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At the Masters, golf’s length debate isn’t getting shorter

At the Masters, golf's length debate isn't getting shorter


AUGUSTA, Ga. — What golf lacks in self-awareness it more than offsets with self-importance, and so the words of one Fred S. Ridley — “Mr. Chairman,” if you’re following local protocol — were of grave significance late Wednesday morning. Golf’s powers-that-be, so famous they’re known only by their initials, recently concluded a thorough data- and science-based investigation into — get this — how far a golf ball travels. It took four years.

Ridley, the chairman of Augusta National Golf Club and the man who runs the Masters, must have thoughts.

“We restate our desire to see distance addressed,” Ridley said to the assembled media corps.

Whoa, this sounds serious.

Now, the way Ridley and his green-jacketed pals at Augusta National addressed distance was to buy the land behind the 13th tee at their course from the decidedly lower-brow Augusta Country Club just so they could push the tee box back 35 yards. The cost? “Around $25 million,” according to Golfweek several years ago.

“As all of you know,” Ridley said, “the subject of the 13th hole has been a topic of discussion for several years.”

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So in some circles, the biggest pre-Masters story is that a 510-yard par 5 is now a 545-yard par 5.

“The guys are going to find ways to hit it further,” said none other than Tiger Woods, who knows something about finding ways to hit it further. “The average number used to be — what? — 280 off the tee, 279 when I first came out on tour? Now, the guys are carrying it 320, okay?

“So not every golf course can be like Augusta National and move property and [start] moving holes back.”

There’s something to this, of course. The 13th hole at Augusta National completes what famed sportswriter Herbert Warren Wind first labeled “Amen Corner,” which begins with the harrowing approach to the par-4 11th and includes the entirety of the (in)famous par-3 12th. The first two shots on the par 5 historically have been two of the most captivating in golf because of the strategy and treachery they bring to a round. Over time, though, “bring” turned into “brought,” because for the world’s best players there was no strategy: With modern equipment, the par 5 played like a par 4.

Augusta National couldn’t do anything about the balls or the clubs the players used, so what was left but to lengthen the hole? In typical Augusta National fashion, the new tee box — unveiled to the public for the first time this week — looks as if it has been there since time began. But it will have an impact on this Masters, though no one can say with any certainty what it will be.

“The days of me hitting a 3-wood and an 8-iron there are long gone,” Woods said.

The forecast over the weekend is cold and wet, which could lead the majority of players to lay up rather than go for the green. Will that be boring or brilliant? We’ll see.

But for all those classic courses that can’t just snap up more neighboring real estate, the only recourse lies in the ball. In 2019, the R&A and the USGA — which govern the game from perches in Scotland and New Jersey, respectively — commissioned a study officially known as the “Distance Insights project.” The insights gleaned included the idea that, to rein in elite players, professional events should require the use of alternate golf balls. This would be known, intuitively, as a “Model Local Rule,” or an MLR.

By way of explanation, the R&A and USGA included the following in last month’s announcement.

“Golf balls that conform to the MLR must not exceed the current Overall Distance Standard (ODS) limit of 317 yards (plus 3 yards tolerance) at modified Actual Launch Conditions (ALC) with a clubhead speed of 127 mph and based on a calibration setup of 11 degrees and 37 revolutions per second (2,220 rpm) as part of this proposal.”

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And this, ladies and gentlemen, is called “bifurcation,” a word that makes one almost yearn for yet another acronym. It means the best players in the marquee events use one kind of ball, while everyone playing their weekend rounds at their county courses play another. If approved, it would be implemented Jan. 1, 2026.

“I’m sure that Augusta National would love to be able to go back and sell the land that they bought,” said staunch bifurcation opponent Justin Thomas, a two-time major winner.

Thomas appears to be in the majority of his peers, who train like athletes and want that strength and fitness to translate to longer and longer shots. But this is not a universal opinion, and it’s a topic discussed not just by the starched shirts in board rooms but by the players themselves.

“To me, if we really want to keep the old, historical venues relevant, if that’s something really important to the game of golf, then I would say that this is a step in the right direction,” four-time major champion Rory McIlroy said. “ … There’s so many different angles that you can attack this argument, and it’s so nuanced, and everyone has a unique argument, and someone has just as good a counterargument the other way.

“It’s a big deal and, you know, it could dramatically change the landscape of our game going forward.”

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The official comment period remains open through mid-August, and the equipment manufacturers — who for years have sold weekend hacks on the benefits of playing the same balls Rory and Tiger do — surely will weigh in, and forcefully. So stay tuned. For his part, Ridley stopped short of saying Augusta National endorses the Model Local Rule.

“As the comment period remains open,” Ridley said, “we will be respectful of the process as the USGA and the R&A consider this important issue.”

The issue might not be important to everyone, but to guardians of the game — and they are legion — this ranks high.

And even if you think all this talk about the R&A and the USGA and the MLR is getting a little too deep in the weeds, rest assured that’ll never happen here. Augusta National doesn’t allow any.

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