Breaking News: USGA, R&A announce golf ball rollback for 'elite competitions' starting in 2026

Stricter test parameters for golf balls will cap distance at 317 yards under new launch conditions.
Driving distance at golf's highest levels could begin to be tempered as soon as 2026, thanks to new testing parameters instituted by the USGA and R&A.

LIBERTY CORNER, N.J. - The era of professional golfers and elite amateurs routinely smashing drives of longer than 320 and even upwards of 350 yards on golf courses creeping toward 8,000 yards may soon come to a close.

So, too, should the recent trend to drastically (and expensively) lengthen championship golf courses to keep up with pros' significant driving distance gains over the last 20-plus years.

On Tuesday, in a joint announcement, the United States Golf Association and R&A unveiled plans to institute a Model Local Rule for tours and individual events to use to require limited-distance golf balls in "elite competitions" starting in 2026.

This is a long-anticipated significant step toward equipment rollback for the first time in several decades.

"The [Model Local Rule] we are proposing is simple to implement, forward-looking and does so without any impact on the recreational game," said Michael Whan, CEO of the USGA. "We are taking the next steps in this process, guided first and foremost by doing what’s right by the entire game."

Golf ball changes proposed by the USGA and R&A

You're ready to watch!
You can now enjoy GolfPass videos and more.
Play_Icon Play

Up Next

Autoplay is paused

USGA, R&A felt need to address increased distance

In order to limit the distance golf balls may travel in elite competition, the USGA and R&A seek to change the conditions in which they test golf balls for conformity.

Currently, in order for a golf ball to conform to USGA/R&A rules, it must fly no farther than 317 yards, with a three-yard tolerance, when struck at a swing speed of 120 miles per hour, with a launch angle of 10 degrees and 2,520 RPMs of backspin.

The new proposed testing parameters call for that same limit of 317 + 3 yards, but at a swing speed of 127 miles per hour, with a launch angle of 11 degrees and 2,250 RPMs of backspin.

If it is going to take a higher swing speed to send the new golf ball the same distance, then that means the new golf ball will have to be a little less lively at impact.

That means that come 2026, the top-line golf balls of today will be non-conforming in competitions where the proposed Model Local Rule is in effect.

The new golf balls are expected to travel approximately 15 yards shorter than the current crop for golfers with the highest swing speeds.

This recent announcement marks the beginning of a Notice and Comment Period, where the USGA will take feedback on its proposal through August 14, 2023, before solidifying changes toward the end of the calendar year.

Bifurcation and what the new USGA/R&A golf ball rules could mean for you

In short, golfers who don't compete at the highest levels of the amateur or professional game will not be forced to adopt the slightly shorter-flying golf balls that will be developed to comply with the new Model Local Rule. This is where the term "bifurcation" - one set of rules for one class of player, one set for the rest - comes into play.

Bifurcation has been hotly debated as long as the prospect of equipment changes have been discussed in recent years. Other sports are bifurcated - think metal vs. wooden baseball bats - but part of golf's charm has long been that all golfers have access to the same equipment, be they professionals or recreational amateurs. Sure, the pros have different customization needs and sometimes use special one-off or prototype clubs that never come to the general market, but the rules governing their equipment also govern equipment for the rest of us.

Released in late 2000, Callaway's ERC II driver represents the most significant attempt to popularize non-conforming golf equipment among recreational players.

Some golf equipment companies make non-conforming clubs, but they have historically been a small niche in the market. In late 2000, Callaway stirred debate throughout the golf world when it released the ERC II driver, which was ruled non-conforming in the United States due to the considerable trampoline effect it produced on a golf ball. Major manufacturers have largely avoided mass-marketing non-conforming clubs ever since.

Nevertheless, non-conforming golf equipment - including golf balls like the super-hot, "self-correcting" Polara - does currently exist. But it is a niche within a niche; in general, golfers are instinctively inclined to use equipment subject to the same standards the pros must follow.

By placing the new golf ball parameters in the context of a Model Local Rule, the USGA and R&A will give all golfers the option to play what the pros play without legislating it outright.

The U.S. Open and Open Championship will undoubtedly require competitors to play the new ball. The Masters will likely do the same, as Augusta National Golf Club is ground-zero for the recent great golf equipment debates (more on that below). The PGA Championship and PGA Tour should fall in line, thereby resetting the core equipment standard for the most-watched golfers in the world.

If all Official World Golf Ranking events come to require the new ball, that will make it standard issue not only for every professional, but every aspiring pro as well. That means collegiate players and elite amateurs will be incentivized to play it, too, in order to see how they stack up against their prospective competition. In turn, they will likely influence other golfers to do the same. After all, using superior equipment is unnecessary when the handicap system and different tee sets already facilitate equitable competition between differently-skilled golfers.

