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Golf's plan to roll back the ball and rein in big-hitters

R&A want to limit how far golf balls travel to stop big-hitters - Getty Images/Michael Reaves
R&A want to limit how far golf balls travel to stop big-hitters - Getty Images/Michael Reaves

The R&A is expected this week to propose a roll-back of the ball in the long-running distance saga - but the decision could still take years to reach.

Telegraph Sport has learned that the impending announcement is believed to centre around “a discussion document” about reining back the ball and essentially introducing restrictions that will ultimately decrease the distance it will travel, even under optimal conditions.

Along with the US Golf Association, the St Andrews governing body has been seriously looking into the issue for six years after they announced they were conducting a joint report and three years ago their “Distance Insight Project” concluded that the ever-increasing length pros are hitting it is “detrimental to the game”.

Since then, the USGA and R&A have been consulting with the industry about the problem which they declared is beginning “to undermine the core principle that golf should require a broad range of skills to be successful”.

That is just one concern in a debate that has been raging for decades. Classic courses are in danger of becoming obsolete as players such as Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm routinely launch drives of 350-yards plus, reducing the test, in some cases, to a drive, pitch and putt.

Longer courses are required, resulting not only in the nature of layouts being stretched sometimes beyond recognition and then there is the obvious rise in maintenance costs, with the necessity for extra water and chemicals fueling environment worries. Rounds are inevitably taking longer to compete, even in club competitions.

In this very week, 12 months ago, the R&A and USGA released an update that essentially alerted equipment manufacturers to the fact that they were investigating the potential impacts on hitting distance from increasing the ball-test speeds to reflect the clubhead speeds achieved by today’s big-hitters, with another “key area of focus” being the specifications driver itself.

However, after a six-month consulting period in which the manufacturers have voiced objections and shared ideas, Telegraph Sport has learned the R&A and USGA - despite limiting shafts to a maximum of 46ins last year - seems to be primarily focused on decreasing the ball and not drastically overhauling the rules on clubs, which could affect recreational golfers.

“We think we can make changes to the golf ball that can impact the longest hitters but have really minimal impact on the average drive distance for the recreational golfers,” Thomas Pagel, the USGA chief governance officer, said in 2022.

That would allow the hackers to continue to play under the same rules as the experts, but it may be simpler for the powers-that-be to introduce the regulation as a "Model Local Rule", which Tours and tournaments can use if they so choose.

The news will inevitably receive a mixed reception, ranging from relief to anger and, of course, exacerbation at the timespan of the ongoing rigmarole.

Before the advent of LIV Golf, the Saudi-funded rebel circuit that split the elite male game in two, this was the burning topic in golf, with the likes of Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods standing on the different side of the argument to Rory McIlroy, many of the modern pros and even the PGA Tour.

In some respects, the LIV controversy has bought the authorities breathing space, although Nicklaus, for one, has become distraught at the failure to act quicker.

“I don't know what they’re doing,” the 18-time major champion said. “They’re slow about reacting to this issue. They say they put a line in the sand but that line in the sand keeps getting wider. They keep crossing it. 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. I think something will get done, it’s just how long will it take for them to research the problem?”

In fairness to the R&A and USGA, this has the potential to become a legal minefield, with lawyers for the manufacturers already on the case and the last thing the sport needs at the moment is another front opening in the civil war.

“This is only a discussion document and all this will probably still take many years to sort,” an insider said. “The word is that 2026 might be the date when anything is finally implemented.”