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No Surprise Here, But Tour Pros Are Absolutely Hating The USGA's Proposal To Roll Back The Golf Ball

Icon Sportswire. Getty Images.

Because one existential crisis apparently wasn't enough, golf plunged itself into more controversy on Tuesday morning when the USGA announced a new Model Local Rule that would create new rules on golf balls and result in pros hitting driver somewhere around 15-20 yards less far. 

The USGA and the R&A, its British ruling-body counterpart, have been tip-toeing toward this move for a few years now. Ever since they announced the Distance Insights Project to study distance's impact on the game and its future, it seemed highly unlikely that they'd come to the conclusion that everything's fine. And so Tuesday's announcement wasn't a surprise on that front—it was, however, met with considerable backlash. 

I'm personally not a huge fan of the rollback. It essentially bifurcates the rules of golf, since the new regulations will "have no impact on the recreational game." So there would be a tour ball and an amateur ball, and that's a departure from over a century of every golfer playing by the same set of rules. It's one of golf's charms. I also think the rollback is predicated on a romantic view of the past, of a bygone era when golf was different and, by the USGA's logic, better. And taking 15 yards off these guys' drives won't suddenly revive obsolete courses; that'd take a 50-yard rollback. What's more, most of those courses that've failed to keep up with distance gains don't want to deal with the logisitcal nightmare that is hosting a tour event. As for the "sustainability" argument—golf courses can't keep getting longer to keep challenging the best players in the world—that applies to a preciously small number of players and courses. 

All sports evolve, and just as there are those who yearn for the days of "shotmaking" and 4-irons into par 4s, there are football fans who miss the ground-and-pound game of the 1960s and basketball fans who miss back-to-the-basket centers. Things change. It's how life works. A move like this, which by definition wants to take the game backward, sends a pretty lame message to the millions of new golfers who've picked up the game in the past few years. It's classic golf to see a massive boom in participation and added buzz and, at that point, decide there's a massive problem that needs major fixing. Would it be nice to see guys hit more mid-irons into greens? Sure. But the cure can't be worse than the disease, and I'd suspect very few viewers watch golf these days and think to themselves: man, this is a bad product, I wish these guys hit it less far. 

In my view, the disease just isn't that severe. As for the cure…this new rule also poses a bunch of questions: how far down the line does the rule apply? Will the NCAA adopt it? What about competitive amateur tournaments? Will there be any market for these pro balls, or will the manufacturers have to fund the research and development for them and then eat the loss or, worse, pass it along to consumers? Will manufacturers have to make new drivers to match this new ball? Will manufacturers still want to sponsor professional golfers if they can't sell the equipment they use to the consumer?

Perhaps the most intriguing question: whether the PGA Tour will adopt this rule when it goes into effect in 2026 or reject it, as is their prerogative. The PGA Tour has used USGA rules since its inception, but there's no reason they couldn't, in theory, decide to make their own rules. Surely the Tour is having intense conversations with the USGA during this "notice and comments" period that lasts until August. (The USGA said they're going to listen to all of golf's stakeholders, though it's hard to imagine them pulling an about-face the roll back after this big of an announcement). The USGA considers itself guardians of the sport but the PGA Tour is a business, and an entertainment business at that—they likely don't think that guys hitting it shorter makes for a better show. If they do choose to essentially ignore the new rule, the pros would in theory have to switch to a different ball for the U.S. Open and the Open Championship. Which, of course they don't want to do. 

They also don't want to have to get used to such a significant change in their equipment as the golf ball. It's a massive headache for them and for the equipment companies, which sponsor them. (Yes, Fore Play has a deal with TaylorMade. No, we've never been told how to feel or how to talk about anything). And so it's no surprise that tour pros are by and large against this move. 

"I haven't heard one pro who likes it," says Joel Dahmen. 

Justin Thomas has never been the biggest fan of the USGA—he's called them out multiple times for their handling of the U.S. Open and the game in general, which led to this highly unusual exchange a few years ago. 

He was back at it again Wednesday at his pre-tournament press conference for the Valspar Championship. He spoke for nearly three minutes and articulated basically all the anti-rollback points, including the semi-personal 5-15 handicap barb. 

"My reaction was disappointed and also not surprised, to be honest," Thomas said of the news. "I think the USGA over the years has—in my eyes, it's harsh, but made some pretty selfish decisions. They definitely, in my mind, have done a lot of things that aren't for the betterment of the game, although they claim it. I had conversations with some USGA members and it just -- to me, I don't understand how it's growing the game. For them to say in the same sentence that golf is in the best place it's ever been, everything is great, but… And I'm like, well, there shouldn't be a but. You're trying to create a solution for a problem that doesn't exist. 

"To me it's so bad for the game of golf, for an opportunity—I mean, some of the great things to me is the fact that you can play the exact same golf ball that I play. I mean, that's cool. For an every day amateur golfer, it's very unique that we are able to play the exact same equipment. Yeah, I understand that I may have a different grind on a wedge, whatever you want to call it, but you can go to the pro shop and buy the same golf ball that I play or Scottie Scheffler plays or whatever. But the USGA wants to bring it to a point where that's not the case. They want it to be, okay, well, the pros play this way and the amateurs play this way, and that just doesn't—I don't understand how that's better for the game of golf.

"The amount of time, money that these manufacturers have spent trying to create the best product possible and now you're going to tell them and us that we have to start over for potentially if the PGA Tour, PGA of America, don't adopt this local rule. So for two of the four biggest events of the year we're going to have to use a different ball? Like, try to explain to me how that's better for the game of golf. And they're basing it off the top .1 percent of all golfers."

Sam Burns offered a more brief rejection: "Personally, I think it's pretty silly."