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USGA/R&A distance rollback proposals get more aggressive

June 12, 2022
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Manuel Blondeau - Corbis

If you thought the ruling bodies were just floating relatively harmless ideas about a distance rollback, well, as the kids might say, “[excrement] just got real.”

In a notice to manufacturers from June 8, the USGA and R&A expanded its “areas of interest” regarding potential rules changes that would serve to not merely curb current distance at all levels of the game but at the tour level likely roll it back perhaps as much as 30 years. It's important to note that the notice is at the early stages, and the ruling bodies will review input before proposing any specific rules changes.

If implemented, the changes would impact golf balls and, at least on the tour level, severely roll back how drivers perform. In one instance, the majority of golf balls now on tour and in stores would immediately be rendered non-conforming for going too far. In a second area, the drivers being played on tour would have faces less lively than the earliest titanium drivers. And in terms of forgiveness elite players could be using clubs less forgiving than the irons they currently play. It would signal the most distinct and drastic kind of bifurcation of the rules between elite male players and average golfers in the history of the game.

For now, these are just ideas going through a review period that ends in September. But they are either a scare tactic or an ominous portent of the kind of legal battle between the ruling bodies and manufacturers that might make the LIV Golf/PGA Tour conflict look like a disagreement over Legos between two toddlers.

The notice updates two specific areas the ruling bodies previously targeted as they study ways to clamp down on distance. Previously, one proposed idea revolved around the procedure the USGA uses to test golf balls for maximum distance. The original thought or area of interest involved potentially raising the test swing speed for the Overall Distance Standard from the current 120 miles per hour to at least 125. The June 8 announcement now proposes studying a test speed “between 125 and 127 mph and will include studies of the effects of these test speeds on the launch conditions and aerodynamics of the golf ball.” At the maximum, that speed would be more than 12 mph faster than the current average clubhead speed on the PGA Tour but only a little more than two mph faster than the two current fastest swings on tour, Cameron Champ (124.76) and Branden Hagy (124.41).

As the USGA’s John Spitzer previously indicated when the speed being considered was at least 125 mph, nearly all of the balls played on tour would be non-conforming under the new standard, and of course many of those balls are also among the most purchased balls on the market.

The bigger set of changes considered in the June 8 notice, however, would not affect average golfers, but could dramatically alter the performance of drivers at the elite level. The revised clarifications on the ruling bodies' areas of interest suggests tournaments or tours could institute a “model local rule” for equipment that would severely roll back how springy faces are and how forgiving drivers are on off-center hits.

This is some technical talk about testing methods but one potential change would be a new lower limit on characteristic time, which is a measurement of spring-like effect. Instead of the current limit of 257 microseconds, one suggestion for review in the June 8 document involves a model local rule that would drop the CT limit a third lower to 170 microseconds. The latest announcement indicates the ruling bodies research is focused on CT values not more than 200 microseconds and not less than 150 microseconds. In practical terms, reducing CT to 170 would push spring-like effect back to a level before the mid-1990s when titanium drivers like the Great Big Bertha were first introduced. In 1994, the average driving distance on the PGA Tour was 261.2 yards, or about two yards longer than it was in 1981. Currently, it is 298.2 yards, which would be nearly a six-yard increase over the last five years.

In terms of the other model local rule idea, the ruling bodies also are studying a rollback on forgiveness, specifically moment of inertia. MOI is a measurement of how stable a head is on an off-center hit, the higher the number, the less energy is lost and the more an off-center hit performs like an on-center hit. The current rule limits MOI at 5,900 grams/cm^2 with a 100 grams/cm^2 tolerance. The new model local rule idea would limit MOI to 2,600 grams/cm^2, although the report indicates the ruling bodies are studying a limit as low as 2,000 grams/cm^2. In practical terms, that would make drivers less forgiving than most current 3-woods and nearly in line with many current super game-improvement irons. (At 2,000 grams/cm^2, forgiveness would be lower than most current muscleback blade irons.)

Again, these are only a clarification from the ruling bodies regarding the areas of interest in the study of reduced distance. The ruling bodies are accepting comments from manufacturers and anyone else until Sept. 2. They will study those comments and perhaps cycle through another period of research before making a final rules proposal, or potentially not making any formal proposals at all. Any official proposal would be followed by an official "notice and comment" period. The June 8 announcement also referenced areas of research where the ruling bodies will not be introducing new efforts to control distance. Those include increasing the penalty of the rough, reducing the maximum tee height, increasing the minimum spin on golf balls and changing the golf ball's size or weight.

Several manufacturers contacted by Golf Digest did not offer any immediate comment on the latest notice from the ruling bodies.