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Bifurcation: Fixing golf’s indigestion
Of the issues that dominated golf’s conversation in 2013—Tiger’s drops, Brandel’s report card’s, Keegan’s belly putter, Sergio’s jokes, and oh, sure, slow play—let me suggest another that will resonate far beyond this season. It speaks directly to the focus of GolfWRX: Bifurcation.
A golfing friend of mine said he didn’t understand Bifurcation. “It sounds like a gastro-intestinal disorder. What are you talking about?”
Bifurcation essentially means: We don’t play the same game as they do. We being recreational golfers, they being very high-level competitors. And since we don’t play the same game we won’t pretend we do. Not in the rules of play, not in the way we set up courses, not in the way we regulate—or don’t—equipment. In short: two games, two sets of rules.
But aren’t we kind of there already? We don’t play the same tees. In fact, we’re encouraged to “Tee it Forward.” We ride carts—pros can’t. We don’t follow the professional “one-ball” rule. And nobody’s standing on the first tee of the local muni measuring our grooves.
Bifurcation means you make this division formal. You declare it. You make it official. Rules of play for amateurs, on the one hand, and pros on the other, are different. And there lies the rub. Though few of us would argue that we play under the same conditions as, say, Rory McIlroy, declaring this formally is like admitting that D-1 college football players really aren’t amateurs; that Britney Spears doesn’t really look like she does on the cover of Elle; that your Chevy is not the one Jeff Gordon drives.
Manufacturers—with a few exceptions– tend to oppose bifurcation because they market their products on the basis of you playing the same game–with the same equipment–as their stars. Buy this driver and hit it like Bubba. Use this wedge and get up and down like Luke. Beyond commercial consideration, they believe—sincerely, I think–that the game loses an important universality when that connection is eroded.
Your R1: TaylorMade’s marketing campaign for its 2013 R1 driver revolved around its use by the company’s tour staff. It was the same driver the pros were using, the ads said, but it could be adjusted to fit any golfer.
Rule-makers tend to oppose bifurcation because to them it represents a slippery slope–and the complicated maintenance of that slope—leading to rules chaos. “Well, if the long putter is okay for you but not the pros, why not a ball that straightens itself out? What about those U grooves. A livelier driver face? Won’t that take all of the challenge out of the game?” OMG!
USGA Executive Director Mike Davis says his organization and the R&A are working on language to simplify the rules. But bifurcation could go well beyond that. It might, for example, lead to what our buddies group called a “Reasonable Man’s Rules of Golf:”
- No out of bounds. Play boundaries as a lateral hazards.
- If the ball moves a little but it makes no difference, so what?
- Tap down a bad spike mark.
- Roll your ball out of a divot.
Any golfer can do this informally, of course, but some important voices are arguing for making it overt. Former PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman this fall addressed a pace-of-play meeting at the USGA and made a passionate case for bifurcation of equipment rules.
It was akin to Martin Luther tacking his reforms on the front door of the Vatican.
“Baseball has not been harmed because in the big leagues you cannot use metal bats like in college. And softball, with different rules and field size, has helped millions of girls and women to be interested in baseball,” said Beman. “Is the stance against bifurcation of the rules in golf really protecting the integrity of the game?”
Beman sure doesn’t think so. The upcoming rule against anchored putting, he argued, was a perfect example of reining in the professional game at the expense of amateur play.
“I’d like to see one of my old pals, who can’t eat peas anymore because his hands shake so badly they fall off his fork before he can them to his mouth, keep his anchored putter.”
Conversely, he said, opposing bifurcation also hurts the pro game, because authorities are reluctant to make equipment rules for the best players that would discourage amateurs, the long putter being the exception. Beman would force pros to play with a ball that “spins more and thus curves more, and a driver that if you mishit the ball at 120 mph—would soar off into the unknown.” We could keep our self-correctors.
After his talk he grabbed a reporter in the hall. “Hey, we’re already there,” he said. “We don’t play the same tees!”
Which is where another of the game’s Wise Men, Barney Adams steps in. Adams, who founded Adams Golf and calculated that amateurs play courses that are far longer, relatively speaking, than those the pros play, inspired the Tee it Forward movement. And his “Tour Tees” idea takes that a step further. If you really want to play the way the pros do, says Adams, then set your course up so you’ll hit approach shots like theirs—on average, an 8-iron. In short, for amateurs who hit the ball maybe 220 yards on average say goodbye to 440-yard par 4s on your local public course. Green speeds of 12? Forget about it.
Adams, Beman and many others argue that the game is too hard and too slow and that those two things are related. Play is down not because golf is too expensive, says Adams, but because it’s not fun. He calls it “product rejection.” “It’s like a bad movie,” Adams says. “People don’t go.”
Will allowing amateurs to play by different rules (with different equipment) than pros make a dent in this problem? Maybe not. But Beman and others say we have to try. Industry initiatives to boost play have produced at best modest results. Retirees are playing less frequently than previous generations and Millennials—those sought-after 18-35 year olds—aren’t playing as much as their age group once did.
Golf has a big problem, even if some of us nut cases don’t always feel it.
In such circumstances one tends to listen to one’s elders.