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the next phase

USGA ends comment period on ball rollback: 'All voices play a critical role as we determine the best path forward'

August 17, 2023
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Andrew Redington

The proposed rollback of the golf ball by the USGA and the R&A is now moving to its next, and perhaps most definitive—and potentially most contentious—stage.

The deadline for companies, golf associations and individuals to file documents with the USGA and R&A on a proposed rule that could essentially roll back the ball for elite male professional events like the U.S. Open and Open Championship passed on Monday, and while the ruling bodies have not made public any of the comments they received, they apparently received plenty.

The USGA released a statement to Golf Digest on Thursday that reads, “The close of the comment period marks another important step in a thorough and inclusive governance process for golf. We’re grateful for the insightful feedback we’ve received across the game. It’s now our job, in partnership with The R&A, to thoroughly review this latest round of information we’ve received. One thing is clear‑there are many who care about golf’s future as much as we do, and all voices play a critical role as we determine the best path forward. We anticipate providing further direction on this topic in the coming months.”

The distance issue has been a front button topic for the R&A for the last five years, culminating in an announcement in March seeking comment from any and all constituents on a proposal to institute a new testing procedure for golf balls. That new test could be used to create what’s called a Model Local Rule, which is basically a stipulation that an event or tour could put in place for its participants. This particular stipulation would raise the swing speed used for testing balls for conformance in specified events from 120 miles per hour to 127 miles per hour. That could reduce driving distances by as much as 20 yards. The USGA and R&A have stated firmly they would plan to implement such a rule at their respective open championships, and they have stated that “the MLR is intended for use only in elite competitions and, if adopted, will have no impact on recreational golf.” As proposed, it would go into effect beginning in 2026.

Recently, both the PGA Tour and the PGA of America released statements saying they will not support the proposed rollback MLR. As well, several manufacturers contacted by Golf Digest have expressed their disagreement with the need for any such MLR on golf ball distance, off the record. However, no statements or documents on the comments they’ve received have been made public by the ruling bodies, and it appears the next step is several months away. That next step could be a decision to go forward with the proposed MLR, to pull back from any proposed distance-related changes, or to adjust any of the specifics in the current proposed ruling or testing process, thus beginning another notice and comment period.

According to the USGA’s official process for making equipment rule changes, comments will be published on the USGA and R&A websites, although “appropriate controls will be in place to prevent comments from being published without the submitter’s permission.” Under the terms of the process, “The USGA and The R&A will consider all comments equally, whether or not the submitter gives permission for the comments to be published.”

While the official guidelines for the equipment rulemaking process stress transparency, it is also clearly stated that the final decision rests with the USGA and the R&A. The leaders of both organizations, USGA CEO Mike Whan and R&A CEO Martin Slumbers, have been clear that a change to distance at the elite level of men’s golf is required. Whan said in announcing the proposed MLR in March, “You want to critique the USGA and the R&A over the last 20 years, on ‘why didn't you do this five, seven, 10 years ago?’ Fair comment, and we've taken that on, too. But taking another 10 years off, looking the other way and saying, ‘Distance is great; everybody is excited, and of course [distance] is going to grow by more than a yard a year for the next 20 years, and we all know it but we'll just turn the other cheek’? Well, that would be a shame.”

The PGA of America’s memorandum to the USGA on the MLR, which was co-signed by eight other PGAs worldwide, called for the ruling bodies to pause and reconsider the “unintended consequences” of the proposed change. “We fear that the proposed changes could seriously interrupt the current momentum in the game and be fundamentally damaging and detrimental in the long run. … We are also very aware that there are sets of data that conflict with the R&A and USGA material.s … We would ask that the R&A and USGA firstly extend the consultation period to allow a review of the conflicting data being presented and for more data to be gathered to prove or disprove if change is indeed required.”

Currently on the PGA Tour, the average driving distance is 299.8, 0.2 yards ahead of where it was this time a year ago. While that marks the fifth time since 2015 that the average declined or was less than a yard, four other times that increase was 2.5 yards or more. If it finishes at that number, it would be 12.4 yards ahead of where it was in 2013. As well, the percentage of drives 320 yards or longer was about seven percent 10 years ago. Today, it is 19.45 percent. Conversely, according to data provided by Arccos, the GPS stat-tracking app that’s recorded more than 750 million shots, the average drive for the average male golfer dropped by half a yard from 2018 to 2022 to 226 yards.