There is little point in reducing the distance the ball travels if clubs persist on making their members trudge to the limits of the course, says our club golf editor
“[It’s] The No. 1 feedback we’ve consistently heard for virtually all aspects of the game, which is please don’t negatively impact the recreational game and the strength of the game right now.”
That was USGA chief executive Mike Whan back in March when, along with the R&A, the two governing bodies proposed a Model Local Rule that would bifurcate the game.
Where it was brought in, elite players would use a tournament ball which, all estimates suggested, would fly up to 15 yards shorter than the models they’re currently using to bomb and gouge their way around the world. The club game would be left alone.
To say those best laid plans weren’t very well received was an understatement. The manufacturing industry, the PGA Tour, even England Golf, all came out in opposition. So what now?
If reports are accurate, the R&A and USGA are expected this week to introduce a universal roll back. No more bifurcation. Everyone will hit a shorter golf ball.
Now it’s the turn of club players to get cross. In a quick poll I carried out on X, as news of what might be coming spread across the internet, just under 65 per cent of respondents were against hitting a shorter golf ball.
Rory McIlroy says he doesn’t believe an “average golfer giving up 5-10 yards off the tee is going to have a material effect on their actual score, handicap or enjoyment of the game”.
I don’t believe an average golfer giving up 5-10 yards off the tee is going to have a material effect on their actual score, handicap or enjoyment of the game.
— Rory McIlroy (@McIlroyRory) December 3, 2023
He should probably look at my scorecard. The data is yet to be revealed, of course, and I’m sure plenty of club players will be trying to brush up on interpreting statistics to get to the heart of the matter as soon as it’s released.
But I think Rory is wrong to say it won’t have a material effect. Let’s take the top of his range. Ten yards is an extra club for me. Everything we’ve been taught in recent years – just read books like Every Shots Count – is that any little bit of distance you can get matters. Hit it further and your scores will drop.
Reducing the distance the ball will travel, if we kept current club course set ups the same, would increase scores and it will probably slow the game down. If you make me hit a longer club, I will be more erratic.
The R&A’s own distance research shows male club golfers average just over 215 yards off the tee. That ranges from 239 yards for players who were six and below, 220 for 6-12, 200 for 13-20 and 177 for those with handicaps over 21 or more.
For women, the average was a shade under 148 yards – ranging from 197 at the top end to 120 for those with handicaps of 29 and above.
There is more. The USGA revealed earlier this year that even the forward tee yardage “at most golf courses in the US is too long for many players based on their hitting distance and preferred hole lengths”.
They argued a forward tee distance that was closer to 4,000 yards than 5,000 was a better fit for “far more players”.
The courses we play now are too long for many of us. Making that layout even longer, by shortening the distance the ball travels for those who don’t hit it very far anyway, doesn’t feel like a recipe for success.
Clubs will play a crucial role if recreational players have to play a shorter golf ball
I’m not against tackling the ball. I’ve largely turned off golf on the TV rather than sit through another evening of driver, wedge, and 20 under par for the week. When the course is more challenging, it’s a more exciting watch.
I also believe a universal roll back at our level wouldn’t need to be the angst-ridden assault on our game that some on social media would have you believe.
But it would rely on our golf clubs shortening the length of our golf courses – and plenty have shown no inclination of doing that so far.
If we’re already playing from lengths most metrics say defeat us, why do lots of clubs put us through that so regularly during events? Delusions of grandeur – a belief that club competitions must test every sinew of our porous games?
Did clubs really put in extra tees, and lengthen their courses, to future proof them against the extra power recreational hitters produced?
I don’t think they did. They added length because they wanted to put the words ‘championship course’ – an utterly meaningless phrase – on their websites.
They stretched their courses to the limits because that’s what they thought they had to do to host a pro event, or an elite amateur competition. It wasn’t because the mid-handicapper scooping a board comp was overpowering a par 4.
If we believe the reports of the R&A and USGA’s plans, and the subsequent new ball does produce a noticeable effect for the average player, then it’s clubs who must take charge and dampen the impact of it.
Lots of golfers will not move forward of their own accord. There is a strange machismo in some quarters of our game that drives them to take on the toughest test. There is a perverse joy found in then complaining about it.
They would need to be compelled – whether that’s physically through moving the tee boxes, and which may necessitate some new builds at clubs, or by providing more choice through multi-tee events.
That won’t be welcomed in some quarters, and for some clubs it may come at an associated cost, but accepting no change, combined with a ball that goes shorter, is the worst option.
If it feels odd that clubs will bear such responsibility to deal with a disease that is largely dominating only the highest levels of our game, then I have some sympathy.
But they can also play a key role in making it more sustainable, more accessible, and, ultimately, more fun.
And if it causes them to think again about making members take that trudge to the very limits of the course boundaries, then I can get on board.
Get involved in the shorter golf ball debate
What do you think about possibly playing a shorter golf ball? Are you in favour, or not of a golf ball roll back? Let me know by leaving a comment on X.