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USGA AND R&A MEDIA CONFERENCE
February 4, 2020
Far Hills, New Jersey
CRAIG ANNIS: Thank you, everyone, for joining us today.
As you're aware, the USGA and the R&A will release the following today at 11:00 a.m. Eastern, the first Distance Insights Report, a 102-page research paper and conclusions from the Distance Insights Project and finally a library of 56 documents that will support data used in the report. These will be issued for the public's review, and will be found on our respective websites.
Nearly two years ago we established a Distance Insights Initiative which aims to provide the most comprehensive study of hitting distance in the game of golf. This project had three main focal points. First, to determine the contributors to increased distance. Second, the impacts from increased distance. And third to solicit the perspectives of golf's stakeholders.
The Distance Insights Report has been constructed to address all three of these. The conclusions document contains the perspectives of the USGA and the R&A following our analysis of the research.
I have with us today Martin Slumbers, Chief Executive of the R&A, and Mike Davis, Chief Executive Officer of the USGA. By being here with us today, it is our hope that you understand that this topic is of great importance to the future of the game and has been our focus at the highest levels of both organizations.
With us on the call are various representatives from both organizations who have been involved in this project and are here to assist with questions you may have. From the USGA, they include Mark Newell, president of the USGA; Dr. Rand Jerris, senior managing director of public services who led the USGA's research effort; and Thomas Pagel, senior managing director of governance.
Karen Myers and Mike Woodcock from the R&A Communications are also present, as well as Jeanine Driscoll on the USGA communication team.
With that, I'll open up the floor to both Mike and Martin to make a few remarks before we open the floor to your questions.
MARTIN SLUMBERS: Thanks, Craig, and good afternoon, everybody from sunny St Andrews, and many thanks to all of you for joining Mike and I today.
As Craig noted, two years ago, the R&A and the USGA said that we were going to undertake a comprehensive study of the impact of hitting distance on our sport and today we published the findings of that study in a detailed report and a statement on conclusions.
In that time we have sought out many experts and engaged with stakeholders more broadly and analyzed data, reviewed research and media reports and generally sought to obtain all the information we could around hitting distance and related trends over more than a hundred years.
This process was undertaken with the clear aim to make sure that we had the broadest understanding possible. As governing bodies for our sport, we've been absolutely determined to be thoughtful, precise and measured. In doing so, we have worked with overriding principles that we have a responsibility to protect traditions of the game, manage the overreliance on technology rather than practice and skill, and preserve skill differentials throughout the game.
Our research shows that hitting distances and the lengths of golf courses have been increasing for more than a hundred years. This is not just a phenomena of the last few decade. These changes have been driven by equipment innovation, improved course conditions and player athleticism. We believe that this continuing cycle of increases is undesirable and detrimental to golf's long-term future.
We have reached this conclusion for two key reasons. Firstly, increased hitting distances can and do compromise the inherent strategic challenge presented by many golf courses, especially if those courses cannot be lengthened.
We believe that increased hitting distances can constantly lead to golf holes being overpowered with the resulting reduction in the variety, length and creativity of shot types needed. We believe that golf is fundamentally a game of skill and should require a broad range of skills.
Secondly, the trend to continually increase golf course length to meet increases in hitting distance requires not only significant capital investment, but more importantly, puts golf at odds with the growing societal concerns about use of water, chemical and other resources, as well as the long-term effects of our sport on the environment.
The work that we have undertaken with so many stakeholders is not just about compiling detailed data. We believe passionately that we have the responsibility to take the long-term perspective to ensure that our sport is thriving 50 years from now. We want to bring everyone involved in golf worldwide along with us on this.
We believe that golf will be more successful over next decades and beyond if this continuing cycle of ever-increasing hitting distances and golf course length is brought to an end. Longer distances, longer courses, playing from longer tees and longer times to play, are taking golf in the wrong direction and are not necessary to make golf challenging, enjoyable or sustainable in the future.
Before I hand it over to Mike to outline the next steps, I would like to close with one comment, and is that at the R&A we are actually committed to work through this issue with all stakeholders in our sport in a collaborative and serious manner to find the most effective solutions for our sport.
Mike, over to you.
MIKE DAVIS: Martin, thank you, and good morning from an overcast Liberty Corner, New Jersey here, and ladies and gentlemen, thanks for joining us today.
As Martin just explained, through a two-year research project on distance, we identified a long-term problem that needs resolved and it needs resolved in a responsible collaborative way for the long-term health of golf.
The cycles Martin referred to of increasing player hitting distances and corresponding course lengthening have been going on for more than well over a hundred years. They are still happening, and we previous based on data, they will continue to happen without future action.
