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USGA, R&A Propose Rollback Of Golf Ball That Would See Top Professionals Hit It 15-20 Yards Shorter

Richard Sellers - PA Images. Getty Images.

The United States Golf Association and the R&A today announced a proposal for a rollback of the golf ball that, if implemented, would see top professionals hit the ball as much as 20 yards shorter. The new rule would go into effect in January 2026, though it was not immediately clear whether the PGA Tour would adopt the rule of reject it, as is their choice. 

The two governing bodies have been inching toward taking this drastic step for years and have spent the last decade conducting the Distance Insights Project to research the impacts of driving distance on golf and its future. On Tuesday, they announced a proposed Model Local Rule that would apply only to "elite competitions," which would suggest no change to the recreational game. Under the new proposal, balls would be tested under modified launch conditions that're reflective of today's longest hitters—namely, the robot will swing at 127 miles per hour, up from 120 miles per hour, but the ball would would still be capped at 317 yards (plus or minus a few). It's a bit nebulous, but basically if the ball needs to go the same distance having been hit harder, the ball needs to go less far. That's the core of this. 

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“Hitting distances at the elite level of the game have consistently increased over the past 20, 40, and 60 years. It’s been two decades since we last revisited our testing standards for ball distances,” said Mike Whan, CEO of the USGA. “Predictable, continued increases will become a significant issue for the next generation if not addressed soon. The MLR we are proposing is simple to implement, forward-looking and does so without any impact on the recreational game. We are taking the next steps in this process, guided first and foremost by doing what’s right by the entire game.”

This a rather sensitive topic, with passionate believers on both sides. The pro-rollback argument stems from, according to the USGA, sustainability. Driving distance has increased dramatically over the past few decades thanks to a number of innovations—launch monitors have given us a better understanding of ball flight laws and what produces distance. Enhanced instruction techniques have players swinging more efficiently and creating more speed than ever. And, of course, better equipment has played a huge role. According to the USGA, the average driving distance on elite professional tours has increased by about one yard per year, which has forced courses to get longer and longer if they're to continue challenging the best players in the world. A few courses, like Augusta National, have the resources and the land necessary to keep up—the Masters tee will play around 750 yards further than it did in 1940. 

But the vast majority of courses simply can't keep getting longer, which has led to some classic layouts—the Cypress Points and National Golf Linkses of the world—become obsolete as a top-level test. And as golf seeks to decrease its footprint, environmentally and spatially and time-wise, forcing golf courses to continue revamping themselves would be downright counterproductive. And while the USGA didn't really touch on this much in their press release, there is some evidence to suggest that the balance of power in pro golf has shifted from accuracy to power. 

"The findings of extensive research by the governing bodies into distance (along with the supporting research and data) were set out within the Distance Insights report into the Implications of Hitting Distance in February 2020 under two key themes," the release reads. "The pressure on courses to continue to lengthen and ensuring that distance did not become predominant in the balance of skills required in golf."

I wrote about this in detail for Sports Illustrated in 2018, that the correlation between driving distance and scoring average has increased as the years have passed, while the correlation between accuracy and scoring average has decreased. There's also anecdotal evidence of the disappearance of the bunters, as Tiger Woods has noticed.

“The game is played very differently now, and it's very aggressive," Woods said at last year's PGA Championship. "We were talking about it today, [caddie] Joey LaCava and I, the days of the Lee Janzens and the Scott Simpsons and the Faldos of the world, playing that kind of golf is gone. You go out there and hit driver a lot, and if you have a hot week, you have a hot week and you're up there. The game is just different. It's much more aggressive now, and I know that.”

The arguments against the rollback are also numerous. There is the timing of this, which comes amidst a once-in-a-generaion existential battle in the professional game. It also comes while golf is enjoying a historic boom in participation—and while there is a segment of the golf cognoscenti that's been calling for this change for decades, it's not clear whether the average golfer or the average person watching the PGA Tour feels there's anything that needs changing. 

Should the PGA Tour opt to adopt this rule, LIV Golf could easily zig where their competitor zagged, adding fuel to the fued. Pettiness aside, the very concept of "bifurcating" the rules of golf—having one set of regulations for the Pros, and a different one for the Joes—is a new frontier for the game. One of golf's chief charms is playing the same courses, by the same rules, as the professionals. It's also a crucial marketing tool for the equipment companies, to sell the idea to amateurs of playing the same ball as Tiger or Rory or Rahmbo. The OEMs are not going to be happy with having to research and develop a golf ball for professionals, which will cost significant money, that they won't then be able to take to market. This would, in theory, make pros less effective spokesmen for equipment companies. Predictably, a few manufacturers already released less-than-flattering takes on the proposal. 

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"This bifurcation would divide golf between elite and recreational play, add confusion, and break the linkage that is part of the game’s enduring fabric," Acushnet, the parent company of Titleist, said in a statement.

Professional golfers have been split on the issue, though opinions seem to fall on generational lines. Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus have been supportive of the move, with Woods particularly keen on seeing the ball spin more. He has said multiple times that improvements in the ball have made hitting the center of the clubface less important, which has taken some of the advantage away from those who find the center more often. Others, like Webb Simpson and Collin Morikawa, believe the best way to reign in distance is by altering golf course design and setups by adding hazards and trees that take drivers out of players' hands. 

“I've been kind of saying for the last few years, I don't think equipment is the problem," Simpson said in 2021. "I just think the issue comes down to golf course architecture … I think we need to tweak our golf courses. I don't think an equipment rollback does anybody any good when we can change the way golf courses are designed and it's better for amateurs, it's better for pros, and there are plenty of golf courses on the PGA Tour that have stood the test of time because of the way they're designed.”

Morikawa concurred on Monday: "Some of the shortest courses, like Hilton Head, don’t just automatically end up being 35-under because of the design."

The announcement also leads to a bunch of questions on its implementation:  How far down the chain does the rule get implemented? Will it be in affect for the U.Ss Amateur and U.S. Junior Amateur? Will the PGA Tour adopt it? COllege golf? How will the two other governing bodies that operate majors, Augusta National and the PGA of America, react? Will the rule impact LPGA players? How do players needing to use the special balls get them? Will retailers sell them, or would they only be available direct from the manufacturers?

These will all be topics passionately discussed in the feedback period that runs until August 14th, allowing the game's stakeholders to make their voice known before such a drastic change goes into effect. 

Another day, another massively controversial topic in our game…