Golf’s governing bodies are locked in a row with the PGA Tour and the game’s top equipment makers after announcing their decision to rein back how far the ball can travel.
Minutes after the Royal & Ancient (R&A) and US Golf Association (USGA) announced that new regulations will affect both the professional and amateur game worldwide, the PGA Tour sent a memo to their members stating “we do not support today’s announcement”.
There was no mention of legal recourse from the PGA Tour and especially the DP World Tour, which said “we respect the decision”, but powers-that-be are clearly ready for a fight.
“There’s going to be a lot of ambulance chasers and alarmists to make this seem so much worse than it really is,” said Mike Whan, the USGA chief executive, “I don’t want a few loud voices that are trying to get more clicks and more viewers and more phone calls to drive a frenzy that quite frankly just isn’t based on fact.”
Ensuring that golf balls travel shorter distances is regarded as a radical, but much needed, step to protect classic layouts such as the Old Course. Top pros and weekend hackers will all be affected by the announcement – known as the roll-back. The rules will be introduced in 2028 for the pros and 2030 for the rest.
Golf’s law-makers expect that the new testing speeds on balls will curtail big-hitters by 13 to 15 yards, while they claim there will be “a minimal distance impact, of five yards or less, for most recreational golfers”.
In the same announcement the R&A and USGA also said they have plans to reduce the size of the sweet spot on golf drivers.
With the news leaking last weekend there was no surprise at Wednesday’s announcement but that does not mean that anger was in short supply. But backed by the greatest two male pros perhaps of all time – Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods – and by Rory McIlroy, the most recognisable of the current world top 10, the R&A and USGA are determined to hold firm.
They are in charge of the Rules of Golf and if anyone – from professional tours, to elite amateur events, to the tens of thousands of golf clubs across the world who hold weekly medal competitions – wish to adhere then they must ensure that only conforming balls are used in competition.
“We are convinced that this decision is one of the key ways of achieving a sustainable future for golf, protecting the integrity of the game and meeting our environmental responsibilities,” Martin Slumbers, the R&A chief executive, said.
“The measure we are taking has been carefully considered and calibrated while maintaining the ‘one game’ ethos deemed to be so important to the golf industry. Importantly, it also keeps the impact on recreational golfers to an absolute minimum. We are acting now because we want to ensure that future generations can enjoy the unique challenge of golf as much as we do.”
Slumbers referenced the industry’s opposition to the initial plans which would effectively have brought in separate rules for the elite players and recreational golfers. The R&A and USGA have long stated that “doing nothing is not an option”. So everyone gets to play under the same regulations.
McIlroy: environmental impact is significant
If the PGA Tour was quick with its disagreement then McIlroy was almost as rapid in his approval.
“Golf courses are getting longer, they’re needing more and more acreage and is that sustainable?” he said. “They need more water to maintain and then there’s all these sorts of environmental factors that come into it. I think that’s the biggest reason we should do this.
“But also as a professional who plays the game, I think it’ll just bring back some skills into the pro game that have maybe been lost and I actually think it’ll make the programme more entertaining to watch. I think you’re going to see a different variety of games succeed. It’s not just going to be this bomb-and-gouge that we see predominantly now.
“And it’ll bring some of the great classic courses back into consideration, when we go to major championships. You know, that’s the reason I’m a big proponent of just making the ball go a little shorter.”
Why has the amateur game been included in these new ball regulations?
Initially, the R&A and US Golf Association planned to introduce the restrictions as a ‘Model Local Rule’, which would be enforced only in professional tournaments and elite amateur events. But in the consultancy period, the PGA Tour and PGA of America joined the equipment manufacturers in hitting out at the proposed ‘bifurcation of the sport’. So the governing bodies called their bluff and decided to implement it across the board.
What is ‘bifurcation’?
The word means the division of something into two branches or parts. In this case it is basically a situation in which, because of rules, professional and amateur golfers would be using different equipment. Of course, bifurcation already exists because the top pros have equipment especially made for them, but the romantics claim that having it in black and white would shatter the link between the hackers and the superstars – i.e. that all golfers are able to play the same courses, under the same conditions and with the same equipment as the players on the TV.
Why was the R&A and USGA prepared to ‘bifurcate’?
Because they do not believe that the average golfer hits it far enough to endanger classic courses and that normal layouts do not pose a big risk to the environment.
So what are they bringing in?
In layman’s words ‘a shorter ball’ that will travel between 15 to 20 yards less for the biggest drivers. Opinions differ, but the governing bodies insist the effect on recreational golfers will be minimal, with balls travelling off the tee maybe five yards less. The shorter the iron, the less the loss.
Can they enforce this?
Clearly not in a midweek game between friends, but if golf clubs want their competitions to conform with the Rules of Golf – and the overwhelming majority will because of the desire to remain within the World Handicap System – then they will have to follow the regulations.
Will that mean tonnes of balls being thrown out at a huge cost?
Almost certainly not. The rules will not be implemented until 2030 and by that stage the equipment-makers will have had new balls on the shelves for a few years (the rule will be introduced for pros in 2028). There will inevitably be some rows in clubs over players using their old Pro V1s – either out of cost concerns or to gain an edge – and the odd disqualification will occur. In truth, the old balls will mostly have been discarded or lost by the end of the decade.
Will it affect the participation rates that have exploded since Covid?
That is what the critics claim. But as Rory McIlroy says, “I really don’t believe that a recreational player’s fun will be affected by losing five yards off their drives”. Indeed, another view is that professional golf will be less one-dimensional and will inspire more newcomers.
How are golf balls tested to see if they pass regulations?
To decide if a ball complies with new rules, they will be tested in the following conditions which are considered optimum for maximum shot length: 125mph clubhead speed (equivalent to 183mph ball speed); spin rate of 2,220rpm and launch angle of 11 degrees. The old conditions, which were established 20 years ago, are set at 120mph (equivalent to 176mph ball speed), 2,520rpm with a 10-degree launch angle.
The revised conditions are based on analysis of data from the worldwide tours and the game over several years. They are intended to ensure that the overall distance standard, whose limit will remain unchanged at 317 yards with a three-yard tolerance, continues to represent the ability of the game’s longest hitters.
An analysis of ball speeds among golf’s longest hitters in 2023 shows that the fastest 10 players had an average ball speed of 186mph, while the average ball speed of the fastest 25 was 183.4mph (the very fastest averaged 190mph).
The longest hitters are expected to see a reduction of as much as 13-15 yards in drive distance with new balls. Average professional tour and elite male players are expected to see a reduction of 9-11 yards, with a 5-7-yard reduction for an average LET or LPGA player. The change in testing speed is expected to have a minimal distance impact, five yards or less, for most recreational golfers. Research shows an average swing speed of 93mph for male golfers and 72mph for female players.