (and some would argue it doesn’t actually qualify as a major sport) where the professional organizations (in this case the PGA, LPGA, and other major US Tours) have deferred management of their rulebooks to a 3rd party.
The NFL maintains the rules for the NFL. Major League Baseball maintains the rules for MLB. The same is true for the NBA and NHL. Why shouldn’t the PGA maintain the rules for the PGA?
Could you imagine if other sports were run the way the golf is run?
We wouldn’t allow the guys as Major League Baseball to force their rules on our Thursday night softball beer leagues, so why are we so willing to tolerate the USGA’s heavy-handed approach to our Tuesday night golf leagues?
Would we allow the NFL to dictate the rules for Pop Warner?
Can you imagine if some of the guys wearing helmets suggested that anyone playing flag football is somehow diminishing their game, or worse yet, cheating?
And yet, that’s exactly what happens in golf, and it’s one of many reasons why bifurcation needs to happen.
Re-Write the Rulebook
Short of possibly bowling, golf should be the most-easily comprehendible sport on television…and it is… until you actually try to read the rules; at which point, it’s anything but.
The rules of golf need to be rewritten so they’re simple, and more importantly practical.
The rules as they exist today are often incomprehensible gibberish. Almost nobody plays by the rules because almost nobody fully understands them. Not even the best players in the world fully comprehend the letter of each and every rule. How is the average weekend guy supposed to have a chance?
Saying we shouldn't change the rules or bifurcate because the same guys still won't follow the rules is an exceptionally weak, and I as I’ve already said, defeatist, argument.
Make the game more user-friendly at the amateur level and then see what happens. If not everyone falls in line - so what. At least we've simplified the rules for those of us who would otherwise choose to play by them.
To grow the game we need to legitimize it for the masses. A 2nd set of practical and viable rules might force self-labeled "serious golfers” to stop looking down their noses as the recreational guys trying to learn the game and have fun (incidentally I've found that anybody who frequently uses the phrase "seriously golfer" is almost always a serious asshole).
You want to grow the game? Get rid of the arrogance. And that starts with rewriting the rulebook from the ground up.
The Bifurcated Reality
Even if the USGA and other traditionalists want to believe otherwise, bifurcation already exists. There are USGA rules, PGA rules, local rules. And yes…there are casual, but strictly enforced rules between members of the same group.
PGA players routinely wear metal spikes. With very few exceptions, amateurs are forbidden to do so by the clubs they play. Professionals are barred from using rangefinders, but they’re both allowed and accepted on the amateur and recreational circuits. Pros can’t drive carts, or even wear shorts. Amateurs…yeah…we can do both. The rules are already different.
Winter rules, gimmes...that stuff makes sense for recreational play - and you know what, it happens every day...and while the USGA says it shouldn’t be, it’s used for handicap purposes. Those guys aren't cheaters. They're honest guys who face real practicality issues that the USGA is apparently unwilling to acknowledge. There's already an unspoken gentlemen's agreement to ignore the rules when they simply don't make any damned sense outside the confines of the PGA's ropes.
A pro seldom loses a ball in the woods because he’s got 300 eyes to help him look. Amateurs lose balls in light rough because we don’t have galleries to help us find the ball. That’s hardly a just and equal application of the rules. There’s a serious case of denial here.
Some of Mr. King’s ideas…more clubs, the 15” cup, I don’t love them (the last thing I want is a new rule dictating how to play if your ball comes to rest in the wrong cup, or if the wrong cup is between the ball and the right cup), but ultimately, I think his general message is we need to make the game more accessible, more fun, and more practical.
The reality is that some of the rulebook as it exists today is wholly impractical for weekend play. Return to the tee after a lost ball? At 10AM on a Saturday on a crowded Muni? No f'n chance. You’ll find the emergency room quicker than you’ll find a fairway.
Let's make the stakes one color; stroke is enough of a penalty. The distance piece punishes everyone else on the course. It makes sense on tour, but not for most other situations.
The USGA agrees we have a pace of play problem…the rules themselves are a contributing factor.
The Future of the USGA
What Mark King told Score Golf’s Rick Young is potentially the biggest story to come out of this year’s PGA Show. Mr. King asserted that if the proposed ban on belly putters comes to fruition, his company (TaylorMade) will continue to produce them.
Fundamentally that alone is inconsequential. The proposed ban is on the stroke (stupid, stupid, stupid) not the equipment. Theoretically the USGA wouldn’t care what TaylorMade does on the production side.
It’s also doubtful we’ll see a new way to swing as Mr. King suggests we might. Of course, we don’t know what TaylorMade has in their pipeline, but you can bet if it requires a new swing, the USGA will act quickly to legislate against it (statistical arguments be damned).
When it comes to the golf ball, however; things would be very different. We know the USGA is already looking into reducing how far the golf ball can fly (those damned pros are ruining it for the rest of it again). This is exactly like the groove rule. In this scenario the USGA would seek to mandate and legislate the equipment itself.
When the USGA dictated that the golf companies must no longer distribute non-conforming wedges after December 31, 2010, every major manufacturer fell in line. Mark King is now on record saying that should a similar ball ban come to fruition, his company would ignore any mandate to stop producing non-conforming balls.
That’s when things would get really interesting
If the USGA moves to roll back the ball AND TaylorMade holds the line and continues to produce balls that perform as they do today, the equipment world is going to get tipped ass-end up. Should TaylorMade actually ignore any mandate the other OEMs would be faced with the uncomfortable choice of bucking the USGA or kowtowing to them and thus effectively conceding a HUGE, growing, and never before specifically targeted market segment; guys who don’t give a damn what the USGA says. The numbers say these guys are the majority consumer.
I’m guessing most of the other guys will decided they have no choice but to compete.
And if that happens, why not really stick it to the USGA? Roll back the wedge…and the driver too. If the goal is to make the game more enjoyable for the recreational golfer, this is, in part, how to do it.
If that happens, I’m Mark King’s #1 fan. He’ll get an invite to my kid’s birthday party. It’ll be Elmo-themed...or maybe Doc McStuffins. The kid loves Doc McStuffins.
If any of that happens, the floodgates are open and the USGA could lose control.
If that happens, the USGA, as Mr. King suggest, will be a non-entity.
Would that really be so bad?
-Portions of this article originally appeared in the MyGolfSpy Forum.