Our focus is going to be forward-looking. We are not going back to some bygone era. We plan to build on the strengths of today's game while taking steps to stop the cycle of golf courses feeling they need to thing lengthen because of increasing player hitting distances.
So with that in mind, our next steps will be to develop and assess potential solutions in the best long-term interests of the game. The primary next step will be to pursue a broad review of equipment specifications for both balls and clubs, including at least two general topics.
The first one will be we'll review the overall equipment rules applying to all golfers to consider whether any of the existing specifications should be adjusted, and whether any new specifications should be created to stop the cycle of continuing increases.
Now, I would say, ladies and gentlemen, an important note to make here is that we do not currently intend to consider revising these overall specifications in a way that would produce substantial reductions in hitting distance at all levels.
Second topic. We plan to assess the potential use of an optional local rule that would specify the use of clubs and balls intended to result in shorter hitting distances. The concept is that equipment meeting a particular set of reduced distance specifications, for example, a ball that doesn't go as far or a club that doesn't hit the ball as far might be a defined subset of the overall equipment rules.
Like any of the existing local rules under The Rules of Golf, this local rule concept would not mandate the use of such equipment. Rather, it would give the game more flexibility within the rules for all levels of the game.
So within 45 days, and we anticipate sometime in mid-March, the USGA and R&A will publish a set of research topics on balls and clubs. We seek facts and perspectives from golf equipment manufacturers and others within the golf industry. We anticipate this step taking at least 9 to 12 months.
After the research on these topics is completed and comments are evaluated, if we decide that any proposed rules changes are needed, equipment manufacturers are going to receive a formal notice of these proposed changes, including a proposed implementation plan and the opportunity to comment under the equipment rules-making procedures, otherwise known as the Vancouver Protocols. We expect this to be a multi-year process.
If you let me slightly shift gears for a minute to talk about another set of issues we have identified concerning interaction between hitting distance and course length. First, we believe forward tees at many golf courses are simply too long relative to the hitting distance of many golfers who play from them.
Here in the United States, the median forward tee course length is between 5,200 and 5,300 yards. As a result, many golfers playing from these teeing grounds may have little chance to reach greens in regulation, even with their best drives and approach shots. They are not offered the same type of playing experience as other golfers and cannot play often the way the architects intended.
Second, we believe that many other golfers playing are playing from longer tees than is necessary relative to hitting distances, which can affect their enjoyment and the time it takes to play. So in due course, we'll be providing guidance and best practices on both shorter forward tees in the appropriate tee-to-hole playing distances for golfers of all levels.
So in closing before opening up to questions, let me just say on behalf of the USGA that this initiative and our proposed steps moving forward are about the future of the game. The research is very clear: There's a 100-year cycle of increasing hitting distances. There's a 100-year cycle of subsequent golf course lengthening.
This has had a profound effect on golf courses. It's caused them significant resources to change. It's increased ongoing operating costs. It's using more resources; resources like precious water. The cycle of every generation hitting the ball further than the last and consequently having golf courses lengthened needs to end, and it will not unless action is taken.
All of us in golf want to a healthy, sustainable enjoyable game for many generations, and we have a great opportunity here by working together as one community.
With that, we'll be happy to open it up to questions.
Q. I really appreciated the way in which the report includes the issues of sustainability. So the question I have is for Mike Davis. Has the USGA considered holding a National Championship under such a local rule, perhaps the U.S. Amateur fourball, to see what the results would be and to measure it, obviously, to get a standard?
MIKE DAVIS: Very interesting question. I will say that the last two years the R&A and USGA have been solely focused on collecting data on this increased distance and impact its had on the game, how the game is played, how it's impacted golf courses and looking to the future.
So we really have tried to be as true as we could to what we've said and just not focus on solutions. But I suppose that as we move along, we're going to be very open to different concepts, ideas and topics. We hadn't candidly thought about that, but put it on the list.
Q. Maybe you could have a national reduced-distance championship.
MIKE DAVIS: Interesting concept. Thank you.
Q. Looking at some of the documents, it's pretty clear that when you look at sort of the reasons behind increased hitting distance, there's three primary factors: Golf course condition, golfer athleticism and obviously equipment, which you've highlighted. Is there any where in your standing to rank those or say one is more important as a cause of where we are than the other three, or are they all equal in their contribution?
MARTIN SLUMBERS: I think when you look at those three items and you look at them over a period of time, they have each had increased relatively more importance at different points in history. I think if you look at it today, it's a broadly, broadly equal split between those three factors.
I personally have welcomed the player athleticism move. I'm a great believer that golf is a sport, not a game, and I think that has increased; the athleticism has really driven that.
I think course design and course conditioning improves the experience for everybody, and technology has also made the game more playable for a lot of people. Those three all work together.
