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‘Getting out of hand’: What 7 top players said about a rollback—in 1983

March 17, 2023

On the cover of Golf Digest’s December 1983 issue, a golf ball appeared as the sun, beaming with orange and red hues as the headline read, “Are the new balls too hot?” As this writer struggles to resist evoking the Biblical proverb-turned-cliché (you know, on new things under the sun), it’s a reminder that the heated debate over a golf ball rollback is nothing new.

(Editor’s note: Our cover story from the 1983 issue provides fascinating insight into the distance debate. You can check it out in our Golf Digest archive right here.)

Perceived distance gains resulting from The Great Dimple Race—a 1970s and 80s arms race of sorts among manufacturers seeking a longer ball through unique dimple arrangements—had many players and USGA officials concerned that the new balls had become too long. Sound familiar?

In early 1983, after Titleist released its new 384 Tour Ball—named for, you guessed it, the number of dimples on its cover—Jack Nicklaus soon put the ball in play, despite owning competitor MacGregor. Tour pros called it the hottest ball they had ever played. When MacGregor tacked on eight more dimples on its new Jack Nicklaus Muirfield ball in 1983, Nicklaus switched again. More dimples, more distance.

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Yet, despite benefitting from the new technology, Nicklaus, along with the USGA, was concerned the distance gains weren’t good for the game. The debate about whether a problem even existed and what could be done about it mirrored today’s discussion, even if bifurcating the rules and rolling the ball back never materialized as it is on the verge of 40 years later.

Today, in the days since the USGA and R&A announced their proposal to reign in how far the golf ball travels for the best players, numerous tour pros have voiced their opposition for various reasons. The passionate complaints echo those of the Dimple Race days, when the possibility of a rollback was floated. But unlike the modern players, few of whom publicly support a rollback (so far), players in the 1980s were more divided.

Here’s a look back at what some top players from 40 years ago thought of the golf ball distance debate. The arguments for and against a rollback hit on the same points as today, even as the average driving distance on tour has increased by 30 yards since 1983.

“I’ve told the USGA that I think the balls are going too far and that it has to pull them back. It’s wrong for the game of golf.” — Jack Nicklaus

“If the golf ball is cut back in distance, we are going to have fewer people playing golf. There will be less need for a USGA to rule the game, because people are going to go play tennis or something else.” — Davis Love Jr.

“They’re at the limit right now. The ball shouldn’t go any farther. We’re getting stronger and stronger people out here, and we’re obsoleting courses. This has been building up for about 10 years now, what with two-piece balls that bore through the wind and so forth. Things are getting out of hand. The performance of a ball has to be consistent. We can’t have a ball that goes through the air and isn’t affected by conditions.” — Tom Watson

“The current balls are still within the parameters established by the USGA, but there’s a point where they can go too far, and we may be just at that point. I can’t see a ball going farther than it does now. Keep in mind, though, that on tour you’re giving the best equipment to the best players in the world. Unless the amateur player can put the club on the ball and compress it, he’s not going to get the full benefit of these golf balls. So, in a way, the new balls are good, because when people come out to pro tournaments they’ll be seeing something extraordinary with the distance players are achieving, something they can’t duplicate. And that’s what they should see.” — David Graham

“I think the ball I’m using now (the Titleist 384 at the time) definitely goes farther than any ball I’ve ever used. But as long as it’s not illegal according to the USGA specifications, I don’t see any problems with it. I don’t think it goes too far. The only way to keep players from hitting it farther is to go back to 80-compression balls.” — Larry Nelson

“I’m probably hitting the ball farther than I used to, but is it because of the golf ball or because of me? I think it’s because of me.” — Tom Kite

“I think I hit the ball as far or farther than I ever have. To clamp down on the specs is the right thing to do. I’m 15 years older and I shouldn’t hit it as far as I used to. But I still do.” — Bob Murphy

For the complete cover story from our 1983 issue, check out our archive right here.