In case you missed it, the USGA and the R&A intend to roll your golf ball back.
This rollback has been discussed ad nauseam since Friday when word first leaked that the USGA/R&A would be informing ball manufacturers exactly what the “new” ball will be allowed to do. Opinions have ranged from rage to elation, depending on which side you are on.
Many of the arguments for and against the rollback in the cesspool that can be social media have ranged from rational/logical to nonsensical/ill-informed. Our goal today is to take a step back and look at something that’s in short supply in times like these.
We’ll throw some observations into the mix because that’s how we roll. But it’s our hope you’ll be able to glean enough information to understand what’s actually happening.
And to realize this thing is most likely far from over.
The Rollback: What Is It?
The USGA and R&A, as golf’s governing bodies (more on that later), told golf ball manufacturers yesterday. The new rules say that to be considered conforming, golf balls can travel 317 yards (+/- three yards) at 125 mph of clubhead speed with an 11-degree launch angle and no more than 2,220 rpm of spin.
That’s a slight change from the Model Local Rule the USGA floated last March which based the same distance, launch and spin on 127-mph clubhead speed.
The current guideline specifies the same distance, but at 120-mph clubhead speed, 10-degree launch angle and 2,520 rpm.
Essentially that means we’ll all be playing a shorter, higher-launching and lower-spinning golf ball.
All of us.
Golf’s “governing bodies” made the rollback universal. You, me, the weekend hacker and the local stick will be playing the same rolled-back ball as the pros on the PGA TOUR, the LPGA Tour and every other tour,
While the actual distance decrease will likely be greater for faster swing speed players, the likes of you and me will also see a decrease. One OEM source told us it could be as much as 10 yards with driver and 10 yards with irons.
The new rules will go into effect for professional tours in 2028. The rest of the world will have to comply by 2030.
What kind of ball will we be playing by then? For reference, the only current Acushnet ball that might fit those specifications is the Pinnacle Soft.
The Rollback Rationale
While the what of the rollback is very clear, the why is debatable, if not murky.
In its 2022 Distance Report, the USGA and R&A presented an impressive array of facts and figures from decades of distance data. That data, it must be noted, was mined from seven major professional golf sources: The PGA TOUR, DP World, Korn Ferry, PGA TOUR Champions, the Japan Golf Tour, the LPGA Tour and the Ladies European Tour.
Golf’s governing bodies found 2022 driving distance across all of those tours was up four percent over 2003. For example, if the average drive on the PGA TOUR in 2003 was 288 yards, by 2022 it would have stretched to 299 yards.
That’s an 11-yard increase – 33 feet – over 19 years.
Distance was measured over two holes at each tournament, going in opposite directions to minimize the impact of wind. The report also indicates the holes used were, for the most part, flat and distance was measured to where the ball landed, be it the fairway, rough or bunker. No mention was made of the relative firmness or dryness of the ground, length of rough or fairway grass or other conditions. Tour players used driver on nearly all the shots recorded on these holes.
Other facts presented in the report include average clubhead speed and launch conditions but that data only goes back to 2007. In 2022, the average clubhead speed was 114.6 mph and average ball speed was 171.9. The average launch angle was 10.3 degrees and average spin was 2,597 rpm.
In 2007, average clubhead speed was 112.4 mph and average ball speed was 165.4 mph. Average launch angle was a skosh higher at 10.8 degrees while average spin was higher at 2,814 rpm.
More Data, More Questions
In 2002, the USGA and R&A issued a joint statement of principles on equipment regulation.
“The R&A and USGA are committed to remaining vigilant when considering the equipment rules to protect golf’s best traditions, to prevent an over-reliance on technological advances rather than skill, and to ensure that skill is the dominant element of success throughout the game.”
Distance gains from 1980 to 2002 can certainly explain the governing bodies’ concerns. In 1980, average Tour driving distance with persimmons and balatas was 256 yards, By 2003, with metal woods and solid-core balls, it jumped to 286 yards. Since then, driving distance gains have been much less substantial. As mentioned, 2022 driving distance was just under 300 yards.
