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Golf Bifurcation, or Will Easier Rules Make Golf More Popular?

Golf Bifurcation, or Will Easier Rules Make Golf More Popular?

Golf Bifurcation, or Will Easier Rules Make Golf More Popular?

Let’s talk about golf bifurcation. Do we need two sets of rules, one for pros and another simpler and less stringent encompassing set for the rest of us to make golf more accessible and popular? 

First, what does bifurcation mean? According to the dictionary bifurcate means to “divide or fork into two branches.”  What does this have to do with golf? Well, there is an ongoing conversation between the ruling bodies (USGA and R&A) and the club manufacturers (OEMs) about whether or not all golfers should be held to the strict rules that are imposed upon those playing on the professional golf tours as well as those amateurs who play in elite tournaments, versus the everyday golfer who plays the game primarily for enjoyment. 

Does golf need two sets of rules, one easier for non-pros to make it more popular?

Does golf need two sets of rules, one easier for non-pros to make it more popular?

Years ago, during one of my visits to the USGA headquarters in New Jersey, I met with Frank Thomas who at that time was the Technical Director of the USGA. Thomas was known as a stickler for the rules of the game and was not easily moved off his opinion of what was and was not conforming when it came to golf club design. Since I was the manager of research and development for a large golf manufacturer and had some interesting ideas on how to push the envelope of club design, Thomas and I often saw things differently. However, I can say that we both had respect for each other’s viewpoints. I will say this – during Thomas’ time as technical director at the USGA, there were very narrow specifications in regard to the “spring-like effect” allowed for metal woods. 

Should golf have two sets of rules and equipment regs to attract new players? Is it too hard and complicated for newcomers?

Should golf have two sets of rules and equipment regs to attract new players? Is it too hard and complicated for newcomers?

If Thomas had been at the helm during the last few years of the phenomenal increase in the Coefficient of Restitution (COR) in metal wood head design, we would not see top golfers launching the ball to the astronomical distances evident on the PGA Tour these days. This would have helped protect the integrity of some of the classic courses and lessened the need to stretch the tee boxes to areas not previously located on the actual golf courses. But I digress.  I had brought some prototypes for Thomas to review, and he and I began the dance of what would be allowed. I believe that I might have made a comment about making the game easier for folks and increasing their enjoyment. At that point, Thomas looked at me very seriously and waded up a piece of paper into a ball. He said that people enjoy golf because they play by the same rules as Arnold Palmer and can try to match what Arnie did. With that he tossed the ball of paper into the wastebasket. He said, “Yeah! Just like Arnie.” I got his meaning.  By keeping the rules firm and consistent, the USGA’s position is that you are playing the same game today that Harry Vardon, Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and last week’s winner on the Tour. You have something concrete to measure your game against. I think that we all can agree that this is a worthy viewpoint. 

Many argue one of the great things about golf is that you play the same game as the pros. Myriad rules and all.

Many argue one of the great things about golf is that you play the same game as the pros. Myriad rules and all.

However, let me put my OEM hat back on. Golf is a very hard and sometimes frustrating game. It requires years of practice to become skilled enough to play at a top level. Wouldn’t it be better to have one set of rules for elite players and another for people who play for exercise and fun?  That’s the bifurcation argument. As an OEM, I want the handcuffs off — and I want to be allowed free reign to make clubs launch the ball into near orbit of the planet. I also want to be able to sell a lot more clubs to all the giddy folks who are now able to hit their tee ball 400 yards and putt for eagle on almost every hole. But will this still be golf as we know it? Will the game still be a challenge? Will we feel like a champ when we birdie the toughest hole on the course, especially if a Tour event was played on it, and your favorite player failed to birdie that hole? That’s the question.  If we break golf down to its basics — a stick, a ball and a hole — is it still golf? I am not advocating using a mortar cannon to fire the ball at some far away target. You’ll still have to swipe at the ball with a stick. But is it still golf?  Now, there are huge metal wood heads with extremely high coefficients of restitution’s (COR), or the spring-life effect on a driver. Golf balls rocket off the face at speeds only seen from jet planes. Oh yeah, and golf cups are the size of water buckets. That will make it more fun.

Golf's level of difficulty makes it a lifelong sport for many.

Golf’s level of difficulty makes it a lifelong sport for many.

I actually once played golf with larger cups. A few years back a guy in Dallas, Texas, had the idea to make an official version of golf with a 6-inch diameter hole instead of the 4.25-inch version we play with today. That doesn’t sound like much of a difference, but it was. He called me at the OEM I worked at to have me and some other folks try this out at a nearby golf course. We played nine holes in a little over an hour. If you were near the green, you made no worse than par. We birdied a substantial number of the holes since you could take a pretty good rip at the cup without fear of it lipping out. If you missed the putt, the comebacker was a cinch. We played fast, we played well; the game was easy, and I will say we had fun. But it wasn’t really golf. We never played to the big cups again.  So there you have it. Should we create two sets of rules using bifurcation? Or keep golf the same maddening, exasperating, challenging sport that we have all come to appreciate and love? I’ll leave it for you to decide.


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