On Wednesday, the USGA and R&A, golf's two main governing bodies, announced plans to modify the testing criteria for golf balls with the goal of a modest reduction in hitting distance. The new proposed equipment regulations, colloquially known across the game as a "rollback" of the golf ball, will take effect for elite competitions in 2028, with all golfers adopting the standards starting in 2030.
USGA/R&A golf ball rollback, explained
Under the USGA and R&A's current standards, a golf ball is considered conforming if it flies no more than 317 yards when struck with a swing speed of 120 miles per hour, launched at an angle of 10 degrees and with a spin rate of 2,520 RPM.
Wednesday's joint announcement hinges on the following proposal:
"The revised ball testing conditions will be as follows: 125-mph clubhead speed (equivalent to 183 mph ball speed); spin rate of 2200 rpm and launch angle of 11 degrees."
In short, in order to conform to the new regulations, a golf ball will have to fly 317 yards or less, but from a faster swing speed and with launch conditions that reflect modern attempts to optimize off-the-tee performance.
This equates to a roughly 5% reduction in driving distance, with elite competitive golfers using the new golf ball for two full years before it becomes the standard for all golfers.
"The longest hitters are expected to see a reduction of as much as 13-15 yards in drive distance," reads the joint memo. "Average professional tour and elite male players are expected to see a reduction of 9-11 yards, with a 5-7-yard reduction for an average LET or LPGA player."
Slower-swinging golfers will experience at most a reduction of about 5 yards on their tee shots, with negligible distance reduction from their other clubs, per the organizations' years of research.
We have finalized the next step in our years-long effort to address consistent increases in hitting distance and golf’s sustainability.— USGA (@USGA) December 6, 2023
These changes to the Overall Distance Standard will take effect in January 2028.
In March 2023, the USGA and R&A made a similar joint proposal, with one key difference: these new regulations would be part of an optional Model Local Rule, which elite competitions - both professional and amateur - could choose to adopt, or not. Local Rules are commonplace in competitive golf; for example, the USGA imposes a "One-Ball Rule" for the U.S. Open and its qualifying rounds, where a player must use the same model of golf ball throughout a particular round.
As happened this spring, there was a flood of mixed reactions from all sectors of the golf industry, as well as from rank-and file golfers. Proponents and detractors have been weighing in on the issue in force for several days, since Golf Digest first published on-background reports pre-empting the USGA and R&A's announcement.
I appreciate the governing bodies and what they mean to the game, but on the roll back issue they are not only out of touch with the game they govern, but the people that play it. It is a very small number of people that are in favor of a roll back. Golf course architects of…— Brandel Chamblee (@chambleebrandel) December 3, 2023
Why are the USGA and R&A rolling back the golf ball?
Current regulations have provided for the steady and significant increase in hitting distances for the better part of the last half-century, with the largest and swiftest gains occurring at the elite levels of the game.
As a result, several of the world's greatest championship golf courses have had to be significantly altered in order to offer the current crop of players the same sort of test that they offered the greats of yesteryear.
When it hosted its first Players Championship, the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass measured 6,857 yards. Today, its tournament yardage is 7,275 yards.
Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters, has increased by more than 600 yards, from 6,905 yards in 1990 to 7,510 today. In order to preserve the design integrity of its iconic par-5 13th hole, the club purchased several acres from neighboring Augusta Country Club in order to extend the tee back to 545 yards from its previous length of 475 yards.
The Old Course at St. Andrews now features tournament tee boxes on multiple neighboring golf courses in order to keep up with ever-increasing driving distance. The back tee on the famous Road 17th now sits out-of-bounds.
Sustainability sits at the heart of this issue, too. Larger courses require more space and more water, two resources that will be increasingly scrutinized for their applications to "inessential" recreational activities in the coming years.
Golfers - especially young ones - who chase distance face knee, hip and back injuries. Long-hitting PGA Tour star Will Zalatoris underwent a microdiscectomy in April 2023 and has only returned to golf in December, complete with an overhauled swing meant to take pressure off his spine.
Thousands of courses are affected by distance creep - not just major championship venues. Any course that has hosted a local or state-level amateur event, a college tournament or a semi-professional tournament has seen high-level players decimate holes that used to play long for everyone.
"We are acting now because we want to ensure that future generations can enjoy the unique challenge of golf as much as we do,” said Martin Slumbers, CEO of the R&A.
"[F]rom the very beginning, we’ve been driven to do what is right for the game, without bias," said USGA CEO Mike Whan. "As we’ve said, doing nothing is not an option – and we would be failing in our responsibility to protect the game’s future if we didn’t take appropriate action now.”
Tim's Take: Every golfer should applaud the proposed golf ball rollback
With Wednesday's announcement, golf's governing bodies have finally taken a firm position in support of golf's greatest asset: its courses. Centuries of memories - not just from elite competitors, but all golfers - would not have been possible without our great game's diverse, beautiful playing fields. Courses like TPC Sawgrass, Augusta National, The Old Course, Pebble Beach and many more have become major characters in the game's greatest events, and many of them are places where the rest of us can aspire to play.