What perhaps concerned the powers-that-be more was the percentage of drives that were, well, monstrous. In 2003, nearly eight percent of all measured drives topped 320 yards. In 2022, that number reached nearly 20 percent. The most significant jump came in 2017, the year after NIKE left the equipment business.
Drives from 300 to 320 yards weren’t uncommon in 2003 with nearly 19 percent reaching that distance. But by 2022 that number was over 30 percent. The fat part of the bell curve in 2002 and again in 2022 was 280 to 300 yards. That remained steady at roughly 32 percent.
What About Us Regular Folks?
Remember that these numbers come from seven major global tours and the best golfers on the planet. The 2022 report also referenced a study on male and female amateur golfers in the UK, regular people with handicaps ranging from scratch to over 21. Men were studied from 1996 through 2019 while data for women was collected from 2013 to 2019.
The study found that 2019 average driver distance was 216 yards for men compared to only 200 yards in 1996. What’s more telling is that driver usage is up for higher handicaps. In ’96, higher handicaps (over 21) used driver only 54 percent of the time. By 2019, that jumped to 97 percent. Lower handicap golfers were using driver well over 90 percent of the time in 1996. By 2019, however, that percentage dropped to 84 percent.
We can infer two things from this data. The first is that drivers are getting more forgiving. And the second is that lower handicap golfers could get the distance they need even without using driver.
Earlier this year, the USGA proposed a Model Local Rule that introduced the reduced flight ball. That rule would have been optional for event organizers and would have left recreational golfers alone. The proposal was aimed exclusively at reducing distance for the highest level of players at the highest level of competition.
The PGA TOUR and other tours rejected the Model Local Rule out of hand. Golf ball manufacturers were also not in favor as it would have created a whole new R&D process for a ball that would have limited or non-existent retail appeal.
With bifurcation off the table, the governing bodies’ only other option to control distance at the highest levels was to control distance at all levels.
But What About Course Conditions?
It’s easy to say “just grow the grass” but will that have an impact? Well, the USGA has studied this and other course setup and condition options and, as it turns out, growing the grass can limit distance.
To a degree.
If you’ve ever watched a Tour event on TV and witnessed a ball rolling down the fairway as if it were paved, you’ll know that fairway firmness also impacts distance.
Again, to a degree.
The USGA studied all this and came to some interesting conclusions. First off, growing the fairway grass could reduce distance by as much as two yards for every 10th of an inch above 0.4 inches of length. The USGA study says the overall distance impact would be as much as four yards given typical mowing heights and commonly used grass.
Additionally, softening the fairways could also impact distance anywhere from 4.5 to nearly 10 yards. However, water usage during tournament play would increase and the USGA has committed itself to promoting reduced water consumption for turf maintenance. So while softening up the fairways is effective, it’s also counter to the USGA’s conservation commitment.
And while both initiatives could potentially impact distance (up to 14 yards on average) with minimal cost, neither initiative can be mandated by the USGA or the R&A.
In its report, both bodies concluded that “we believe golf will best thrive over the next decades and beyond if this continuing cycle of ever-increasing hitting distances and golf course lengths is brought to an end.”
Is The Rollback a Forgone Conclusion?
Depending on where you stand, there are two ways to look at the rollback. One is that the USGA/R&A evidence is clear and distance needs to be curtailed to preserve a sustainable future.
The other is the powers that be have already decided distance is a problem and found evidence to support that conclusion.
Either way, unless something changes, we’re staring down the barrel at a rollback.
When they first proposed the Model Local Rule solution, the USGA and R&A conceded that distance is only a problem at the elite levels. And the collected data shows that distance continues to rise. Part of it is equipment, no doubt, and part of it is the golfer. Speed training, overall fitness and athleticism may trump equipment as contributing factors.
But those can’t be regulated by the USGA. Balls and clubs can.
