When Mike Whan took over as CEO of the USGA in July, he inherited the organization’s years-long investigation into hitting distances in golf. Many have wondered whether Whan’s USGA would continue this effort and eventually impose stricter regulations on ball and club technology.
Earlier this week, in a conversation with Andy Johnson at Chicago Golf Club, Whan indicated that new equipment guidelines will be coming soon. He also spoke about his desire to let equipment companies continue to innovate, the USGA’s role as golf’s “traffic cop,” and his responsibility to protect the future of the game.
Listen to the full podcast here:
Check out a few key excerpts from the interview (lightly edited for clarity):
The USGA’s future equipment guidelines
Mike Whan: I think we’re going to establish some guidelines. I think those guidelines are probably going to slow some of the pace of progress over the next 10 or 20 years.
But are [equipment manufacturers] going to figure ways around that to continue to push the envelope? I’m actually counting on it because I think that’s what makes the game exciting. I also think that I have a responsibility to make sure that, when you look at [this issue] over the next 50 years, the decisions we made to control some of that pace didn’t obsolete every course in the country.
So finding that right balance is important. I’m going to work hard to find that balance. Whether or not we’ll strike it exactly right, I don’t know, but we can’t shy away from the responsibility that we have that, quite frankly, nobody else really shares.
The costs of longer golf courses
Whan: Let’s face it, when a golf course has to get that long, it’s expensive. It’s expensive to maintain. If you think, as a golfing population, we’re not paying for that, you’re kidding yourself—in terms of fees and country club expenses and everything else.
More importantly, do you think there’ll ever be an urban golf course built again if it needs 8,600 yards to build the golf course? People say to me, “Well, you don’t need 86 [hundred] unless you’re building a golf course for the top elite.” But I’ve never met somebody who’s got a plan to build a golf course who doesn’t want to have a course that can host major championships. I just don’t think we want to make this game only a suburban game, only a game for the wealthy.
Listen, there’s no single magic bullet, at least not yet. But we’re certainly going to come with some suggestions that I think, at a minimum, can continue to have excitement, can continue to have innovation, and at the same time make sure that our golfing venues can be our golfing venues in the future. And quite frankly, the only way to get to a golfing venue can’t be to drive two hours into the country.
A timeline and process for the upcoming equipment guidelines
Whan: I think at this time next year, next summer, we’ll be talking about some real specific suggestions, recommendations, and be going through the same process [of taking feedback]. In the beginning, we put out the distance results. We then talked about some of the areas we want to look at. We’ve listened to feedback. I think, come this off-season, we’ll take all that feedback in and try to determine some specific directions. And then we’ll do the same thing. We’ll put it out there and let people [give] feedback. I don’t expect everyone to say, “Mike, USGA, great job!” Being a traffic cop sometimes isn’t the greatest. But I think at this time next summer, we’ll be having an interview and you’ll be saying, “Tell me about point No. 4.”
Johnson: I mean, nobody likes change.
Whan: Everybody likes change. They just don’t want change in their game. “Please change somebody else.”
The USGA as a traffic cop
Whan: We have a ton of roles at the USGA, whether that role is rules, championships, green section and agronomy, or being a cop. And sometimes we have to be like the traffic cop and say, “This is how fast you can drive on this highway.” It doesn’t mean you’ll love the cop, but it also means that at least you get order and a lack of chaos and a belief in the future. In some cases, we’ll have to be a traffic cop and say how far, how fast. But I don’t think the way to get there is to just to say, “Innovation out. Here’s the new ball. Everybody plays it.” Or, “Here’s the new club and everybody plays it,” or “Here’s the new rule and there’s no way around it.”
The importance of allowing for innovation in equipment technology
Whan: When somebody says to me, “Well, that’s easy, just have a tour ball, and that’s the new game”—that’s fine. But I think my job is to make sure that there’s as much energy about the future of this game three years from now as there is today, and 20 years from now as there is today. I want engineers to wake up every morning and say, “I see the rules that he put in place, but I’m going to spend a lot of hours today working on how to get excitement even within that space.” I can’t throw a wet blanket over that or I’ll lose one of the things that makes this game truly exciting and great. If I see a package under the Christmas tree that looks like a golf club, I’m just like anybody else: I get pretty excited about ripping it open because maybe there’s two strokes of handicap in that box. And I don’t want to lose that excitement.
The potential for a compromise among stakeholders in golf
Whan: There is a compromise here that we’ll find. It won’t be overnight and it won’t be easy, but we’ll find a compromise that says, “Listen, at the end of the day, I still want long hitters to be long hitters. I still want them to have an advantage versus a short hitter. But if they go for it in two, [I want them] to have risks that maybe the guy who laid up doesn’t have. That’s part of the game.”
So the people who think we’re going to wind everything back and everybody’s going to be the same, 195 yards off the tee, come on. That’s not realistic. I don’t think we want to take athleticism and strength—and figuring out a way to swing the club harder if you can do it and keep it in the fairway—out of the game. So long hitters are going to be long hitters. Difference-makers on tours and difference-makers in your home club are still going to have those advantages.
But I think if we just turn the other cheek and say, “Ah, nothing wrong with this game”—the people who say that, to me, don’t really care about golf 40 years from now. They just [are saying], “Please don’t touch my game. Please don’t touch my course. Please don’t touch my tour.” I get that. But our job is to make sure we keep the game as good as it is 30 years from now, if not better than it is today, and not paying attention is not an answer.
The USGA’s role as the guardian of golf’s future
Whan: I don’t know that everybody I talk to loses a lot of sleep about whether or not golf will be better 50 years from now than it is today. And I get that. I mean, that’s not everybody’s job, right? Some people have jobs to hit a quarter. Some people have jobs to get members paid. Some people have jobs to get events on the schedule. I’ve had those different jobs as well. But I think I’m one of the few that drives to work every morning thinking about whether or not golf is going to be better in 30 or 40 or 50 years than it is today. And I think that’s our responsibility. That’s our job, to be that voice.
The challenge of negotiating a solution to the distance problem
Whan: I know it sounds crazy to say this, but I’m looking forward to this challenge because this challenge will require us to bring the industry together, even in ways where we don’t like each other.
I think it’s a fair critique to say, “Where have you been?” But I think it would be a much fairer critique if, in three years, you go, “Seriously, you did nothing?”
So I’m looking forward to figuring out how to do that with and for the industry, and letting half the people tell me I’m crazy and half the people not. That’s like being a commissioner. You get used to that.
Johnson: Oh yeah. You’ve got the job where nobody’s ever going to be happy with you.
Whan: [Laughing] Right. It’s perfect.