Thursday, 1 March 2012

Bifurcation - My View

Switch on the golf coverage on the TV and irrespective of which tour you are watching, these modern day professionals will all be hitting their drives many a mile. Even playing from the rough they are able to hit their irons a ridiculous distance and give them a shot from a perfectly manicured fairway and their yardages bear no resemblance to the performance the ordinary player can generate. As golf is played within a finite area, this ability to hit the ball further, along with ever increasing core strength from numerous gym sessions is threatening to make some of the worlds most famous and iconic courses impotent to the modern tour player.

For a while now there has been talk in the game about introducing two separate rules of golf. One for professionals and one for the recreational player. This potential split is called bifurcation. Whilst there currently seems to be an entrenched stance from the two governing bodies the R&A and the USGA, who feel the game only needs one set of rules and equipment, some of the games most luminary figures, including the greatest golfer ever, Jack Nicklaus, are making louder and louder noises about the need to split the game in two.

Part of the argument Nicklaus puts forward involves using a unified ball in tour events that travels much shorter distances. His rationale is simple. It will reduce the need to bulk these great courses up year on year, usually at significant cost, to place the tees further and further back or to redesign the location of fairway bunkering. By reigning in the distances, he argues that the likes of Augusta, Pebble Beach and St Andrews can defend themselves more readily and that the existing hazards that have been there for years, and were in reach for players as recently as a decade ago, will be brought back into play. That would mean players having to plot their way around the course. At Augusta for example, the par fives would be more of a challenge rather than a drive and a flick with a mid iron and that Rae's Creek would be in play far more often and there would a higher tariff on shots into those glass like greens from the fairway sand. Infamous bunkers at St Andrews such as the The Spectacles and the Coffin would be in range instead of being fired over with disdain.

There is also a growing call for the equipment the professionals use to be reviewed and that these modern drivers with their dinner plate heads to be reduced to something smaller. With smaller sweet spots the premium will be on ball striking. If courses make the rough tricky, not necessarily long but enough so the ball sinks in, then these changes, along with reduced distance balls and bunkering in play, will favour the better player. The out and out bomber can currently clear the trouble. Even when they spray it off line they are rarely punished and can still make the green but they are going to have to find a way to keep it straighter more often and it is going to level the playing field. Surely for the viewing public and perhaps more importantly the sponsors who want value for money, this will result in tighter finishes. Granted there may not be the birdie festival and the -20 scores we often see but surely there is more enjoyment to be gained watching the top players constructing rather than bludgeoning a score.

Jack Nicklaus - the games greatest player wants changes to the Pro game and its equipment
It all sounds a rosy picture and the arguments for bifurcation that Nicklaus put forward are compelling. There is of course an inevitable flip side. The golf governing bodies are very firmly against this idea of a two tier set of rules. David Rickman, the R&A's Director of Rules has gone on record and said "The R&A and the USGA continue to believe that a single set of rules for all players, irrespective of ability, is one of golfs greatest strengths".
Manufacturers are going to have a big say on this and certainly won't make the first move and will wait for the powers that be to make the initial first step and agree to the changes. At the moment, the club golfer can go out and get the same club that the top players use (granted the pros are custom fitted to very exacting specifications) and this is part of the games charm. We can all get the latest driver and try to out boom Bubba or the latest high spinning wedge and fantasise that we can make the ball sing like Seve or Mickleson from impossible lies. Would the club golfer pegging it up with his mates once a week really want to play a different version of the game. Of course it could be argued the game for majority is meant to be fun and that perhaps many golfers make it unnecessarily hard for themselves by using clubs not suited to their game based on who is using them on tour and not on their own ability to strike a ball. Of course it has always been so. I had a set of Ben Sayers - Ray Floyd blades and I'm sure at the time I was influenced by his name being on them.

Should the decision be taken to reign in power using a ball that goes shorter distances, where do you draw the line? Of course, we have had a degree of bifurcation before. When I started as a ten year old, there were two types of golf ball. The smaller version used in the UK and the larger American counterpart. There was a decision in the late 1970's that there should be a unified size and the British ball was consigned to history for use in the Open Championship. I was too young to remember how much debate and furore this caused but we've all seemed to have moved on and all play nicely with the one size fits all outcome.

If the ball change is made it is going to have to be uniformed and would it be offered to just one company to produce or would there be a way for the big players in the market such as Titleist, Srixon, Taylormade etc to make a ball to exactly the same specs and performance. Are there dangers for the integrity of the game if one name is responsible for such an integral piece of equipment. Where does that leave the others left out in the cold other than the amateur market and recreational players to cater for.

Start with one piece of equipment and inevitably there will be a domino effect and it wouldn't be long before wedges were looked at again and the current hot potato, the belly putter, came under intense scrutiny. Will the manufacturers really be able to absorb the cost of producing two sets of equipment on such a regular basis as now. Will they focus purely on the professional game and will the eager weekend golfer be starved of new releases and pay substantially more as the makers look to recoup R&D and production overheads. Inevitable any charges will be passed on to the poor consumer via the RRP at point of purchase either at your local pro shop or retail outlet.

Of course bifurcation goes so much further than just the equipment. There is a lobby that wants two sets of rules, one for professional tournament play and one for the rest of the golfing world. Now to me, this is where the waters muddy. I have no major issue with equipment changes. It's nonsense in my mind to think club golfers are playing the same game as the pros or indeed the elite amateurs. Let them use whatever is necessary to make the courses play stronger without the need to continually construct 7,500 yard courses to accommodate the modern game.

I do have an issue with playing by a different set of rules. There have been numerous examples of professionals being penalised via trial by television, where the pictures have shown an infringement. These haven't always been picked up at the time and the player was innocently aware of any transgression. However retrospective penalties have been awarded but as the player had already signed for a lower score the only option available is disqualification. I can see the merit in a change to allow the penalty to be added once absolute evidence has been presented and allowing them to continue in the event. If I make a mistake in my monthly medal, it is my word against that of my partners and it goes down to the decision of the competition secretary. There's no TV replay but if I signed for the wrong score would I be DQ'd or just have the extra shots awarded and my position and any handicap change altered accordingly. Doubtful.

Again, start with one rule change and bit by bit, they will be tweaked more and more to adapt to the vagaries of a professional event. To some degree I think David Rickman has it spot on. I wouldn't be happy to play under a different set of rules. There is no difference to batting at Lords or on the village green, scoring at Wembley or Hackney Marshes and it allows the weekend player to play exactly the same game as Pieterson or Rooney. I think that whether you are a struggling 28 handicap golfer or reigning club champion, the beauty of this great game is the fact that we can peg it up next to a top player, as many do in Pro-Ams, using the same equipment and compete under one rulebook.

I think change is inevitable. The game of golf has never stood still and has adapted and developed and will continue to do so. Personally, and of course it's only my opinion, I think the equipment side of things will fragment into a professional and amateur co-existence but I cling to the hope that we stay under the one umbrella when it comes to the rules of golf. Naturally if they do change my game will live and die by the new version but I think it will be to the greater detriment of the game certainly in terms its the heart and spirit. Either way, times they are a changing and sooner or later questions will be asked and tough decisions needed to be made. Interesting times ahead, but what do you think? Where do we go from here?

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