Perspective in the Distance Debate? What’s it worth?

Mark McGowan

Rory McIlroy on day one at Riviera Country Club (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

“Let me tell you something right now, you can print this in stone and don’t you ever forget it; any performer who ever sells a product is now and for all eternity removed from the artistic world.”  

Those are the words of the late American comedian Bill Hicks, whose cutting-edge style was a stark contrast from the “hack” comedy that was prevalent on the stand-up circuit at the time. He would qualify those remarks by asserting that to do so made you a “corporate shill” and that every word you ever spoke would be suspect.  

Lung cancer called him to the great gig in the sky at the age of 32, but in the near three decades since his passing, endorsement culture in celebrity circles has reached nauseating levels and shows no sign of abating, and I couldn’t help but think of Hicks as golf’s elite came out in droves in defence of the equipment companies who line their pockets year after year. 


This was in response to the joint R&A and USGA Distance Insights Update that was released a few weeks back, when, unsurprisingly, a large cohort of turkeys sided with the anti-Christmas brigade. 

Whatever your thoughts on any potential equipment roll back, that golf courses can’t keep getting longer must surely be common ground. Land has always been a precious commodity – see just about every war ever fought – and that will never change. You don’t have to be a mathematical genius to work out that larger playing areas equate to higher running costs, or to see how longer walks correlate to longer rounds.  

Now, I don’t know about you, but in my experience, cost and time are the two biggest hurdles when it comes to growing the game. Again, you don’t have to be Mensa-certified to see that making the game more expensive and more time-consuming will be detrimental in the long run.  

You can’t buy common sense, but you can certainly buy its suppression. Maybe Webb Simpson isn’t the cleverest guy on tour, or maybe the millions of dollars that Titleist pony up every year trumps all, but Webb has repeatedly spoken out against mitigating distance, despite being one of the players who would benefit most from it. World class in every aspect of the game apart from driving – and that’s only because it’s not physically possible for him to keep up with the bombers – a reduced flight ball means he loses less yardage than the biggest hitters, but Titleist’s current ProV series is the number one selling ball in golf, and when you’re at the top, the only way is down. 

Rory McIlroy is widely and rightly regarded as one of the supreme ball strikers in the game, and also one of the most outspoken. In the days following the latest Distance Insight’s release, Rory actively encouraged journalists to quiz him on the report’s findings, unnecessarily extending his press conference to do so, before labelling the findings a complete waste of time and money. Again, the consensus suggests that the purest strikers will remain so, whether they’re using a 460cc carbon composite driver head with graphite shaft and a triple-layered urethane ball, designed for optimal penetrating flight or using a 180cc persimmon head with a hickory shaft and a ball comprised of a hard shell encasing multiple wound rubber bands. 

Perhaps McIlroy is genuinely thinking about the hacking weekend warrior, or perhaps the $100 million that TaylorMade are paying is guiding his tongue. Justin Thomas, Paul Casey, Billy Horschel and Phil Mickelson are among the other players to speak out against any rollback, but Titleist and Callaway line their pockets as well.  

It is no surprise that the most vocal exponents of a rollback are retirees like Jack Nicklaus and Michael Clayton, beholden to nobody but themselves, and whose appreciation for the game is such that even the most ardent cynics are hard pushed to question their motivations. 

Titleist, TaylorMade, Callaway, Srixon and the other leading equipment manufacturers all have one thing in common; they are all major companies whose ultimate goal is to make as much money as possible, and hey, few can blame them. In capitalist culture, it is the nature of the beast. And we’re talking huge money here. TaylorMade don’t pay McIlroy $10 million a year because they think he’s a good guy, it’s a calculated financial decision and they project that the investment is worth more than $100 million in revenue over a decade-long period.  

Add Tiger Woods at similar figures, and a stable that includes Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, Matt Wolff and a host of other big names, and you get an idea of the sort of money we’re talking about here. What is harder to work out is exactly what these companies give back. 

They’ve saved no struggling courses, have no college scholarship programs, and put next to nothing into junior programs or support. I’m not saying that they’re obligated to, but the fact that they don’t speaks volumes.  

Say what you like about the USGA and the R&A – and many do – but they are non-profit organisations and almost all of their resources are dedicated to growing the game on a macro level; Junior development, internship programs, research grants for better turf, facility and club management, not to mention the enormous investment in amateur competition. The expense accrued in three years of the Distance Insights Report’s assembly, as Will Knights of The Fried Egg highlights, is a drop in the ocean by comparison. 

Now, I won’t go quite as far as Bill Hicks. For professional players, this is their livelihood, and if one of the big manufacturers wants to pay them truckloads of money for an endorsement, then that’s fine. Hell, if they want to pay me then I’ll not say no. To quote The Wire’s Clay Davis, “I’ll take any mother****er’s money if he’s givin’ it away,” so it’d be hypocritical to criticise McIlroy, Thomas and co for doing likewise.  

But, quite rightly, whatever modicum of credibility I’d have in any equipment debate would be gone. Hicks had a point… 


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