The memo that Jay Monahan sent to members of the PGA Tour on Wednesday evening contained 13 paragraphs, but one bullet point related to distance surely caught the attention of Mike Whan, the CEO of the United States Golf Association.
Whan and his team, along with with the R&A and its CEO, Martin Slumbers, are working to create support and momentum for the proposed Model Local Rule that would require elite players to use reduce-distance golf balls. Throughout the current “Notice and Comment” period, many players, including Justin Thomas, have come out against the idea, but other influential players like Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods have come out in favor of it. Fred Ridley, chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club, also showed support for the idea of elite players using reduced-distance balls during his press conference before the start of this year’s Masters.
If support from McIlroy, Woods and Ridley gave Whan and Slumbers cause for optimism, Monahan’s memo was a reminder that nothing is settled.
“As you know, we have spent the last two years undertaking a comprehensive analysis of distance on the PGA Tour and its impact. Although there has been some level of support for limiting future increases, there is widespread and significant belief the proposed Modified Local Rule is not warranted and is not in the best interest of the game. Following a discussion on the topic at a recent PAC meeting, we have notified the USGA and The R&A that while the PGA Tour is committed to collaborating with them – and all industry partners – to arrive at a solution that will best serve our players, our fans and the game at all levels, we are not able to support the MLR as proposed. As the formal feedback period to the USGA and the R&A comes to an end and this process evolves, I will be in touch with updates.”
Golfweek contacted the USGA for comment and was sent this statement: “We remain in a Notice & Comment period, accepting feedback from voices from across the game. The PGA Tour is an important stakeholder and we appreciate the feedback they have contributed to this conversation.”
Getting the PGA Tour (and, by extension, the Korn Ferry Tour and DP World Tour) on board with the MLR is critical for the USGA and the R&A. It would represent the most significant seal of approval possible and it has felt like a foregone conclusion to many people in the golf industry.
In the four months since the USGA and R&A jointly announced the proposed MLR, numerous executives and industry insiders who spoke with Golfweek shrugged their collective shoulders and begrudgingly seemed to have accepted that if the MLR were passed, the PGA Tour would adopt it.
Those feelings still exist, and industry veterans who spoke with Golfweek on Thursday morning see Monahan’s comments as the start of a bargaining process.
Monahan, who is likely on shaky ground with many PGA Tour members after surprising the golf world with the proposal of a merger with LIV Golf, is not in a position to go against a majority of players and tell them the PGA Tour will make them use a reduced-distance ball in a few years. Monahan’s memo to golf’s governing bodies is really saying that while they may feel that distance is becoming too big a part of the game and threatening the competitive value of historically significant courses, the PGA Tour has other things to consider.
The inclusion of, ” … a solution that will best serve our players, our fans and the game at all levels,” was also not an accident. We know players don’t want to lose distance. Fans who buy tickets and companies that purchase luxury boxes to entertain clients at PGA Tour events don’t want to see golfers hit the ball less far. Television executives who study TV ratings don’t see distance as a problem. For Monahan, golf is as much about entertainment as it is competition, and part of his job is to protect the entertainment value of his players and tournaments.
“I think what we came down to was, we didn’t feel like this proposal was warranted, but we’re not against doing something,” said PGA Tour executive vice president and chief player officer, Jason Gore in an interview with Michael Breed on Sirius XM Radio Thursday morning. “We agree with Mike Whan in that doing nothing is not an option. We just don’t feel that this is the best path forward. The bifurcation was really hard for us to swallow.”
While the USGA and the R&A insist that the creation and adoption of the Model Local Rules would not amount to bifurcation, a different set of rules to govern elite golfers, nearly everyone else in the golf industry does, and the PGA Tour and equipment makers see that as a problem. To them, one of golf’s greatest appeals is that pros like Rory McIlroy and the guys in your Thursday night league play the same equipment and are governed by the same rules. They argue that the adoption of a Model Local Rule pertaining to golf balls would change that.
“As the formal feedback period to the USGA and the R&A comes to an end and this process evolves, I will be in touch with updates,” Monahan concluded in his paragraph on distance.
That’s the key sentence, a signal to Liberty Corners, New Jersey (home of the USGA) and St. Andrews, Scotland (home of the R&A), that the PGA Tour wants to negotiate. Monahan did not write that the PGA Tour would never adopt a distance-reducing MLR. He noted that it would not support the MLR as it is proposed now.
If the USGA and R&A modify the MLR, so balls for elite players get tested at lower swing speeds or at higher spin rates, so the distance reduction is not as drastic, Monahan could go back to his players and sell himself as someone who got a concession from USGA and R&A.
But the interesting thing that happens when you combine Monahan’s memo and Gore’s comments together is it might take a rule change governing golf balls, and not the creation of a Model Local Rule, to get the PGA Tour’s signoff on the idea of reducing distance. While the USGA and R&A have stated that they don’t want to change anything for recreational golfers, the PGA Tour may be signaling that a rule change governing all golfers is more appealing than a Model Local Rule that only applies to elite golfers.
In the end, the only thing that Jay Monahan’s memo clarifies with regard to distance is that a lot more talk and negotiations are needed.