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A short hitter's guide to the golf ball rollback

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December 06, 2023

No one who has ever watched me play golf has determined “that guy hits it too far.” An exception would be when I skull a ball out of a greenside bunker, because then I absolutely hit it too far.

The point is, the game is hard enough for most of us, so for the USGA and R&A to lump regular golfers in to the ball rollback they announced Wednesday feels like collateral damage in their efforts to combat distance at the elite level.

For years Golf Digest equipment editors Mike Stachura and E. Michael Johnson have paid close enough attention to the governing bodies’ actions to suggest this was going to happen, and most of the time we dismissed their warnings as the ramblings of crazy people. Now, the Mikes don’t look so crazy—at least not in this area—and since they’ve got the best grasp I know of what is still an incredibly complex topic, I wanted to get their take on what this means for the game in general, and most especially, bunters like me.

Guys, if the ball rollback was meant to address worrisome distance increases at the elite level, why do they care what kind of ball a nobody like me plays?

Johnson: I don’t really think they’re worried about the high majority of everyday golfers being a distance problem. They weren’t going to do nothing and bifurcation is beyond messy. This was simply a cleaner way of doing it. Nothing more.

What is so messy about two sets of rules? Is it so bad to make one rule for high-level competitive golf and leave the rest of us alone?

Stachura: When it gets right down to it, the USGA and R&A were convinced (perhaps by manufacturers, maybe by golf course architects, or maybe it was in their gut all along) that two distinct kinds of equipment rules were not good for the game. Maybe it’s a fallacy to believe we all play the same game, but in our heart of hearts we like to think we believe it and the USGA and R&A like to think they believe it even more than we do.

I know this is impossible to say for sure, but humor me: If I max out at around 250-yard drives now, what do you think that looks like in the new world? Ten yards less? Twenty?

Stachura: USGA/R&A are very clear in their announcement that they believe the distance loss at 250, decent LPGA distance, would be 5 to 7 yards. I don't believe them. I believe it will be around 4 percent. So 10 yards, maybe a little more. On your best drive. Which you hit never. And your worst hits will be 30-plus shorter. And your irons will be affected, too. So your typical driver, 7-iron par 4 might be driver/ 5-iron.

I guess that’s an important distinction. Will I feel the impact of the golf ball rollback more on my good swings, which are infrequent, or my bad swings, which are plentiful?

Johnson: In theory, you should notice it more on your poor swings because most things (like spin) are exacerbated on those. However, since your poor swings are, well, pretty bad, you’re more likely to think the result is from that rather than the ball. I think the place where golfers will notice it most are on tee shots where they carry a bunker or water hazard by a few yards with a good shot and after the rollback find themselves in sand or water and saying WTF just happened?

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Keyur Khamar

OK, and I guess the other way of looking at it is, this is a new rule for all of us, but who feels it more—the guys I play with who are closer to scratch, or someone like me who is still trying to break 80?

Johnson: Neither. This is not so much a question of skill but one of speed. There are a lot of permutations we could go through like launch angle and spin rate, but on a bumper sticker, the faster you swing, the more it is likely to impact you.

Stachura: The thing is, though, none of you are optimized for distance. Like 95 percent of all golfers, maybe 99 percent. You are not optimized with your equipment. You are not optimized with your swing. You are not optimized with your fitness. That said, let's say you do lose 8-10 yards because of the ball rollback. Get closer to optimized in all three phases and you will gain 20. So that's a net plus-10. Get to work.

So is your suggestion that something like this might make golfers pay more attention to fitting and other ways to optimize their games?

Johnson: Do you want to play your best or don’t you? At some point the rule is the rule and you’re not going to find “hot” golf balls to play. Getting fit for your equipment is the best way to lower your scores. Notice I said “lower your scores” and not hit it farther. Distance is just one element of the game. Sure, we all like to bust a tee shot. I get more satisfaction from breaking 80, though.

What’s a golf ball going to look like for me come 2030?

Johnson: My partner is nicknamed the “Prince of Darkness” for a reason. He’s seeing Armageddon. I, however, am more optimistic. First, it might not look different at all. According to the USGA, one-third of balls on the current conforming list would still be legal in 2030. Also, if you look at the groove rule, manufacturers have figured out ways to create plenty of spin within the rules. In drivers they create plenty of spring within the rules. Manufacturers may not like this new restriction, but they’ll figure it out.

With other new equipment rules, it wasn’t like golfers started going through each others’ bags to see if they were complying. Do you envision that here? How does this all get enforced?

Johnson: This is one area where I think the governing bodies might be overly optimistic. In speaking with them they feel the two-year lag will lead to most balls being cycled out since all balls submitted for conformance starting in late 2027 must pass the new standard. But man, a ball looks like a ball. It’s going to test the premise that “golf is a game of honor.” We saw with the groove rule some hoarding of aggressive-groove wedges. By 2033 or so I think most non-conforming balls will be out of circulation. But the first few years are going to include a lot of confusion and perhaps some confrontation. I know I, for one, will be checking.