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  • Alistair Tait

Golf's distance debate at crucial crossroads

When the green jackets of Augusta National talk, the governing bodies listen. You can bet the R&A and USGA were listening intently to Augusta chairman Fred Ridley when he gave the chairman’s traditional state of the union address on the eve of the 85th Masters.

They probably knew what was coming given the cosy old boys' network that exists at the top of world golf. If the men in charge at St Andrews and Far Hills, New Jersey didn’t know how Ridley felt about golf’s raging distance debate, then they do now. Ridley in essence sent a shot across their bows, a shot that basically said enough is enough – or else!

Augusta is arguably the richest golf club in the world. Money isn’t an issue. The club can change the golf course any which way it wants, but even the green jackets in charge of the course that Jones built can only do so much to reign in the long bombers. Ridley made that perfectly clear when he said:

“As I have stated in the past each year, we look at every hole of our golf course. Fortunately, we do have the ability to make any number of changes to protect the integrity of the course. At the same time, we hope there will not come a day when the Masters or any golf championship will have to be played at 8,000 yards to achieve that objective."
"This is an important crossroads; so we will continue to urge the governing bodies and all interested parties to put forward thoughtful solutions as soon as possible.”

As we saw from this year's opening round, the only defence Augusta has nowadays is to take the greens to the very edge of playability to stop players shooting lights out. That sub air system was a good investment to stop the world's best tearing the place up. And as we saw in November, the course is vulnerable when it's soft . Hence Dustin Johnson's 20-under-par winning total, a tally almost unheard of at Augusta National in its traditional April date. It was the first time any player broke 270, and you can bet the green jackets weren't happy.

There’s even been talk about the Masters introducing a reduced compression, tournament ball to battle the advance of technology. Interesting to note Ridley did not rule that out.

“I know there's been some talk in the past of possibly a Masters golf ball or something like that. I would think that would be highly unlikely and would, in my view, be an absolute last resort.
“Our position would be to support the governing bodies, and then if there is no action taken, for whatever reason, then we need to look at other options with regard to our golf course and what we can do to continue to challenge these great golfers and maintain the design integrity that was initially adopted by Mr. Jones and Mr. MacKenzie.”

“Other options” sounds ominous. The entire game is waiting with anticipation to hear how the governing bodies intend to negotiate this crossroads following the "distance insights" project given there's polarisation between those saying let the bombers loose, and others saying the game is getting out of hand. Somehow the R&A and USGA have to chart a path through the middle to protect the game's integrity, while not doing anything to affect the majority who play this game for fun.

#JustSaying: “I am sure if they did, everyone would still come and play." Fred Couples on the Masters introducing a tournament ball

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