What is Bifurcation in Golf?
By Bradley Turner, Keiser University College of Golf Director of Online Golf Instruction, MBA, PGA
If you are following the news surrounding the world of golf, you have heard the phrase ‘bifurcation.’ Defined as ‘the division of something into two branches or parts,’ bifurcation in the world of golf refers to professionals using different equipment than amateurs.
With a recently proposed creation of a local rule, tournament organizations may have the ability to require the use of a competition ball. The United States Golf Association (USGA) and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club (R&A) govern the Rules of Golf. This proposal is designed to rein in the escalation of distance in professional golf and high-level amateur competitions. This article will evaluate both sides of this controversial topic and give you a better understanding of bifurcation in golf.
Why is Distance in Golf Important?
The search for distance has been around for as long as the game of golf has been played. It became clear to players two centuries ago that if you could hit the ball farther than your competitor, you increase your chances of winning. This has been validated numerous times in studies relating distance to scoring abilities. In 1968, the book Search for the Perfect Swing by Alastair Cochran and John Stobbs identified that increasing distance off the tee was the most important aspect of lowering a golfer’s handicap. Recent data from Mark Brodie’s book Every Shot Counts found that an extra 20 yards off the tee account for ¾ stroke savings for the best players in the world in every round played. Over a 72-hole tournament, that 20-yard adds up to a 3-stroke advantage.
What has Happened to Driving Distance on the Professional Golf Tours?
In 1980, I was a 20-year-old college golfer who hit the ball as far as an average PGA Tour player. In the subsequent 43 years, I have maintained the same distance as my college golf days. Yep, my distance is the same. I wish I could say it is because I am as strong and flexible as I was in college, but that would not be accurate. Advances in golf technology and equipment have been significant from my perspective. The chart below tells the story of what has happened to drive distance on the PGA tour. The story does not have an end yet.
|PGA Tour Driving Distances|
Rory McIlroy is leading the way this year in driving distance. Assuming he hits a driver 14 times a round, that amounts to about a 700-yard advantage compared to the longest driver in 1980. A 7,000-yard golf course in 1980 would need to be about 8,000 yards today. Add in the increased distance of every club Rory hits into the greens, and it is easy to understand why distance is such an advantage in golf.
Do Amateurs Play the Same Equipment as Professionals?
Equipment manufacturers have been quick to profess the unique aspects of golf, suggesting that an amateur golfer can play the same golf courses with the same clubs and golf balls as their favorite PGA or LPGA Tour player. But is that statement actually true? The average amateur golfer does not play the same tees as the best players in the world, so the golf course is obviously not the same. The equipment can be the same, but most golfers, including the best in the world, play with different shafts and club head characteristics designed to enhance each player’s unique swing. The reality is that PGA Tour players do not play with the same equipment, so why would an amateur concern themselves with the clubs their favorite player uses? It is clear that amateurs do not play the same golf courses or play with the same equipment as the world’s best players. As for the ball, all golfers can play with approved golf balls, including the ball that is played by their favorite golfer.
What is the Core Issue?
The core issue is the golf ball. Throughout the history of the game, equipment manufacturers have responded to the advancement in golf ball technology by building innovative golf equipment. Equipment is designed and built to maximize the performance of the golf ball. When the modern ball was released to the golf markets in 2000-2001, the long irons became obsolete. Why did this happen? The spin rates of the new modern ball made it very difficult to keep the golf ball in the air with a two iron, so a new club was developed, the hybrid.
The modern ball will also perform better with higher swing speeds. At higher speeds, the golf ball is compressed more, increasing ball performance. Imagine a 5-year-old playing tee ball and trying to compress a baseball compared to a tennis ball. At slower speeds, the tennis ball will go farther. But at higher bat speeds by professional baseball players, the ball can be compressed, resulting in 400-foot home runs. For an MLB player, trying to hit a tennis ball with the same bat speed will over-compress the tennis ball and significantly lower distance than the baseball. In many cases, an amateur will benefit by playing with a golf ball designed for their slower swing speeds because it is designed specifically to perform best at slower speeds. Technology and ball innovation are amazing!
Recent tests with the modern golf ball and vintage golf equipment have also pointed to the ball as the primary issue. Using today’s equipment and a 1980s golf ball does not produce the distance we see on the PGA Tour. However, using 1980s equipment and today’s golf ball resulted in a surprisingly small difference in driving distance.
Preserving Historically Significant Golf Course Designs
Another essential factor with bifurcation is keeping the classic golf courses relevant to host major championship tournaments. Adding land is not always an option for most golf clubs in America. Without a competitive golf ball, many of these courses will become obsolete. The game’s traditions include historic golf courses that played host to Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, and Arnold Palmer. The USGA and R&A want to continue to play major championships on the same courses these hall-of-fame golfers once played. Tradition in the game of golf is one of the shining attributes of the game, which separates it from every other professional sport.
Will Changing the Golf Ball Fundamentally Change the Game?
Not a chance. The game has been played for centuries with wooden shafted clubs and feathery golf balls. Golfers were passionate about the sport back in those days, and reducing the distance a golf ball flies for the best players in the world will not change the game at all. Currently, the thought is to limit the ball speed of the club by about 3%-5%. Using a 5% reduction to illustrate this change, the average PGA Tour player who hits the ball 300 yards off the tee today will now be hitting the ball about 285 yards. A tour player who hits 200-yard 6 iron in 2023 will only hit about 190 yards in 2024.
There is no question that long and straight off the tee is an advantage. This challenge of equipment and the modern athlete has been addressed by America’s pastime, baseball. In every other level of competitive baseball, the aluminum bat is allowed for play. This is not the case in MLB which requires the use of old-fashioned wooden bats. What is the reason the best baseball players in the world use different equipment than every other baseball player? Is it the sound of the bat? It could be that MLB players are bigger and stronger than ever, and allowing aluminum bats would create higher ball speed off the bat, resulting in more home runs. Since bifurcation in baseball has been around for decades, does baseball fundamentally change by using a wooden bat versus an aluminum bat? Not a chance.
Is Bifurcation the Solution?
Yes, this has been talked about for decades and will finally be a reality in high-level competitive golf. But is there a negative aspect to bifurcation? A competitive golf ball will affect only 1% of all golfers. The thought is to use a competitive ball at the highest level of play, starting with college golf and national amateur championships. Bifurcation will work best if all professional tours require the competition ball. There is concern from the PGA Tour players that events like the Masters and US Open will require the competition ball, and other events like the PGA Championship may not. These issues must be addressed and clarified; ultimately, golf will be the beneficiary.
Over 99% of golfers will never even need to concern themselves with the competition golf ball. The best players in the world will adapt very quickly. The average drive will be close to the average distance a PGA Tour player in 2005. Interestingly, in 2005 we had more golfers participating than any other time in American golf history. Bifurcation is necessary for the future of the game at the highest level. For everyone else, play on!
If you want to take your game to the next level, contact our team at Keiser University’s College of Golf & Sport Management today. With our dedication and experience, together, we can elevate your game to new heights. Give us a call today at 888-355-4465.