USGA, R&A propose rolling back the ball for elite golfers, but not changing equipment for recreational players

Eighty-three players on the PGA Tour average 300 yards or more off the tee this season, but the days of Rory McIlroy, Cameron Young, Tony Finau and the like vaporizing drives and humbling par 5s may be numbered. 

After three years of research, listening to comments from manufacturers and requesting feedback from stakeholders, the U.S. Golf Association and the R&A are ready to start reducing distance at the game’s elite levels, and they are going after the golf ball to do it.

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On Monday, golf’s governing bodies sent letters to equipment companies to announce a proposed Model Local Rule that would allow tournament organizers to require players to use golf balls that were tested under modified Actual Launch Conditions (ALC) to reduce distance. The primary goal of the Model Local Rule would be to reduce distance at the highest levels of men’s golf — with the USGA and R&A anticipating a reduction in driver distance of 14-15 yards for the longest hitters and golfers with the highest swing speeds — while not changing equipment rules that govern recreational players.

The game’s governing bodies plan to reduce distance at elite levels by altering the tests that must be passed for any ball to be deemed conforming to the rules. By increasing robotic testing speeds and altering other test parameters, the governing bodies effectively will require a slower, shorter golf ball to comply with the Model Local Rule. It will then be up to any event or tour to adopt the Model Local Rule.

“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,” said Mike Whan, CEO of the USGA. “Predictable, continued increases will become a significant issue for the next generation if not addressed soon. The Model Local Rule 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.”

Golf ball testing: What could change

Practice balls
Practice balls

(David Dusek/Golfweek)


The USGA and R&A tests golf balls to ensure they are of regulation size, weight and specification. After measuring them, balls are hit by a robot called Iron Byron, and since 2004, the robot has swung a titanium driver at 120 mph, creating a launch angle of 10 degrees and 2,520 rpm of backspin (+/- 120 rpm). Under those conditions, balls are not allowed to exceed the Overall Distance Standard (ODS) of 317 yards of combined carry distance and roll (with a 3-yard tolerance). 

Last June, in a letter to equipment makers, the USGA and R&A said they wanted feedback on increasing the test speeds to 125-127 mph. They also wanted input on testing balls in a range of launch angles between 7.5 and 15 degrees with backspin rates from 2,200 rpm to 3,000 rpm.

According to a report created by Titleist that was written in response to the USGA and R&A’s Areas of Interest notice, nearly every ball sold today will fail tests under those conditions and be considered non-conforming for elite players competing under the Model Local Rule. 

Titleist, which sells more golf balls than any other brand and made the balls used by the winner of all four men’s major championships in 2022, also stated that to make a ball that would pass under those proposed USGA and R&A conditions, manufacturers would have to make the ball’s performance similar to products released in the 1990s. 


To give that statement some context, Tom Purtzer led the PGA Tour in driving distance in 1990 with an average of 279 yards, and John Daly led in 1995 at 289 yards. McIlroy leads the Tour in driving distance this season at nearly 327 yards. 

In the letters sent to manufacturers Monday, the USGA and R&A propose that the robot swings the test club at 127 mph and produces a shot with an 11-degree launch angle and 2,200 rpm of backspin. 

As of Monday, no players on the PGA Tour have an average driver clubhead speed of 127 mph. Last season no players on the PGA Tour had an average driver clubhead speed of over 125 mph, and this year rookie Brendon Matthews leads the Tour at 126.06. This season the PGA Tour’s average driver swing speed is 115.1 mph, 11.9 mph slower than the proposed new robot speed.

The USGA and R&A’s proposed test changes would not increase the ODS limit of 317 yards, so it is safe to assume that if the robot swings the test driver 7 mph faster and produces a shot with a higher launch angle and less spin, no current balls will remain legal for play in events where the Model Local Rule is in place.


To be clear, the USGA and R&A did not say that any changes in testing are on the way for balls made for recreational golfers and players who compete in events where the potential Model Local Rule is not in place. If the testing changes are approved, equipment makers will need to make balls for elite players that meet one set of testing standards and make make different balls that meet the current set of testing standards for club players.

What's a Model Local Rule?

USGA golf tees
USGA golf tees

USGA golf tees (David Dusek/Golfweek)

The USGA and R&A frequently update the Rules of Golf and try to simplify the rules that govern the sport. In addition, they have guidelines called Model Local Rules (MLR) that allow tournament organizers flexibility when conducting events.


For example, in 2021 an MLR was created that reduced the maximum allowable driver length from 48 inches to 46 inches. The USGA said it hoped this MLR would only be adopted for events at the elite level, and it is now in place at PGA Tour and LPGA tournaments. However, as an MLR, it does not stop recreational golfers from using 48-inch drivers at their local clubs.

With the proposed MLR on golf balls, the USGA and R&A want to allow events for elite golfers to mandate that players use golf balls that pass the new higher-speed tests – effectively to use shorter golf balls. 

If the proposed MLR is adopted, the earliest it could be used is Jan. 1, 2026, but even if it is adopted by professional tours, it would not mean anything to weekend golfers. At your local club, the MLR will not be in place and the USGA wants you to be able to play any ball you like that has been approved under current testing standards.

“At the core of our proposal is a desire to minimize the impact on a flourishing recreational game,” said Martin Slumbers, the CEO of the R&A. “We believe the proposed Model Local Rule will help us move forward in a way that protects the inherent qualities of the sport and reduces the pressure to lengthen courses. This is an important issue for golf and one which needs to be addressed if the sport is to retain its unique challenge and appeal.”


While some people will see this as bifurcation and the creation of different rules to govern different levels of golfers, the USGA and R&A have consistently stated they do not consider the adoption of MLR as bifurcation. It may come down to semantics, but the reality is that starting in 2026, while you might be able to play the same courses as the pros, the elite pros might not be allowed to use the same ball as you.

The USGA and R&A also have not stated what they consider “elite level” golf to mean. It’s safe to assume they are targeting the PGA Tour, Korn Ferry Tour and DP World Tour, but guidelines for the college golf, regional amateur events and club championships have not been provided. This could cause confusion for golfers who compete in different states and on different tours.

There is also no information regarding recommendations for elite women’s golf provided either, so it is not clear whether the USGA and R&A believe the proposed MLR should be adopted by the LPGA or LET.

With manufacturers now notified of the USGA and R&A’s proposed changes, a comment period has begun that will conclude August 14, 2023. It is meant to allow equipment makers a chance to study the details proposed by the USGA and R&A, provide feedback and research the work that might be needed to create balls that would comply with the new tests.


After writing to equipment makers Monday, the USGA and R&A have made their position clear. They don’t want to see fast-swinging male pros hit the ball farther every year. They don’t want golf course designers who might be working on championship-level projects to feel compelled to make courses even longer. And they don’t want to make the game any harder or less enjoyable for recreational golfers.

We’ve got clarity on what the USGA and R&A want to do. Now we have to wait a little more to see if the proposed changes become reality.

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek