PGA Merchandise Show not the time or place to discuss controversial golf ball rollback

At the annual gathering of the golf industry’s titans in Orlando, mum’s the word on the golf ball rollback debate expected to impact one of their primary revenue streams.

No one wanted to discuss a decision that generated plenty of response and handwringing when announced in December, but has since been reluctantly accepted as inevitable.

“We’re not saying anything,” said a longtime sales rep from a top brand. “It wasn’t our idea.”

Backroom conversations between executives and technical discussions among engineers are ongoing but did not spill onto the floor this week at Orange County Convention Center during the 71st annual PGA Merchandise Show.

Ironically, the decision’s effect is off in the distance. Changes will not be effective until 2028 for professional and elite amateurs, 2030 for recreational players.

Most will experience a loss of only several yards, though opinions varied.

“It will be more distance than people might think,” one club fitter said.

Whatever the case, the rollback remains front of mind for manufacturers, with research and resources devoted to producing prototypes for testing within two years.

Sound business, however, is not a sign of acquiescence.

No companies wanted the change, said a marketing rep of another well-known brand. The thinking: Why mess with a good thing?

Rounds of have increased annually since 2021, riding the wave of the COVID-19 pandemic bump. Business shutdowns and CDC protocols led to an unexpected resurgence in golf’s popularity, given the game is played outdoors and allows for social distancing.

By the end of 2020, more than 502 million rounds were recorded, the most since 2007 — prior to the housing-market collapse and ensuing economic recession. The trend has continued.

Golf first-timers or those who returned after years away from the links capitalized on equipment changes that had made a challenging, frustrating sport more enjoyable and accessible. Those technological advances also had supercharged the professional game, with no end in sight.

Gains off the tee of some 30 yards by PGA Tour players during the previous 25 years had neutered stories courses such as Scotland’s St. Andrews, the “Home of Golf,” and upended the shot values at Augusta National Golf Club, home to the Masters every April.

In an effort to protect popular venues and rein in the sport’s elite players, the USGA and R&A pushed to curtail the technological advances in the one piece of equipment used on every shot — and most often replaced with varying degrees of frequency depending on a player’s skill level.

Golfers want a ball to improve their performance and lower their scores, turning maximum distance into the game’s holy grail.

Whether the development had become detrimental was a longstanding conversation, leading to five years of intensive study and ultimately the decision to dial back the ball.

But Rory McIlroy overpowering St. Andrews and 15-handicaps pushing to break 90 at their local muni is not one in the same. While McIlroy led the PGA Tour last season with an average driving distance of 326.3, the average carry distance for male golfers is 215 yards.

Rather than distinguish top pros from the average Joe, the game’s stewards announced Dec. 6 everyone still should play the same ball.

The blowback was immediate.

Bridgestone Golf, which produces the ball played by Tiger Woods, released a statement.

“While we would prefer that any new rules did not impact recreational players, we believe further commentary is no longer productive,” it read. “At this point, we need to concentrate on creating conforming products that allow both professionals and amateurs to play their best golf.”

Acushnet, whose Titleist Pro V models are the most popular on the PGA and LPGA tours, similarly shared opposition.

“We are concerned that the golf ball rollback overly impacts golfers and does not fully reflect the input of those closest to the game,” the company said in a statement. “Many important stakeholders do not see distance as a problem the way the governing bodies do.”

Those opinions will have to suffice for now. Even though the PGA Merchandise Show was the first public gathering of industry leaders since the controversial conclusion, tomorrow’s problem was not worth discussing today.

Edgar Thompson can be reached at