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Distance Pushback

Golf governing bodies to announce plan to roll back golf ball for elite competition

On Tuesday, the USGA and R&A confirmed its plan to limit distance through the testing of golf balls by high swing speeds, would only apply to top players

March 13, 2023
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Ben Jared

The USGA and R&A will be proposing a new golf ball testing standard for elite competition that would roll back performance by 20 yards or more. But that proposal still must navigate a Notice and Comment period which lasts through mid-August.

The proposal will be explained in a media conference on Tuesday, led by Mike Whan, CEO of the USGA, and Martin Slumbers, CEO of the R&A. Equipment manufacturers were notified Monday, when Golf Digest first reported the news.

The proposal is to institute what’s known as a “model local rule,” which is basically a guideline existing for any level of tournament that might wish to adopt its provisions. In this case, the model local rule would be reserved for elite competitions. It is not clear what level elite competition might take, but it is safe to assume that high-level men’s professional golf is the primary target. In short, this would be a form of bifurcating the equipment rules where elite players would use equipment tested at different standards compared to how equipment used by all other golfers is deemed conforming. The sources detailed that the model local rule would apply to the way the golf ball used in these competitions is tested for conformance.

The primary proposed change would revise how golf balls are tested for conformance. The swing speed for the robot would increase from 120 miles per hour to 127 miles per hour. That likely would make all current golf balls used in elite competition nonconforming. Given that at elite speeds, every mile per hour increase in clubhead speed equates to approximately 2.5-3 yards in total distance, increasing the test speed by 7 miles per hour could result in a distance loss of about 20 yards or more.

The proposed MLR would be scheduled to take effect in January 2026. This proposal is the result of the ruling bodies’ position on driving distance outlined in its conclusions from the Distance Insight research project. Previously, “the objectives were to identify mechanisms to address the persistent increases in hitting distance over time that have fueled the pace at which golf courses are lengthening, as well as to enhance the reward of a central impact.”

The proposal is a slight shift from the “areas of interest” that the ruling bodies announced last spring. In that document, the ideas that were floated included a similar change in the ball test that would apply to all golfers, not just elite players. Also in that document were proposed ideas to roll back the springiness of driver faces and make them less forgiving. But those latter proposals were only going to be model local rules for elite competitions. Today’s new announcement only focuses on the ball and only for elite events, and suggests no specific changes for club performance rules. One possible outcome of a model local rule providing for a shorter golf ball: Events held at certain historic venues—Augusta National, the Old Course—could employ such a ball for their events. That said, it would be odd for the ruling bodies to propose a model local rule designed to deal with what they see as the distance problem and not employ that rule unilaterally in all their events. A USGA spokeswoman declined to comment on any specifics prior to the release of documents Tuesday morning.

Several manufacturers contacted by Golf Digest declined to comment on the proposal, but it is clear that many have been opposed to a distance rollback in comments previously filed with the ruling bodies. According to comments filed with the USGA by Acushnet, parent company of Titleist, during last year’s comment period and subsequently made public, “The game’s growth and global appeal are linked to unification. Bifurcation of the rules breaks that link.”

A spokesman for the PGA Tour declined to comment “until things are made public.” The difficulty for the tour in supporting any rollback is the vast majority of players on the PGA Tour receive some compensation from golf ball manufacturers. No ball manufacturer has announced overt support for a ball rollback of any kind up to now.

There’s also the question of whether distance continues to be a selling point for elite golf. PGA Tour players certainly achieve notoriety for the distance they are able to hit the ball. Last year, on the PGA Tour average driving distance reached nearly 300 yards for the first time (299.8). Since 2011, driving distance has increased 8.9 yards, or an average of 0.8 yards per year, considerably less than the average of 2.6 yards per year from 1994-2003. In 2002, the ruling bodies announced in a Joint Statement of Principles a desire to more closely monitor elite driving distance.

So far in the 2022-23 season, driving distance is down 2.6 yards. Average swing speed on tour has increased a little over two miles per hour since 2011 to 114.72 miles per hour. Or 12 miles per hour slower than the proposed test speed detailed in today’s notice.

The test swing speed for the Overall Distance Standard was changed in 2004 from 109 miles per hour to the current 120 miles per hour, but at the same time, the maximum distance for a conforming ball was raised to 320 yards. Under this new proposal, the speed increase would not include an increase in the maximum distance.

To put the proposed change in perspective, currently there are no players on the PGA Tour with an average swing speed of 127 miles per hour. However, approximately 20 players have posted a high swing speed of more than 127 miles per hour.

The notice sent by the ruling bodies to manufacturers on Monday indicates that the shift to only a model local rule on the golf ball reflects the comments the ruling bodies received last year. “The USGA and The R&A were not considering changes that would result in substantial reductions in hitting distances at all levels of the game,” the notice states. “The proposed MLR would enable golf event organizers and committees to use specific balls for certain elite championships and tournaments but would not impact the current recreational game in any way.”

For now, the proposal announcement does not make clear how far the phrase “elite competitions” applies. It may be for elite men’s professional events, but even then, what might that mean for elite college and amateur events? What might it mean for elite events that have qualifying tournaments? And what would that mean for events like the U.S. Open that have a handicap qualification for entry, given that said handicap would likely be achieved through using a ball that would be nonconforming in the U.S. Open, under the proposed model local rule? Any such change to the golf ball used at an elite event is subject to a new set of complications that competitive golf hasn't confronted before.