Q. You discussed a lot of unity in there. Does that mean does bifurcation, having separate rules, equipment rules for pros and amateurs, is that on the table at all?
MIKE DAVIS: Good morning, Gary. This is what I say to start out with, and I know I speak on behalf of both organizations here, we are steadfast in our belief that one set of rules is in the best interests of the game for everyone. We have long felt that. We continue to feel that.
The concept of a local rule, Gary, there's been local rules in the game going back the whole way to the mid-1700s when the rules were first introduced, and the concept, really, is to allow golf courses or tour committees to have more flexibility when it makes sense.
So I think as we see this, this could be -- as an example, I think people, when you hear the idea of a local rule, immediately you might want to go to the elite men's game. We're viewing it much more broadly for all levels of golf. You could imagine in existing shorter course that might want to adopt it so they don't have to expand and go back with new tees.
You could even imagine, Gary, in the future, a smaller golf experience. Maybe less acreage in an urban setting where reduced equipment might make the game less time-consuming to play, less costly, where maintenance costs would go down, and it could be every bit as enjoyable as the game we play today.
Q. How easy is it going to sell something like that to the public if they are going to hit the ball not as far, because you know, we are all distance-obsessed. It makes sense, but it's going to be an interesting sales job. Do you think you can pull that off?
MIKE DAVIS: Well, Gary, to date, I guess I would just say that we haven't gotten into the solution stage. You're asking a very good question. I think we can all think about shorter golf experiences that are great fun and that, who knows, could even be more enjoyable with something.
But at the end of this, we are now going to be going into the exploratory phase of this, and we want input from the golf community here.
The key is, as I said, the next steps, is we're going to be offering up topics. This will just be one of a handful or several topics that are offered up looking at making sure the game is sustainable, enjoyable, for many generations to come.
Q. One last thing for you guys. Will you be satisfied if you stop the distances approximately where they are now, or do you feel they need to be reduced a little bit?
MARTIN SLUMBERS: Can I just add to Mike's comment and tangentially answer that question.
I think one of the byproducts out of this project in the years to come is that I hope that we as a game move from the locker room conversation, the media conversation is: "Oh, how far did you hit the ball on 15; did you get on the par 5 in 2; did you get past the tree," and move back to what golf is really about, which is: "What did you score, and did you win your match."
I really hope that at the output of this is that we move back to golf's real heart, which is: "What did you score and did you win your match."
Q. Curious how you've dealt with the PGA Tour in this. Has this opinion shared with them already, and is Jason Gore or other people on your staff at Pebble Beach this week to correspond with PGA Tour players and get their reaction and make sure they are understanding of where things -- of what this all means?
MIKE DAVIS: Good morning, Adam. It's Mike. Let me take that one, if I could.
The PGA Tour has been a wonderful partner in helping provide, really, massive amounts of data that have been a big part of this data report. Obviously this report, as you've seen, it goes way beyond -- as Martin said, it goes way beyond the elite professional men's game. It goes back certainly over a century.
But the PGA Tour has had some wonderful data, particularly starting in about 1980 and moving forward. They have been a tremendous help. As we look forward to solutions, I can tell you that they have a representative, just like the LPGA has and The PGA of America, on the USGA equipment standards committee. So they will be a big part, as will, you know, the golf equipment manufacturers; as will golf course architects; owner, operators.
You know, this is a long-term play. This is about the betterment of the game and it has to be done in a responsible, collaborative way. So the PGA Tour will absolutely be a part of this.
With respect to Jason Gore, yes, he's been out quite a bit in the last several months on the PGA Tour and on the LPGA Tour and our amateur championships. I'm sure Jason will get a few questions this week, and I believe next week he's in Los Angeles. This really would begin a dialogue, particularly in 45 days from now when we introduce the topics we would like to get more feedback on, more facts.
Certainly, as I say, Jay Monahan's leadership and the Tour will be very engaged in this process.
Q. Can you speak to whether the Tour support the idea of a local rule?
MIKE DAVIS: You know, Adam, that question would be best answered by Jay Monahan and the Tour. You know, I think from what we have heard from the Tour, they understand we've just been doing research. We've been trying to, really, ask the question: Is there a problem golf need to solve for, and I think that without speaking for them, they are probably pleased to see the data and work very closely with the USGA and the R&A moving forward.
Q. Is anyone on the ground this week from the USGA or R&A?
MIKE DAVIS: On the grounds at Pebble Beach?
MIKE DAVIS: Yes, we have. I believe Jason Gore is out there. I don't know whether he's there today, but he was definitely going out.
Q. What research has been done on the amateur game, and where has that research been conducted to find out exactly what tees recreational players are using and what tees they should be using?
