Phil Mickelson. Picture: GEOFF BURKE
Phil Mickelson. Picture: GEOFF BURKE

The distance debate gathered a whole new head of steam in the last week after the USGA and R&A released a joint statement regarding the length of shafts in competitions.

Technically, the announcement on  October 12 that the maximum shaft length will be reduced from 48 inches  to 46 inches is what’s called a Model Local Rule — a rule generally designed to give tournament organisers or tours the right to implement a rule limiting driver length.

Some pros agree, some disagree.

Phil Mickelson definitely disagrees. The six-time Major champion immediately took to Twitter to express his displeasure: “Stupid is as stupid does. Really though, are amateurs trying their best to govern the professional game, the stupid ones? Or the professionals for letting them?”

It wasn’t the first time Mickelson vented on this subject.

In August, he called the impending rule “pathetic” and accused the USGA and R&A of trying to make the game “less fun”. In a video he delved deeper into the matter, comparing shaft restrictions to the square-groove ban in 2010, and suggested that the governing bodies rather look at getting rid of the perimeter-weighted golf ball.

“It’s just an idea to start addressing the real issue, and not have these other issues that are taking a lot of the fun away from the game. It’s not really addressing the problem,” Mickelson remarked.

To be fair, the distance debate around shaft length has been discussed and researched by the USGA and R&A since 2014. After a few stops and starts, it was announced as a proposal in February.

After Tuesday’s announcement and after statements from the PGA Tour and LPGA Tour that both tours would implement the local rule in 2022 (the PGA Tour set January 1 2022 as the first date of enforcement), the USGA spoke out for the first time.

Thomas Pagel, its senior MD of governance, said the new limit would be applied to all 14 USGA Championships, starting in 2022.

Appearing on the Golf Channel’s Golf Today, Pagel explained that the MLR G-10 rule would not affect recreational golfers and would only apply to the game’s highest levels. Pagel called it a “proactive measure” and said the rule would have minimal effect on the pros, citing data that it would only affect about 3% of professional golfers who use shafts longer than 46 inches.

“You saw a trend of more players experimenting with longer shafts. The governing bodies have been accused in the past of being reactive, and this was an opportunity for us to be proactive and cap something that is going to have a really small impact. Had we waited, I think the change would have been that much harder,” Pagel said.

He further said  the decision was not accelerated by any one player’s success with a longer driver.

So, is he saying that Michelson’s PGA Championship win in May with a driver that measured 47.5 inches did not influence the decision on the shaft length rollback? Or the 48-inch driver that Bryson DeChambeau has been experimenting with this year?

It is a fact that driver shaft lengths have increased over the last quarter of a century.

In the 1990s, the average shaft on the PGA Tour was 43 inches, but by 2020 the average had increased to between 44.5 and 45.5 inches. While it’s all good and well to say the new rule will not affect recreational golfers, nor will it affect any manufacturer interested in selling drivers longer than the new 46-inch limit, it is also a fact that more amateur golfers use longer shafts than the pros.

And here’s why.

Most manufacturers know that driver sales are based primarily on distance. And when hitting off a monitor mat in a retail outlet, a longer shaft brings you swing speed and therefore more distance on your best strikes. That is why the majority of drivers being introduced by manufacturers now feature a shaft length of 45 to 45.75 inches.

So, if this rule is not intended to affect the recreational golfer, why bring it in at all? Because, with the Model Local Rule in play, nothing stops the USGA and R&A from upgrading it to a Rule of Golf in a year or two.

And therein lies golf’s conundrum.

In the midst of a global pandemic, golf has thrived by nearly all metrics. More new players are coming to the game. Equipment sales are through the roof. More rounds are being played. The recreational golfers’ equipment choice has always been strongly influenced by the professional game.

So, here is some good advice for the hackers.

In a paper published by the University of Waterloo after extensive testing, the panel concluded that the rule to limit club length to 46 inches might help curb future distance gains at elite level, but it is unlikely to reduce current driving distance as five of the most recent leaders in the distance driving on the PGA Tour use drivers less than 46 inches.

Perhaps, to gain that extra 10 yards, use those inches between your ears and stick to your 44 to 46-inch shaft!

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