Golf has too many balls in the air to debate distance

Viktor Hovland, of Norway, walks on the seventh hole Tuesday during a practice round for the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament at The Los Angeles Country Club. (AP Photo/Matt York)

LOS ANGELES — Professional golf rarely has been this divided, bordering on hostile, and there is no simple solution. It was always going to be a hot topic at the U.S. Open.

So maybe the USGA should be thankful. No one is talking about rolling back the golf ball.

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“It obviously pales in comparison, when before it was maybe the biggest new issue we were talking about,” Patrick Cantlay said Tuesday.

It seems small now, especially with the consternation and confusion that has gripped players over the last week about the PGA Tour and European tour becoming partners with the Saudi national wealth fund behind LIV Golf, the great disruptor in the sport.

No one knows what to expect from the agreement to pool commercial businesses and rights. No one is entirely sure who will be in charge. What happens to the LIV Golf League next year? Is this the last we hear of the Cleeks and Majesticks?

The shock is still fresh among so many players, particularly how blindsided they were by PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan not telling any of the players — Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy included — about the deal until right before it was announced.

This figures to be a primary topic of conversation the rest of the year.

And that’s why the USGA and R&A should put their proposal for a shorter golf ball on ice.

The proposal for a “model local rule” that could lead to rolling back the distance a golf ball travels for elite players is in feedback mode. Manufacturers and others can weigh in until Aug. 14. If the governing bodies adopt the proposal, it would take effect starting in 2026.

That’s two years down the road. But there remains much discussion, which was starting to get heated. And right now, golf has enough strife on its plate.

This can wait. Golf won’t suffer by putting on hold the debate about whether distance is hurting the game. So many opponents of the proposed rollback will say golf has never been stronger.

That’s not the point. Golf has never been in such disarray. There’s no need to add another layer of argument.

This golf ball debate was starting to get testy, right up until Monahan and Yasir Al-Rumayyan, who controls the Saudi wealth fund, sat next to each other in a television interview for an announcement that even a week later has created far more shock than awe, not to mention lingering anger.

The player meeting at the Canadian Open was described as heated and intense as Monahan tried to explain to players why the tour became partners with former adversaries, and why he kept them in the dark. Among the topics was whether Monahan should be replaced, which was greeted by applause from a dozen or so players.

Oddly enough, that fit the description of a meeting a week earlier at the Memorial, when the PGA Tour invited the governing bodies to state their case for the ball rollback, followed by an opportunity for three manufacturers to weigh in. By all accounts, it wasn’t a fair fight.

“Tensions were high in those meetings,” said Cantlay, one of five players on the PGA Tour board. “But like I said, it takes bit of a backseat given all the other stuff going on.”

The USGA and R&A have reason to feel like they have waited long enough. The first big movement was four years ago when they issued findings that claimed golfers at all levels were hitting the ball farther than ever and it was time to break the cycle.

A year later, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and pushed back the timeline. The proposal to provide an option to roll back the ball for elite players was issued in March.

Still to be determined is whether the PGA Tour goes along with the model local rule, which would create undeniable bifurcation of the rules, a first in the nearly 300 years since the sport had its first set of rules.

Based on the meeting at the Memorial, players are largely unified against change.

“I think the USGA should not put it on the shelf, but put it in a safe and lock it up so far away they can’t even think about it anymore,” Billy Horschel said. “I don’t think rolling back is the right way to go. I think it’s the easy way out.”

OK. He doesn’t like the proposal.

Jon Rahm was more measured, almost resigned to whatever happens.

“They keep trying to protect from distance by adding distance to a golf course in a way where only long hitters are going to have a better chance to win,” Rahm said. “I don’t know how else to really explain it. If they want to roll it back, then so be it.

“I think they’re only going to … affect the shorter hitters a little bit more. I don’t think the top players in the world will change.”

The governing bodies argue sustainability, such as the land (and water) required to build bigger golf courses to handle increasing distance, along with restoring the challenge and full test of the game’s best players on some of the most venerable golf courses.

There is passionate debate on both sides. At least there was, until the Saudi involvement with the PGA Tour and European tour came along.

Now might not be the right environment to continue this debate.

“I personally think it was bad before the environment, so I think it would be even more turbulent in a time of turbulence,” Cantlay said. “Which is not what the game needs.”

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