Golf's great venues are equal parts sport stadiums as artistic masterpieces. The Mona Lisa is small, but her cultural impact is mighty because her mysterious smile has captivated onlookers in the same way for decades. Why does The Old Course at St. Andrews have to be constantly stretched to - and beyond - the breaking point in order to offer a similar challenge to today's greats as it did to Jack Nicklaus and Seve Ballesteros?
These changes - nearly all of them negative - have been forced on golf courses by equipment manufacturers who have zero stake in the costs of course renovations. Titleist, Callaway and TaylorMade have not shelled out a single dollar for these alterations; instead, 100% of that cost has been incurred by golfers. It is unfair, untenable and unsustainable; kudos to the USGA and R&A for declaring that enough is enough.
5 common but ineffective arguments against golf ball rollback
The opposition to the USGA and R&A's resolution cites a handful of reasons why the golf ball rollback should not proceed. The vast majority of them are severely lacking in merit, or are the product of incomplete information. Let's take them one by one.
1) Why enact these regulations at a time of considerable recent growth in golf's popularity?
There is no link between the friendliness of golf equipment and the growth or decline in participation in golf. The game's most recent ascendancy has been ascribed primarily to the COVID-19 pandemic; there is zero evidence that the distance the golf ball travels has any effect on golf's popularity. Pre-pandemic, the biggest recent golf boom coincided with the dominant rise of Tiger Woods. All equipment used at this time would be considered inferior to today's balls and clubs.
Consider the opposite circumstance. When the USGA and R&A released their initial Distance Insights Project findings in February 2020, before the pandemic, there were strident arguments that rolling back the golf ball would be a knife in the back to a game on the decline.
2) Rollback will make golf more expensive because manufacturers will incur R&D costs that will be passed on to golfers.
This argument fails to hold water because manufacturing companies are constantly spending millions in R&D to develop their next product, which is always seen as an improvement on the last despite the rigidity of current regulations. The cost of a dozen pro-line golf balls is bumping against $60 after holding steady under $50 for several years. Faced with new regulations, OEMs will do what they've always done: find ways to push the boundaries with every new ball release.
3) Golf fans love watching the pros drive the ball really far.
There's no denying that seeing a golfer hit it farther than you do is impressive. And it will always remain impressive. The absolute distance the ball travels is unimportant; it's the relative distance that blows our minds. A majestic high draw from Rory McIlroy will be as mesmerizing at 320 yards as it is at 335, because most of us can't hit a ball anywhere near that far.
And consider this: what are the greatest golf shots ever hit? We can debate the merits of Hogan's 1-iron at Merion against Bubba Watson's sling-hook from the trees at Augusta against Justin Leonard's miracle putt at Brookline, but there's one thing they all have in common. Not a single one of them is a long drive down a fairway.
4) Golfers will quit the game out of frustration if they have to play a rolled-back ball.
Nice try, but no. Once again, this argument has zero historical support. In the 1980s, the R&A allowed Open Championship competitors to use a 1.62-inch golf ball, which flew significantly farther and performed better in the wind than the 1.68-inch ball the USGA mandated. When the "small ball" fell by the wayside as the two organizations unified their rules, millions of golfers outside the U.S. were forced to use a rolled-back golf ball starting in 1990. How has global golf participation fared since then? Pretty well!
5) Why not bifurcate golf equipment? Golfers don't care about a unified set of equipment standards.
In fact, the USGA and R&A offered bifurcation in March 2023. The PGA Tour and the PGA of America publicly rejected it. Any golfer who is frustrated by the removal of bifurcation from the list of potential outcomes should not blame the USGA or R&A.
Regardless, the entire arc of golf equipment history has hinged on the dynamic of marketing equipment according to what the best golfers in the world use (whether or not that equipment is actually best for rank-and-file golfers). Even non-competitive golfers instinctively want to use the same equipment the pros are allowed to use. Non-conforming golf balls and clubs have existed for years, but the demand for items like the self-correcting Polara golf ball or Indi super-spinning wedges is extremely small. Perhaps the OEMs will expand non-conforming offerings on an experimental basis, but history suggests golfers aren't interested in such equipment.
Golf ball rollback: the bottom line
For years, an excessive emphasis on distance - both media- and marketing-generated - has distracted golfers from the beautiful complexity of the game's skill requirements.
Golfers who know how to hit the center of the golf ball with the center of the clubface will always be able to play well, no matter how far their ball travels.
Golfers who know how to get a ball up and down from a greenside bunker with confidence will always be able to save pars while long and wild hitters stay stuck in the trees.
Golfers who know how to start putts on line with the proper speed will always clean up when it's time to pay off the day's bets.
There are several relevant skills in golf beyond distance. If rolling back the golf ball reawakens golfers to this fact, it is a colossal victory not just for the governing bodies, not just for golfers, but for the game we all love.