What Is Bifurcation In Golf?

The word bifurcation often pops up in golf but what does it actually mean?

Rory McIlroy hits a drive
Bifurcation relates to when the equipment used by the world's best players is different to recreational golfers
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Bifurcation is a word rarely heard outside the game of golf. The dictionary definition is 'the division of something into two branches or parts' or, for our needs, it's where professionals use different equipment to amateurs.

The idea of it has been around forever and we still haven't reached a logical conclusion. In one camp the amateur wants to play the same game as the men and women on the TV, we can play the same courses (albeit off different tees) and we like to see how we can measure up against the pros.

There's nothing wrong with the game as it stands, why shouldn't the big boys have an advantage, what about the millions needed for new R&D etc etc?

In the other camp the courses are running out of room, the men hit it too far, classic courses are obsolete for many tour events, they're going to destroy the Old Course at St Andrews and where is the crossover for the elite amateurs? 

The Swilcan Bridge in front of the clubhouse at St Andrews

Some key figures in the game fear that St Andrews' Old Course could soon become too short for the world's best, and longest hitting, players

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Tiger Woods has plenty of good opinions on the game and he remains, like many of us, somewhere in the middle. 

“We want to keep the game so enjoyable and we’re trying to get more participation, and having the larger heads, more forgiving clubs, it adds to the enjoyment of the game,” Woods said. “So there’s a very delicate balancing act.”

“I think it’s on the table whether we bifurcate or not. It’s only one per cent of the guys or women that are going to be using that type of equipment, but we want to keep the game enjoyable, we want to keep having more kids want to play it."

From January 1 of 2022, the R&A and USGA introduced a new local rule to ensure professionals and elite amateurs do not use 48-inch driver shafts given how far the tour pros are able to send it with lengthened drivers, with the maximum shaft length being 46-inches. 

Phil Mickelson called the move 'pathetic' and he was forced to use a shorter driver shaft. Bryson DeChambeau had to shelve plans to use a longer driver shaft, and we also saw Brooke Henderson reducing the length of hers from 48-inches to 46.

Bryson DeChambeau takes a shot at the LIV Golf Boston event

DeChambeau had to shelve plans to use a 48-inch driver shaft

(Image credit: Getty Images)

This was a start and there will likely be further changes, one way or the other. The most logical move would be to have two separate golf balls, one for the pros and one for the rest of us. So there will be no changing of clubs, it would all be about the ball. 

Jack Nicklaus made a very interesting point at the 2020 Masters, a point that he has been making since 1977 but this will affect all of us.

"They will bring the ball back. They probably would have brought it back this year if it wasn't for Covid. Augusta is the only course that I know in the world that’s been able to keep up with the changes in equipment. But nobody else has the land or really has the ability to afford to do that. They have to make some changes, otherwise all the old courses, all the strategy and everything else that you've had on golf courses is gone. It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.

"They’ll change it for everybody. I don't know what they’re developing. But my guess is they’re developing a golf ball that the faster the clubhead speed, the progression is less as you go down. If you swing at 125 miles an hour, you’ll be limited. If you swing at 100 miles an hour, you won’t lose as much distance. If you go to 90, you won't lose hardly any distance at all. In other words, the average golfer is not hurt but you try to rein in the longer hitters so you’re not ruining every golf course that’s there.”

It's key to note that this would not be bifurcation. Bifurcation would relate to a local rule where pros would use a different type of golf ball, or equipment in general, in competition versus what amateurs could buy off the shelves.

Augusta National 13th Hole

The 13th at Augusta National, seemingly a critical hole in golf's distance debate, was finally lengthened ahead of the 2023 Masters after some long-hitting pros were able to cut the corner of the dogleg

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Paul McGinley is another sound thinker on the game and he has always been in the bifurcation camp.

"I think the game of golf is a very difficult game and the horse has bolted. The governing bodies have let the horse bolt which is really disappointing because the distance the top players are hitting the ball now is ginormous," McGinley told Golf Monthly.

"Secondly the way the horse has bolted is a problem because the greater your ball speed the greater benefit you get from modern technology. So the more you bend the face, the more spring you get, the more spring you get the more distance you have. So they have really played into the hands of the already powerful which is really disappointing. I have always been a believer in bifurcation.

"The game is very difficult for the normal player, the average handicap of the world is 18 and what I would be in favour of is restricting. Restricting the technology rules around the equipment they can use. It would make the game easier for them while at the same time holding the professionals where they are and not going any further forward than they are. If anything slightly regressing it a little bit." 

Bifurcation remains a hot topic in golf. We'll see if it ever comes into fruition.

Mark Townsend
Contributing editor

Mark has worked in golf for over 20 years having started off his journalistic life at the Press Association and BBC Sport before moving to Sky Sports where he became their golf editor on skysports.com. He then worked at National Club Golfer and Lady Golfer where he was the deputy editor and he has interviewed many of the leading names in the game, both male and female, ghosted columns for the likes of Robert Rock, Charley Hull and Dame Laura Davies, as well as playing the vast majority of our Top 100 GB&I courses. He loves links golf with a particular love of Royal Dornoch and Kingsbarns. He is now a freelance, also working for the PGA and Robert Rock. Loves tour golf, both men and women and he remains the long-standing owner of an horrific short game. He plays at Moortown with a handicap of 6.