This short-term bifurcation may eventually resolve into a new norm. And if a significant portion of recreational golfers remain comfortable playing tacitly non-conforming golf balls, no problem: the equipment manufacturers will be glad to sell hotter golf balls to them.

Golf equipment rollback a long time coming

Augusta National's par-5 13th hole has become a symbol for hitting distance increases in recent years, with golfers playing it in a fundamentally different way than originally intended.

The move is the latest in a lengthy investigation, research and comment period that dates back as far as 2002, when both organizations unveiled a "Joint Statement of Principles" that asserted their shared position that increasing distance is "undesirable, and will have an impact on the future of the game."

Since that time, average driving distance at the elite levels of the game has increased by as much as 15 yards. The advent, widespread adoption and technological refinement of titanium and carbon drivers that pushed the 460-cubic-centimeter limit for use in competition, in addition to the development of sophisticated solid-core golf balls like the Titleist Pro V1, has also had a tangible effect on amateurs, but a much more significant one for competitive golfers who combine speed with skill at the highest levels.

Championship golf courses have had to adapt or be left behind. Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters, measured 6,925 yards when Tiger Woods won his first in 1997. The golf course yardage for the 2023 Masters is projected to be 7,510 yards, 585 more than a quarter-century ago.

Augusta National's par-5 13th hole, revered as one of the greatest risk-reward tests in golf, measured 485 yards in '97. Even then, most players needed to hit a long iron or fairway wood off of a hanging fairway lie in order to reach its two-tiered green in two shots.

Nowadays, most Masters participants are able to reach the 13th green with mid- and even short-irons. It is hardly the "momentous decision" club founder Bobby Jones and architect Alister MacKenzie envisioned.

This year, the club is set to unveil a new 545-yard tee, 35 yards behind the previous one and 60 behind the 1997 location. In order to build it, the club bought property from neighboring Augusta Country Club, prompting the shifting of an entire golf hole on the Donald Ross design. That such an extreme measure needed to be taken to protect the integrity of the design of one of the world's iconic golf holes stands as proof of the need to rein in driving distances for the world's best players.

Augusta National is fortunate to have both the capital and the acreage to add hundreds of yards in order to keep its course relevant and challenging to the world's greatest players. Other historic venues are less lucky. In suburban Philadelphia, Merion Golf Club's East Course is a perfect example of a course that contemporary golf equipment has rendered obsolete for top championship play. When it hosted the 2013 U.S. Open, it measured 6,996 yards, up from 6,544, when it hosted the 1981 edition.

The new rules around golf ball standards for elite competitions will help keep historic venues like Merion Golf Club's East Course, site of Ben Hogan's famous 1-iron to the final green in the 1950 U.S. Open, relevant for generations of golfers to come. Merion is currently slated to host the 2030 and 2050 U.S. Opens.

Unlike Augusta National, Merion has nowhere else to expand without further compromising architect Hugh Wilson's intent. It is scheduled to host the U.S. Open in 2030 and in 2050. Without the latest USGA/R&A resolution to halt the increasing distance of the golf ball, Merion would be unable to host those future U.S. Opens without drastic compromises to the playing characteristics of the golf course.

Professional golfers have never been fitter, better coached or better prepared to dissect demanding golf courses than they are right now. As their available equipment becomes more static, they can concentrate more than ever on honing their core golf skills, diversifying their arsenal of shots and finding the best ways to hit the ball as few times as possible in competition. Distance will still be crucial to success; the new golf ball will simply shift the spectrum of professional hitting distance into a more sustainable range. Their prodigious skill will make it easy to adjust.

By resetting the standards for golf ball performance, the game's top two governing bodies have taken an affirmative step toward ensuring that the world's greatest golf courses will remain relevant tests for the world's greatest golfers for years to come. It is a colossal victory for the game.

Golf's major governing bodies agree that it's time to act to stem the tide of increased "hitting distance." But how?
Recent USGA and R&A announcements on golf equipment regulations augur well for the long-term health of the game.

Tim Gavrich is a Senior Writer for GolfPass. Follow him on Twitter @TimGavrich and on Instagram @TimGavrich.
3 Comments

Create no-go zones in the fairway, such a 'real' rough from 275-350 yards on a par 5. This would create more target golf than the current smash and chip.

I find it hilarious that the writer says that Merion is "obsolete for top championship play." Justin Rose won at Merion in 2013 at +1 -- NOBODY was over par. Merion is still a true test of skill. It's just not a course where driver makes a difference. Imagine that, a magnificent venue that values something in the game of golf besides length.

I think this is a good decision and it probably should have occurred years ago, but better late than never. Equipment has constantly gotten better while courses are limited in what they can do to offset that advantage. So it makes sense they would dial things back a bit. These great courses shouldn't have to keep adding distance in order to stay competitive. I hate seeing guys having a short iron second shot into a par 5.

Now Reading
Breaking News: USGA, R&A announce golf ball rollback for 'elite competitions' starting in 2026