MARTIN SLUMBERS: I'll take that. From an R&A perspective, we have been collecting data around the elite amateur game on drive distances since 1996 and collecting that over time.
We've also worked with -- on the recreational game, we have worked with organizations to collect data around hitting distance. There's quite a lot that's now available. We have compiled all that, and in the report, and as you'll see as we've consistently done in our Driving Distance Report that we have published for the last four years, information around amateurs.
It shows the very interesting point that Mike was talking about earlier about shorter tees, and how that fits in with drive distances. I think it will inform that debate extremely well, and that's all laid out in the details, the detailed Distance Insight Report that is now available to the public.
MIKE DAVIS: Martin, thank you.
I wonder, Rand Jerris, who oversaw the data collection, do you have any additional insights there?
RAND JERRIS: Let me just add on to what Martin said. He very well described the R&A's amateur distance studies that they have done since the 1990s, and those have been really important for the project.
For information prior to 1990, there's extensive research that was done in the historical records on the game, and you'll see a summary of that contained in the Distance Insights Report that we were able to find information on recreational golf going back as far as even the late 18th century.
Certainly there is ample information that helps inform an understanding of typical drive distance for recreational golfers in consider detail from the 1890s forward.
So you'll see that summarized, and we think that historical information is a real strong complement to the really good research that the R&A has contributed since the 1990s.
Q. This is maybe two specific on the ball or too soon. Curious, would the size of the golf ball be something you would consider maybe making slightly larger to control distance, and would maybe standardizing dimple patterns so the number of dimples allowed, will either of those possibly be considered or discussed?
MIKE DAVIS: Go ahead, Martin.
MARTIN SLUMBERS: I was just going to say, it's too early to have that. We're not in solutions yet, and that will be the period from now on, and I'm sure those are the types of topics that will come up in our more broad-based solution discussions.
Q. I have two questions about opposite end of the golf spectrum. You say that as far as forward tees go, your research sinning that the forward tees that are in the low 5,000-yard area are actually too long for the golfers who should be using them. Is there a distance that you have in mind that is appropriate, and I ask this especially given the psychological difficulty of getting golfers to accept playing yardages under 6,000.
MIKE DAVIS: So really good question. It would be safe to say at this point we are committed to doing more research in assessing that topic. I think first of all, just generally speaking, some of this depends on where a golf course is and how it's designed. The forced carries, or is it high altitude, like Colorado.
So some of it really is site specific. But I think that what we found, again, generally speaking, is that you do have a set of golfers, whether it's beginning golfers or some senior golfers, that simply put, they can't with their best shots, they can't have a chance to reach greens in regulation or play the way the designer of a course wanted it to be played.
I think that we have also noticed as we did, the USGA did a Tee It Forward initiative several years ago, we absolutely found through the follow-up data that golfers enjoyed themselves more playing with a chance to hit greens in regulation. Maybe occasionally trying to make a birdie.
I think that this project overall, it really was an overall look at the whole game, as opposed to just the elite game, even though certainly the elite game is part of this.
Q. A follow-up. Then the other end is do you have a sense of what percentage of golfers you are talking about in terms of the elite game that is drawing so much concern?
MIKE DAVIS: So Jeff, to answer that, we do not have that data. It's a good question you're asking.
What we do know, though, is that as golf courses over the years have expanded, and they are still expanding. Data would suggest they will continue to stand. What we do know is those costs end up getting bourne by all golfers.
So even though perhaps a small percentage play from the longest teeing grounds, when a course feels a necessity to expand, it affects the players playing there, whether it's a private club or a daily fee golf course, and I think that that's -- this idea as Martin rightfully said, this idea that every generation feels it has to hit it further than the previous, is something we just don't feel is in keeping with the long-term best interests of the game.
And I guess to analogize to other sports, you don't see other sports continually having to change their playing fields, to change their stadiums, their arenas, to do what golf's basically done for over a hundred years. So we just want to break that cycle of seeing golf courses feeling like they have to change.
CRAIG ANNIS: Any closing thoughts?
MARTIN SLUMBERS: I would just like to thank everybody for joining the call and participating, and we look forward to continuing this debate in the coming years.
MIKE DAVIS: And I will second that. Thank you, everybody, for your time today. Thanks for the time reading through the data report, as well as the statement of conclusions. This is a long-term play for the betterment of the game, and we appreciate everybody's time today, and we'll look forward to continuing this process in the years to come.
CRAIG ANNIS: Thank you, both of you, for your comments, Martin and Mike. We will go live with the full report and all of the other materials at 11:00 a.m. Eastern time. If you have any further questions, please don't hesitate to contact Mike Woodcook and Jeanine Driscoll.
Thank you for joining and we appreciate your time and your work reporting about this important issue.
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