With the proposed golf ball roll back generating opposition, what do the R&A and USGA have in store? Could we all have to play a shorter ball?
“There are only three options: We can bifurcate; you change the whole game; or you do nothing. And doing nothing is not an option.”
A decision on the golf ball rollback appears imminent. But after admitting to Golf Digest’s John Huggan there had been lots of opposition to the R&A and USGA’s Model Local Rule, what happens now?
If you change the whole game, could that mean a shorter ball for everyone? It’s a scenario we could all soon have to face.
On the latest episode of our From the Clubhouse podcast, Tom Irwin and I speculated on what a rolled back ball across the game might mean at club level, and how would we react.
Golf ball rollback: How have we got here?
The R&A and USGA have been wrestling with the issue of distance in the game for some time. Back in 2020, with the publication of their Distance Insights Project Report, they argued “longer distances, longer courses, playing from longer tees and longer times to play are taking golf in the wrong direction”.
In March this year, they proposed a Model Local Rule giving competition organisers an option to require “use of golf balls that are tested under modified launch conditions to address the impacts of hitting distance in golf”.
That new Local Rule, which wouldn’t be introduced before January 2026, would be used only in elite male competitions. But how far did that go? Martin Slumbers, R&A chief executive, envisaged the cut-off would be under-18 boys’ level tournaments.
The result of the Local Rule would be to bifurcate the sport by creating a tournament ball – meaning professionals and club players would use different equipment.
The game went into a comment period and the feedback wasn’t positive. The PGA Tour failed to support it, as did various PGAs. In the amateur game, England Golf were unusually strident in their opposition to it.
Golf ball rollback: What’s happening now?
That opposition left the R&A and USGA in somewhat of a quandary. Are they really going to push forward with a Local Rule that huge stakeholders in the game are not inclined to support?
As well as bifurcating the ball, would that also bifurcate the game – given both organisations said they planned to employ the Local Rule, if adopted, in their own major tournaments?
In his interview with Golf Digest, Slumbers told Huggan he had no reason to believe the golf ball wouldn’t continue to travel further and the need to act “for the good of the game”.
The options were outlined. Bifurcate, change it for everyone, or don’t do anything at all. “And doing nothing is not an option. We stand by that.”
Slumbers said: “The game was not happy with the Model Local Rule. There was a view that it would create a bifurcated game at the elite level. It was a very strong pushback against that. The PGA Tour was very public about it. So was the PGA of America. A number of players spoke out. And our job is to listen.
“But our responsibility is to the long-term future of the game. Along with the USGA, the R&A is a custodian of the game.”
Would the R&A and USGA propose a modified Local Rule? Would they come up with something entirely different, extending the debate with an inevitable new period of consultation? Or are we are all going to play a reduced distance ball?
It’s the latter which now appears likely, with Golf Digest again reporting the governing bodies are expected to announce an alteration to the rules that would make most current balls non-conforming.
They said the change would involve altering the way golf balls are tested, with the Overall Distance Standard increasing the swing speed which they are examined from 120mph to 125mph. The distance limit of 317 yards would remain in place.
Golf Digest said if a ball was close to that standard, which they claimed most were, then raising the speed by 5mph would “make them fly 15 yards further, or well past the current distance limit. Balls would then have to be made to stay within that 317-yard standard”.
Under these standards, as with the originally proposed Local Rule, the new balls would fly around 15 yards shorter at the elite level.
What would that mean to the average club golfer? Could we lose more in proportion to professionals, given how our shots spread across the clubface, or would we see less of an impact given our slower swing speeds?
Plenty of questions are still unanswered as we await comment and confirmation from the game’s governing bodies.
Golf ball rollback: What do we think?
Looking at the prospect of a rolled back ball at all levels of golf, Tom and I discussed this on our most recent episode of the From the Clubhouse podcast.
While I’m generally in favour of a tournament golf ball for the elite game, I’m less enamoured at the prospect of a reduced distance ball at all levels.
I said on the pod: “I’m not in danger of overpowering any golf courses anytime soon. Length is not an issue at all in the club golf game and the idea that you’re going to make amateurs play a ball that is possibly reduced in length, because we need to cure the disease of distance at the very top level, would not go down well at all with the rank and file.
“I think this would be one of the few examples where people would say, ‘I don’t want to play the same equipment as the pros. I was happy with the ball we had’.
“I do hit the ball further than I used to and technology has helped in that respect. I average between 220 and 240 with driver and I definitely hit that club longer at 46 then I did at 25.
“But I’m not suddenly playing the par 5s with driver and wedge. A decent par 5 is still a three-shotter because the skill element overpowers the benefits of the equipment in my hands.
“I think a rolled back ball would be a very tough sell at our level. If you think the PGA Tour and people like that have been complaining about it, wait until everyone else is asked to buy the thing in the shops.”
Tom, though, held a very different view – arguing the impact of technology, and increased distances across the board, had been substantial across the game and a “detriment” to it.
“It’s taken up more land,” he said. “There’s a huge argument against lengthening golf courses. All that’s happening is the equipment is getting longer and the golf courses are getting more and more bloated to accommodate that.
“The argument goes that you can’t change the ball for everyone as it’s only 0.0001% of golfers who are hitting it too far. That may be the case today, but the direction of travel is that all people are hitting the ball further and consistently.
“You are a case in point. You hit the ball further than you did when you were younger. That has to be because of equipment.
“People say that golf has never been in ruder health in the amateur game, we’ve never had more players coming into it. We’ve never had more people returning to the game post-Covid, so whatever you do don’t touch equipment because it’s at the fulcrum of the game’s popularity as it’s made the game easier for more people. That is conflation of two separate points. It’s coincidence not causation.”
He added: “The golf boom has not happened because equipment is easier to use. If you think about a beginner, it makes no difference to them if their golf ball goes 15 per cent further – because they’ve just topped it, or missed it, or hit it sideways. So reducing the distance that golf ball travels, they won’t know.
“I don’t think there is any argument to be made that rolling back equipment for everybody will make the game any harder or less appealing to the masses, because it won’t.”
Now listen to the From the Clubhouse podcast
Tom and I talk much more about the golf ball rollback issue, as well as getting stuck into Tiger Woods’ latest comeback, and the LIV Golf/PGA Tour debate, on the latest episode of the From the Clubhouse podcast.
You can catch up with all our latest episodes by clicking the banners on this article, or you can listen to this specific episode with this link.
Now have your say
How would you feel if a golf ball rollback applied to everyone? Does golf have a problem with hitting distance? Let me know with a comment on X.