Golf ball manufacturers, pros and architects react to the USGA and R&A golf ball rollback

The 19th-hole debates are part of what makes golf fun. The game's two ruling institutions just gave millions fodder for months.
Changes are coming to golf balls used in 'elite competitions.' Opinions and statements have flooded in from all corners of the industry.

The mother of all 19th-hole debates rages on.

Just about everyone in the golf world has an opinion on the announcement earlier this week that the USGA and R&A will seek to roll back golf balls for "elite competitions" starting in 2026.

The opinions range widely, but one thing they all seem to have in common: passion.

Golfers are fired up.

On one side, many golfers see these changes as necessary to help preserve the great championship golf courses that hold significant tournaments, while also balancing the mix of skills that should be called upon in order to be a truly world-class player.

On the other side, many golfers believe the governing bodies are overstepping, making an unnecessary change to the equipment used to play the game for reasons they either don't understand or simply reject.

Factions are forming, more or less according to which part of the golf industry one inhabits. Who is for the rollback, and who's against it?

Here's a snapshot.

Professional golfers: Largely anti-rollback

By and large, the guys who play the game for a living are opposed to rollback.

Justin Thomas: " reaction was disappointed and also not surprised, to be honest. I think the USGA over the years has - in my eyes, it's harsh, but made some pretty selfish decisions. They definitely, in my mind, have done a lot of things that aren't for the betterment of the game, although they claim it."

Webb Simpson: "I don't know that we need to roll back equipment. I think there needs to be more emphasis on golf course design. We want to see tighter fairways. We want to see more rough. We want to see more trees, doglegs, stuff like that. That seems to be pretty popular with the guys that I've talked to."

Keegan Bradley: "It's too extreme. It creates a huge void between players. One of the coolest things about golf is you can come out and play with a PGA Tour player with a 30 handicap and we're playing the same sport. I can't go play football with Tom Brady with pads on on Sunday. I'll get killed.”

Bryson DeChambeau: “I think it’s the most atrocious thing that you could possibly do to the game of golf. It’s not about rolling golf balls back; it’s about making golf courses more difficult. I think it’s the most unimaginative, uninspiring, game-cutting thing you could do. Everybody wants to see people hit it farther. That’s part of the reason why a lot of people like what I do."

Interestingly, one of the few professional players seemingly supportive of the change: Brandon Matthews, whose 126 mile per hour average driver speed is tops on the PGA Tour (just one mile per hour below the new testing standard of 127 mph). According to the USGA and R&A announcement, Matthews would stand to lose more distance than his slower-swinging peers. Nevertheless, he is on board.

"I’m really looking forward to seeing shot shapes again like you used to see," he said. "You don’t see that anymore because of the ball technology. So, you’re going to see a little more of that come back, which is really cool. But I don’t know how far they’re going to go with this, but it’s going to be a really exciting change and I think it’s going to make the game a little bit better."

Former Australian Amateur champion, DP World Tour winner and eight-time Australasian Tour winner Mike Clayton, who traded in his competitive sticks several years ago and now works in golf course architecture while still mentoring young competitive players, joined Golf Today to give his thoughts.

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Increased distance 'diminishes' great courses

"It diminishes most of the great golf courses around the world in terms of how their architects wanted them to play and how they saw them playing," said Clayton.

A member of Royal Melbourne Golf Club, Clayton has seen first-hand how increased distance has compromised Alister MacKenzie's design, which is virtually unanimously regarded among the greatest golf courses in the world.

"It doesn't have any more room to expand," Clayton said of Royal Melbourne. "As we saw at the [2019] Presidents Cup, it's way too short."

"If Alister MacKenzie had come back and watched that golf, he'd have been shocked at how that course played," Clayton continued, "versus how he'd wanted it to play and how he'd have seen it playing in 1926. Not that we're ever going back there, but when I saw Hale Irwin and [Seve] Ballesteros play that course in the late 70s, it was pretty much perfect."

Golf course architects: Solidly pro-rollback

In order to keep up with increased distances, a new back tee box on the 17th at The Old Course - the famous Road Hole - has been built on a corner of the St. Andrews Links practice area, technically out-of-bounds from the perspective of the rest of the course.

Architects have been on the front lines of the implicit battle between golfers and courses for decades. The overwhelming sentiment from the architects I have spoken to this week suggest they are in favor of reining in equipment for elite golfers.

"The demands being put on courses to get longer leads to more width, water and resources," said Forrest Richardson, a past president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA). "The superintendents, architects and operators can only do so much with what we have, so this adds a new dimension. It may change the game here and there, but mostly it’s aimed at preservation of the cherished courses we might lose as more hitting distance is realized."

"Consider how the game has changed in the past 300 years," Richardson continued. "Not all that change was better equipment and better technology. A lot of it was reining back, making the game itself more equitable. Many of those changes involved rules and limitations that would be unimaginable to the golfer of the early 1800s. I consider this foresight.”

In addition to building innovative new concepts like Rockwind Community Links in New Mexico and The Match at PGA National Resort, architect Andy Staples has worked to refine several classic courses so that they can continue to engage golfers for the next century. One club he works at is Chicago's Olympia Fields, whose North Course hosted the 2003 U.S. Open and 2020 BMW Championship. It will host the penultimate FedExCup Playoffs event in 2023 as well.

Staples has primarily worked on the Olympia Fields' South Course, but he has studied the North in depth as well. Its second and 15th holes stand out to him as significantly changed by equipment over the years. "These are holes [where] large drives have completely changed the strategy of the hole, and have created a quandary on where to locate bunkers for tournament play," he said.

