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Rollback

5 different golf ball rollback scenarios, explained for amateur golfers

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Eóin Noonan

December 04, 2023

There's a storm brewing in golf right now. Well, another storm.

As Golf Digest reported last week, there is a golf ball rollback, in some form, coming.

"We have been very clear, as has [CEO] Mike Whan at the USGA," R&A head Martin Slumbers told Golf Digest last month. "There are only three options: We can bifurcate; you change the whole game; or you do nothing. And doing nothing is not an option. We stand by that.”

The golf ball rollback, if you're unfamiliar, is a proposed rule change by the USGA and R&A, golf's rule-making bodies, to address the the continued increase in distance professional golfers are hitting the ball. Proponents of the rollback say it protects historic golf courses from becoming obsolete, among other things. Opponents of the rollback say these are golf's old school elitists trying to hamper progress.

Personally, I'm a skeptic on the rollback, but wherever you land, it's increasingly clear that something is going to happen, and probably soon with a rule that will apply eventually to all golfers, not just elite players. So let's do a quick runthrough of a few potential outcomes, ranked from least to most severe.

Rollback fails, status quo remains

Given all the efforts in recent years to study the issue, then take a stance that distance is a matter than needs to be addressed, and with the pending rule set to be announced, it's hard to see the governing bodies announcing a full on retreat anytime soon. However, there's a potential case they may be forced into one. Perhaps it's via a lawsuit from equipment manufacturers, or blowback from the public that's so heated they get spooked. Or maybe the game's other power players, like the various tours, simply refuse to abide by the new rule, which pulls the governing bodies back from their plans.

Again, it's unclear how or if the governing bodies could land in a "let's just forget about it" postion, but the result would be the least drastic of all: Golf takes the scenic route to everything staying the same.

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Forty years ago, in the December 1983 edition of the magazine, Golf Digest was exploring the possibility that the distance golf balls were traveling might require action from golf's governing bodies.

Tournament-specific golf balls

Of course, everything above would require the powers-that-be to back away from their own idea of a rollback. But if the response to impacting average golfers with a rollback is harsh enough, it could be that the governing bodies return to their original proposal of a model local rule. The fight to get here though might be so heated that potentially they only enact that rule sparingly, on specific courses. The Open Championship at the Old Course, for instance, or the U.S. Open at Merion, etc.

Week in, week out, things will basically stay the same. But when the championship goes to a legacy course that can't or won't be changed, then the rolled back ball comes out.

Competitive-recreational golfer split

Turn the temperature one notch further up, and you've got something similar to the previous proposal being adopted (aka, a local rule that can be enacted at-will by tournaments), but one that isn't used sparingly. Rather, it's adopted on a wider scale as a new normal.

Every USGA or R&A tournament adopts the rolled-back ball, for instance, or every NCAA tournament. This would, I would guess, end up dividing down competitive-recreational golfer lines. If you're playing in non-handicap stroke play tournaments, there's a good chance you're using the rolled back ball.

Of course, this gets messy if the major tours, like the PGA Tour, doesn't adopt the rule (which officials have said is their current stance), but we'll get to that ...

Rollback for everyone

Perhaps it's posturing, perhaps it's hinting at what's ahead. But there were inklings in Slumbers' comments that it may be cleaner to adopt a rollback across all of golf. And that is what sources tell Golf Digest is coming soon from the USGA and R&A.

This is one of the scenarios in which the proposed rule would likely affect you, the golfer. The rolled back ball is designed to chop 20 yards off the drives of golf's best players. What would it mean for you? Without knowing the ball, it's hard to know. Probably something slightly less but similar.

Some golfers would say they would simply refuse to adopt the rolled back ball, as they've indicated in a recent Golf Digest poll in which more than 60 percent of respondents said they wouldn't honor a new rule that restricted distance.

Breakaway chaos

And then there's the most severe outcome of them all: Some kind of standoff that doesn't get resolved, and instead escalates the divide.

What do I mean? Let's say the USGA and R&A announce a rollback of some sort, whether for some or all. But then, the PGA Tour and LIV refuse to adopt it, and many of the major equipment manufacturers simply refuse to make a new golf ball model. Perhaps there's even a threat to form a breakaway governing body to compete with the others.

Who knows how it'll all turn out, all that's clear is that in this scenario, it gets messy. Very messy.