Golf’s flourishing as a pandemic-compliant sport is a comfort to those who had feared for the future of a time-consuming pursuit. There remains, however, an elephant in the clubhouse; one visible as Bryson DeChambeau powered his way to US Open glory and subsequently posted detail of a 400-yard drive.
Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy have been drawn back into the equipment debate in recent weeks. Gary Player insisted golf “must cut the ball back” or a mockery will be made of venues. The R&A and USGA, the lawmakers on either sides of the Atlantic, continue to study the impact of enhanced driving distances. To traditionalists, that DeChambeau – and others – can batter historic venues into submission is an affront to the game
There is an alternative view, of which the R&A and USGA will be fully aware. As president and chief executive of TaylorMade, David Abeles is one of the most powerful men in the golf industry. TaylorMade don’t just supply Woods and McIlroy, they are hugely visible in respect of 50m recreational players worldwide. Ask Abeles about rolling back equipment and the reply is candid.
“I have never seen a golfer – at any level – walk off the 18th green and say ‘You know what, I’ve decided not to play anymore because this game is just too easy for me,’” he says. “If you can find somebody who has made that comment …
“There are a series of variables that are enhancing improvement in the game. We believe in improvement. We exist to help golfers at every level, play and enjoy the game. When you see game improvement, there is more energy, when there is more energy there is more participation. When there is more participation, we all win.
“Whatever decisions are made, they should be made in the spirit of more coming to the game and enjoying it. I do not believe making the game more difficult is a solution for our industry. It has become very clear to us you can address the highest level of tournament play in any way you choose, to adjust scoring.”
The argument is compelling. It also demonstrates the difficulty the governing bodies will have if – and it remains a huge if – they decide drivers and balls must be scaled down. “This world is not about moving technology backwards,” Abeles says. “You are going to take a 15-handicapper, if there was a rule change that rolled back ball speed or driver technology, the average guy who hits it 230 yards off the tee is now hitting it less. Their approach shot is now with a three, four, five-iron instead of a seven, eight now. Does the game get more fun hitting that four-iron or eight-iron?”
That TaylorMade and others can produce leading equipment regardless of limitations as imposed elsewhere seems obvious. This offers one reason their resistance to change is interesting. As Abeles readily infers, what is to stop equipment companies playing by their own standards?
“As a governing body you can choose to modify your rules in any way you feel acceptable,” Abeles says. “That’s ultimately their decision. The question is who is going to follow it? Right now, we can design and develop whatever we want as an authentic company. We play by the construct of the rules that have been created around the sport as relates to equipment and ball development. We believe that’s the right space to be in, in the spirit of the traditions of the game.
“But there is nobody prohibiting us from going and building a ball that goes further or a driver that does the same. We are working on advanced technologies all the time to do that. We have chosen not to do that [bring such products for sale] because we want to unify the sport and apply the same rules. If there was a rollback, we would have to draw real consideration as it relates to what we choose to bring to market.
“I believe if there was to be a rollback considered, at any level, we run the risk of alienating millions . If we do that, we want to provide golfers who might look at things in a different way if it gets more difficult with products that will suit their game. That could lead us down the road of a couple of different equipment lines. We hope that is not the case because it gets very complicated.”
When Woods won the Masters in astonishing scenes last year, a new set of irons carrying his name sold out globally within 28 days. TaylorMade took 2,000 times their standard call volume inside 48 hours of Woods’s success as amateur players looked for insight into his equipment. Abeles is confident golf’s positioning during Covid could be “a catalyst for participation to accelerate beyond what we have seen for 20 years.”
Those who deliver products to allow for such growth are integral to the game’s development; the R&A and USGA somehow have to find consensus.