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USGA, R&A roll out plan to roll back the golf ball for elite players

A rollback is coming.

The USGA and R&A released a joint statement Tuesday morning to announce a proposal that would modify the testing conditions for golf balls used in elite competition via model local rule by January 2026, a move that would reduce hitting distances at the game’s highest levels.

Specifically, the governing bodies plan to alter the launch conditions for determining if a ball conforms to the overall distance standard, which allows for a combined carry and roll of greater than 317 yards but no more than 320 yards. Current conditions include balls tested with 120 mph of clubhead speed, 42 revolutions per second of spin and at a launch angle of 10 degrees, with acceptable ranges of variance for each.

Proposed conditions would be 127 mph, 37 revolutions per second and 11 degrees.

These changes, according to the governing bodies, would reduce the average driving distance of elite players by 14 to 15 yards.

“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,” USGA CEO Mike Whan said. “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.”

The USGA and R&A would both adopt the model local rule once it goes into effect, while other organizations, tours and tournaments, such as the PGA of America, PGA Tour and Augusta National Golf Club, which runs the Masters Tournament, will all have the option to employ the proposed MLR for their competitions.

Should the MLR be codified, there would be two distinct balls: one for elite professional and amateur players, and another for recreational golfers.

But amid talk that this is an example of bifurcation of equipment rules, USGA chief governance officer Thomas Pagel pushed back.

“If somebody wants to call this bifurcation, I’m not going to have an argument over words with them,” Pagel said. “Use of a model local rule is something that we’ve done consistently over the years. We’ve always said it gives the game options, and in this case we’re just giving the game options. ...It’s not the start to writing two different sets of rules. It truly is just an option around a piece of equipment.”

The average swing speed on the PGA Tour this season is 115.1 mph with the fastest player, Brandon Matthews, averaging 126.06 mph – in 2007, the first year the Tour measured the stat, the average was 112.37 with Bubba Watson tops at 124.18. And last season, the average driving distance on Tour landed at 299.8 yards, a 13.9-yard increase from 2003.

The belief, and ball manufacturers have confirmed as much, is that current balls used on Tour would all be deemed non-conforming using the proposed testing conditions.

“We want athleticism to win. We want there to be an advantage to be longer versus shorter. We want people to pursue competitive advantage,” Whan said Tuesday. “The whole, ‘Let’s just stop it here,’ has been tried before, and let’s how we get ourselves to 2023.”

But the potential changes, the governing bodies maintain, aren’t designed to curb the much more modest distance averages – 216 yards for men, 148 for women – produced by the majority of the nearly 67 million golfers worldwide. In fact, as Whan first pointed out at last year’s U.S. Open, there is a chance for those golfers to benefit from this MLR, as it could allow for the removal of the initial velocity test.

“We think if we removed that [initial velocity test],” Whan said, “there’s a potential – not a guarantee – it’ll free up innovation space for the manufacturers to create a ball that would actually be better for low club speeds, be better for beginners … but actually give the manufacturers a little bit of freedom.”

Last March, the USGA and R&A jointly announced two areas of interest – in addition to a model local rule on shaft length, which was widely adopted at the start of last year – as they narrowed their focus on reigning in distance in elite competitions: 1. Potential changes to the testing methods of golf balls; 2. Model local rules for club performance characteristics.

That news amended initial areas of interest, posted about a year earlier, that targeted golfers of all skill levels and included a variety of potential changes, from the size and mass of the ball to club lengths and clubhead dimensions to the reduction of the distance limit within the overall distance standard.

How is Tuesday’s update different? Now, the focus is solely on the ball; stricter regulations on the clubface, specifically with reducing MOI and the spring-like effect, have been tabled. The launch conditions are also a slight audible from last spring’s announcement, which called for balls to be tested at 125 mph clubhead speed.

All this, of course, is in response to the 2020 Distance Insights Project, which determined that golf’s distance boom was having a detrimental effect on the game, particularly when it comes to the lengthening of golf courses.

An example: Riviera Country Club, one of the Tour’s most iconic regular venues, has been lengthened by over 400 yards since 1999.

“This is not an emergency,” former USGA CEO Mike Davis said at the time. “We don’t have a crisis. This didn’t happen overnight. But we are looking to solve a problem that we believe is in the best interest of all golfers.”

The effort has been backed by some of golf’s most influential figures, including Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley.

“We need to do something about the golf ball,” Woods told reporters in 2017. “I just think it’s going too far because we’re having to build golf courses, if they want to have a championship venue, they’ve got to be 7,400-7,800 yards long. And if the game keeps progressing the way it is with technology, I think the 8,000-yard golf course is not too far away. And that’s pretty scary.”

Added Nicklaus last year on the Five Clubs Podcast: “For all concerned, for the golf ball to come back to bring back a lot of things back into perspective is very important for the game of golf.”

And Ridley during the 2020 Masters: “Our position would be to support the governing bodies, and then if there is no action taken, for whatever reason, then we need to look at other options. ... Fortunately, we do have the ability to make any number of changes to protect the integrity of the course. At the same time, we hope there will not come a day when the Masters or any golf championship will have to be played at 8,000 yards to achieve that objective. This is an important crossroads, so we will continue to urge the governing bodies and all interested parties to put forward thoughtful solutions as soon as possible.”

It’s clear, though, that not everyone views the issue of distance through the same lens.

There will be a six-month comment period on the MLR that ends on Aug. 14, and there is expected to be pushback from equipment manufacturers, many of which have been vocal in the distance discussion.

Titleist, maker of the most-used ball on Tour, released a 19-page response to the published areas of interest last September. It argued that a ball rollback would decrease hitting distances for all golfers, not just the top players, and future balls would resemble balata balls from the 1990s. And in regards to bifurcation, the company said, “The game’s growth and global appeal are linked to unification. Bifurcation of the rules breaks that link.”

But in a notice sent Monday to equipment companies, the USGA and R&A stressed that they are not considering changes that would reduce distance at all levels.

“The proposed MLR,” the notice reads, “would enable golf event organizers and committees to use specific balls for certain elite championships and tournaments but would not impact the current recreational game in any way.”

Added R&A CEO Martin Slumbers: “Change is difficult, and we fully recognize that not all agree with our thinking. But we have listened and considered other points of view very carefully. Our role is to protect the future of golf, both in terms of its overall integrity as a sport, its broad mix of skills to deliver excellence, and its environmental responsibilities over the next 20 to 30 years. It would be irresponsible of us to not address these matters which have had so much attention.

“We know this is challenging, but it’s our responsibility as governing bodies to do what is right and not what is easy and ensure we leave the game in a better state for future generations.”