Staples finds some proposed alternatives to ball rollback to be counterproductive. "This idea that courses need tighter fairway and more rough and trees as the solution to the distance issue goes against the essence of great golf architecture," he said. "The merits of a beautifully composed golf hole can become more strategic by golf balls that go less distance."

Staples sees many pros' aversion to rollback as understandably self-motivated. "I wonder if the Webb Simpsons of the Tour will continue to gripe, and create controversy in the average golfers' minds," he said. "I do know they are all wondering how it will affect their games, and if the rule changes takes money out of their pockets."

As one of the principals of Arnold Palmer Design Company, Brandon Johnson's office overlooks Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Club & Lodge. In the wake of a rollback, he sees opportunity. "I'm hoping that it allows for more variety in elite tournament set up that can challenge the best players in the world in different ways other than distance," he said. "Perhaps we see a different type of player emerge or more players like Zach Johnson, Justin Leonard or Kevin Kisner contend more on a regular basis."

If the PGA Tour adopts the proposed Model Local Rule, Johnson thinks some pressure could be taken off of Bay Hill to find more length in the future.

"Perhaps going forward some of the contemplated tee expansion/addition proposals are not necessary and we can focus on angle of play," Johnson said. "Could we dare see more mid to long iron approach shots into par 4 greens?"

On the golf architecture forum Golf Club Atlas, architect Tom Doak observed that the changes proposed are relatively limited in scope. "The one thing I am certain of is that it won't change the game back to how it used to be," he said. "That would have changed the status quo too much."

Equipment manufacturers: Solidly anti-rollback

Bridgestone, which makes the golf ball Tiger Woods plays, was among the manufacturers to respond to the USGA and R&A's golf ball rollback proposal.

While Callaway and TaylorMade have taken a wait-and-see approach before offering extensive comment, both Titleist (via owner Acushnet) and Bridgestone have weighed in.

Titleist's statement primarily takes aim at the notion of bifurcation, arguing that it would "divide golf between elite and recreational play, add confusion, and break the linkage that is part of the game’s enduring fabric."

"Playing by a unified set of rules is an essential part of the game’s allure, contributes to its global understanding and appeal, and eliminates the inconsistency and instability that would come from multiple sets of equipment standards," said David Maher, Acushnet CEO. "Unification is a powerfully positive force in the game, and we believe that equipment bifurcation would be detrimental to golf’s long-term well-being."

Bridgestone Golf's response was similarly aligned, but a little more moderate. "We are concerned that the proposed rule changes could confuse and dampen the enthusiasm of millions of new participants to our game," it reads. "We are pleased that the proposed changes do not appear to be aimed at recreational players."

But the key statement is the following sentence: "Bridgestone has always been a leader in golf ball technology and innovation, and we are confident that our superior engineering capabilities will allow us to continue to push the envelope of golf ball performance for recreational players while also making the best possible golf ball for elite competitions." While some have speculated that manufacturers could decline altogether to produce a tournament ball, Bridgestone is steadfast in their intention to keep the best players in the world in its equipment.

It is worth noting here that the USGA has conducted preliminary tests using limited-distance golf balls in the past. They have been minimally publicized but part of the data-gathering process leading up to these recommended changes. The manufacturer that has produced these speculative, shorter flying test balls? According to insiders, it has been Bridgestone. They may well have the upper hand on popularizing the new competition ball when the time comes.

Other golf institutions: Too early to tell

The USGA and R&A's unified stance makes it clear that several of their championships will require the new ball come 2026. As for the PGA Tour and the PGA of America, both entities offered brief, largely noncommittal responses.

"Regarding the Notice to Manufacturers announced today, we will continue our own extensive independent analysis of the topic and will collaborate with the USGA and The R&A, along with our membership and industry partners, to evaluate and provide feedback on this proposal," reads part of the PGA Tour's statement. "The Tour remains committed to ensuring any future solutions identified benefit the game as a whole, without negatively impacting the Tour, its players or our fans’ enjoyment of our sport."

"[W]e are strongly opposed to any rules changes that will make the game less fun for recreational golfers," read the PGA of America's statement. "Regarding this specific area of interest, we are pleased that there is no longer a focus on changing or modifying the ball or clubs that recreational players may use. We are not in favor of bifurcation and do not anticipate individual club’s implementing such a Model Local Rule as it is meant for elite players. In regards to the PGA Championship, 2026 is still a long way off and until we know the specifics of the proposed Model Local Rule we are not in a position to make that determination.”

Augusta National Golf Club has yet to issue a formal response, but chairman Fred Ridley will surely share the club's thinking the week of the Masters in early April.

What's your stance? Let us know in the comments below.

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

Make it as difficult on the pros as possible. They can handle it. If not, there are easier games out there they could play.

Commented on

Is it not the sign of the times? There seems to be no clear thinking in our governing bodies!
Let us not encourage progress and celebrate innovation but rather regress back to times we have already past through. Do not all professional golfer have the choice and use of the same golf equipment, yet some make the cut and others do not. What will they come up with next? Let us reduce the skills of the golfers! Shall we restrict the use of driving ranges and health clubs? I say let us be truly bold and progressive by ridding ourselves of these WOKE and outdated governing bodies who seek out EQUITY not EQUALITY !!!!!!!

Commented on

I don't think this has anything to do with politics. There's a limit to how much a golf course can modify its layout to accommodate the evolution of equipment. We've gotten to a point where the equipment has surpassed what a golf course is capable of and there's no turning back unless if you bring the equipment back down to earth. Imagine if we got to a point where drivers could regularly hit the ball 400-500 yards? Would that not be bad for the game? Golf's supposed to be about more than just distance and power. This is all about bridging the gap between courses and technology. It's not about leveling the playing field among players, cause that playing field is already level.

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Golf ball manufacturers, pros and architects react to the USGA and R&A golf ball rollback