You’ve no doubt been reading many wild and, most likely, erroneous takes on the issue from both sides. To say the rollback will mean iconic courses will once again play the way the architect intended is borderline ridiculous. A course designed and built in 1936 was designed to be played by equipment available in 1936. Unless you roll everything (equipment, course conditions, green speed) back to 1936 levels, that course will never be played the way the architect intended.
And to say distance means technology is more important than skill means you believe the arrow is, in fact, more important than the archer. The golfer still needs to get the ball in the damn hole, people. Is distance a weapon? Hell, yes. Ask Jack. He was so long that Bobby Jones himself said Jack played a game with which he was not familiar.
To insist that most golfers aren’t good enough to notice the difference is dismissive. On the other hand, moving up a tee box is a double-edged sword. If moving up 20 yards offsets 20 yards in total tee-to-green loss, then perhaps a golfer wouldn’t notice much difference. On the other hand, that’s a lot of energy, angst and lawsuit potential to expend for what amounts to a net-zero move. It’s fair to ask, “What’s the point?’
Conversely, to say the USGA/R&A are doing this just to protect old, rich country clubs that still want to host big events is cynical at best and conspiracy-minded at worst. And to think they are only looking out for the old-school private clubs is missing their greater mission.
In times like these, both sides tend to paint with a ridiculously wide brush.
The Golf Ball Rollback: Where Do We Go From Here?
That’s literally the million-dollar, no, billion-dollar question. OEMs and professional tours rejected the Model Local Rule. It’s not out of the question to conclude the USGA and R&A took the rather Byzantine approach to get bifurcation back on the table by making the rollback universal. As negotiating ploys go, it’s not bad.
Lawsuits may be inevitable. OEMs suing the game’s governing bodies over an equipment ruling is not without precedent. Karsten Solheim famously sued the USGA and R&A (and, later, the PGA) over their decisions to ban the square grooves found in the PING Eye 2 irons. In that case, the USGA’s own research showed there was minimal impact from the grooves and the suit was settled when the two sides reached a compromise. PING would change how it made grooves while the USGA would grandfather all existing PING Eye 2 irons as conforming.
The R&A, strangely enough, never settled. Square-grooved Eye 2 irons are still considered non-conforming by the R&A.
It’s also important to understand that the USGA and R&A only govern at the consent of the governed. They are golf’s ruling bodies because everyone associated with the game agrees that they’re the ruling bodies. There’s nothing to prevent the PGA TOUR, LIV, the DP World Tour or the NCAA from developing its own list of conforming clubs and balls.
But if you wanted to see what chaos in golf would look like, that would be your chance.
So whether you and I will be playing a rolled-back golf ball come 2030 comes down to how much of a stomach the governing bodies and the OEMs have for lawsuits and just how badly individual tours want to strike out on their own.
Read the USGA’s official release here.
What the OEMs are saying about the golf ball rollback
“While appreciative of the opportunity to have a seat at the table and a voice in the debate, we feel like the rollback is simply disconnected from what golfers believe is best for the game” – David Abeles, CEO, TaylorMade Golf
“While we would prefer that any new rules did not impact recreational players, we believe further commentary is no longer productive. At this point, we need to concentrate on creating conforming products that allow both professionals and amateurs to play their best golf.” – Dan Murphy, CEO, Bridgestone Golf
“Topgolf Callaway Brands respects the perspectives of the governing bodies and knows they are acting in what they believe is in the best interest of the game. However, when viewing the same data, we have consistently communicated that we would not have chosen to roll the ball back and we would have preferred bifurcation over a change across the board.
Having said that, we would like to thank and compliment the USGA and R&A for their approach and process in making this decision. Throughout this process, we believe they have been open and thorough in their analysis. They took the time to actively seek input from multiple stakeholders, including us, on multiple occasions and levels. They clearly listened and were thoughtful in their responses; and, when they deemed it appropriate, they modified their approach in ways that benefitted both the game and the industry that supports it.”- Chip Brewer, CEO, Topgolf Callaway