It's taken years to get here, and it's not over yet, but the game's governing bodies have announced plans for a golf ball roll back

Governing bodies have announced a golf ball roll back that could chop 15 yards off the distances hit by the game’s leading male players.

The R&A and USGA have proposed a Model Local Rule that would give 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.”

The new Model Local Rule is intended for use only in elite competitions and the governing bodies say it will have “no impact on recreational golf”.

But it would essentially bifurcate the sport by creating a tournament ball – meaning professionals and club players would use different equipment.

A proposal notice has been sent to golf equipment manufacturers and they, along with industry stakeholders, can provide feedback until August 14. If adopted, the proposal would come into effect no earlier than January 2026.

Under the Model Local Rule, balls would not be able to exceed the current Overall Distance Standard limit of 317 yards (plus three yards tolerance) at modified Actual Launch Conditions with a clubhead speed of 127 mph and based on a calibration set-up for 11 degrees and 37 revolutions per second (2220 rpm).

“All other balls, including those typically used by recreational golfers with lower swing speeds, would continue to be tested using the existing ALC values (120 mph, and a calibration set-up of 10 degrees and 42 revolutions per second – 2520 rpm),” a joint R&A and USGA statement said.

“The current ODS limit of 317 yards will remain unchanged and would be applied to both testing set-ups.”

The statement added: “There is a direct correlation between clubhead speed and hitting distance. Over the last 20 years hitting distance has increased on average by around one yard per year. 

“The modified testing set-up in the proposed MLR is expected to reduce hitting distance by 14-15 yards on average for the longest hitters with the highest clubhead speeds.”

While the exact definition of ‘elite’ competition and how much of the amateur arena it would include is not yet clear, the Model Local Rule would be used in the R&A and USGA’s respective championships. It would not apply to the elite women’s game at this stage.

The distances the leading men’s players are hitting the ball has increased exponentially over the past couple of decades. This year, Rory McIlroy leads the PGA Tour’s driving distance statistics with an average of 326.6 yards. A total of 83 players boast an average of 300 yards or more.

By contrast in 1999, the year before the launch of the Titleist Pro V1, John Daly led the numbers with an average of 305.6 yards. He was the only player to hit that milestone.

Advances in fitness and coaching, as well as equipment, have also contributed but, in early 2020, an R&A and USGA Distance Insights Project report concluded that increasing distances were hurting the game. It summarised that golf would best thrive if the “continuing cycle of ever-increasing hitting distances and golf course lengths is brought to an end”.

It added: “Longer distances, longer courses, playing from longer tees, and longer times to play are taking golf in the wrong direction and are not necessary to make golf challenging, enjoyable or sustainable in the future”.

A year later, an update outlined that the R&A and USGA would assess the “potential use of a local rule option that would specify use of clubs and/or balls intended to result in a shorter hitting distances”.

Martin Slumbers, R&A chief executive, said: “We have worked closely with the golf industry throughout this process and taken time to listen carefully to their perspectives and reflect on the helpful and constructive feedback they have provided.

“At the core of our proposal is a desire to minimise the impact on a flourishing recreational game. We believe the proposed Model Local Rule will help us move forward in a way that protects the inherent qualities of the sport and reduces the pressure to lengthen courses. This is an important issue for golf and one which needs to be addressed if the sport is to retain its unique challenge and appeal.”

“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,” added USGA chief executive Mike Whan.

“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.”

Critics of big hitting on the professional tours have long argued for a golf ball roll back, claiming it is travelling too far, making prestige golf courses redundant, and forcing others to become ever longer – requiring more land, more water, and more resources at a time when environmental pressures and climate change are demanding the opposite.

It seems they have now got their way.

What do you think? Are you in favour of rolling the golf ball back or should the game’s governing bodies leave well alone? Would you like to try a rolled back golf ball and how do you feel that the professional and club game is about to be split. Let us know with a tweet.

Steve Carroll

A journalist for 23 years, Steve has been immersed in club golf for almost as long. A former captain and committee member, he has passed the Level 3 Rules of Golf exam with distinction having attended the national Tournament Administrators and Referee's Seminar. He has officiated at a host of high-profile tournaments, including Open Regional Qualifying and the PGA Fourball Championship. A member of NCG's Top 100s panel, Steve has a particular love of links golf and is frantically trying to restore his single-figure handicap.

Handicap: 10.9

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