RBC Heritage

Harbour Town Golf Links


The Guardians Got It Right

Rolling back the ball is the sensible solution for the long-term health of the game

Jared C. Tilton

Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Fire Pit Collective, a Golf Digest content partner.

Legal guardian tells the child, “No screens in bed. Minecraft can wait.”

Legal guardian knows best.

The USGA and the R&A are the authorities and the guardians we need in the game, more than we realize. Otherwise, we’d play Minecraft all night. Otherwise, we’d carry 16 clubs.

We used to call these authorities the Blue Coats. Or the Blazers. Fair enough. But they are also the Guardians, and we need them now more than ever.

You could argue that golf would be a better game if a player could carry no more than 10 clubs. But the Guardians would never agree to that because the revolt would topple their place in the game, and they rule at the consent of the governed.

Yes, there’s a power dynamic at play here, as there is in every relationship, same as it ever was. Those who are opposed to this (estimated) 15 percent golf-ball rollback are all motivated by short-term profit, and money makes the world go ’round, right?

Well, in this instance, no.

Golf was not nurtured over the centuries as a business, but as compelling recreation, unlike any other one mankind had ever created.

The Guardians get that and then some. They were founded by that essential truth: golf as recreation.

The modern golf ball, at the highest and most athletic levels of the game–golf on TV, played by men with trainers—goes too far. The proof of this is that the par-5 is dead. As is the driver, 3-iron par-4.

The only aspect of Golden Age golf-course design that has not been overwhelmed is the pitch-shot par-3 to a tight pin. That, and the frightening prospect of losing a ball in a lake or on the wrong side of white stakes.

The fright factor is not because golf balls are expensive. These powerful athletes don’t buy golf balls. Companies pay them to play particular balls, the hotter the better. They’re scared of water hazards and OB stakes because the Rules of Golf impose a penalty if your ball settles at the bottom of a lake or in somebody’s backyard.

And those penalties cost professional golfers money, peer-group status, playing opportunities, and the chance for ball manufacturers to pay them more money to play an ever-hotter ball.

Those penalties, stroke-and-distance and all the rest, are imposed by our golfing guardians, the USGA and the R&A.

The USGA and the R&A are protecting, ultimately, four great events with this (way too) modest rollback, by which (to be crude about it) 285 becomes the new 300. The U.S. Open and the U.S. Amateur; the British Open and the British Amateur.

You can be sure that the Masters and the PGA Championship will follow suit, requiring contestants to use what most likely will be called the Slow Ball or the Tournament Ball, just as golfers playing in the British Open, years ago, played the R&A-approved Small Ball. The small ball held its line better in the wind.

For various and sensible reasons, the R&A and the USGA don’t want 8,000-yard courses to become the norm for the world’s best golfers. (For starters, how much land can one game consume?) The guardians don’t want the Old Course and Pebble Beach to become pitch-and-putt courses for the Lord Brysons, although they already are.


Jonathan Ferrey/LIV Golf

LIV Golf will, one might reasonably guess, never go for the Slow Ball because Golf But Louder stands in opposition to slow anything.

But golf is slow. Slow, contemplative, methodical, strategic. Now it is less strategic than it once was.

What Bryson DeChambeau did at Winged Foot in the Pandemic Open of 2020 was impressive. But his path to his winning 274 was (one could argue) far less interesting than Hale Irwin’s march to his hoist-the-jug 287 at the 1974 U.S. Open at Winged Foot.

Golf is at its best as a finesse game, in combination with power. Golf requires it all.

The great championships draw millions to the game, not just to watch, but to play. The overall health of the game does come from what the high priests do.

What they do now is something 99.9 percent of us cannot relate to, and that is not good for golf’s long-term health.

They play the longest holes on a course with a 3-wood and an iron. The rest of us play the longest holes with a driver, a 3-wood, and an iron. Followed by a pitch, a chip or a bunker shot.

It is an almost impossible task to turn anybody around on anything these days. Interests have become so narrow and I blame the death of newspaper reading for that. The Guardians have an immense task here, to persuade manufacturers, broadcasters, certain pros—a tiny group with outsized influence—that a slower ball for golf-on-TV will be best for golf in the long run.

Yes, in the long run, as John Maynard Keynes noted, we’re all dead. But golf on a shorter course, with a reasonable green fee, where you can readily find your ball is a better game than the one many of us suffer through now.

Golf-on-TV is played on glorified pitch-and-putt courses. The courses we play are far more difficult–for us. The Slow Ball doesn’t create two sets of rules, one for them and one for us. It does the opposite. It narrows the gap. That’s good for golf.

Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Bamberger@firepitcollective.com