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Rolling it back?

The USGA and R&A's golf ball rollback announcement, explained for regular golfers

Updated on December 07, 2023
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Andrew Redington

Earlier this year, golf's powers-that-be made a very big announcement: That they were in the final stages of rolling back the golf ball. AKA, making the golf ball travel shorter.

In March, the USGA and R&A proposed a model local rule that could be enacted just for pros and elite golf competitions, and not for everyday amateur golfers. After more than nine months of soliciting feedback, however, the govening bodies announced on Wednesday they were moving ahead with a new proposal that impacts all golfers.

If you didn't know or realize what was happening, then let me send a heartfelt congratulations to you. It means you're probably enjoying a normal existence as an avid golfer, but informed enough to read an article like this, and learn.

I, sadly, am not one of those people. I'm so in the weeds I could do with some weed killer. But that's good news for you, because it means I can give you a brief overview so when the topic comes up at your local club, you'll know the basics.

This article was originally published in March 2023, and updated in December 2023

What are we talking about?

The latest update on the golf ball rollback.

What's that?

It's the idea that a golf ball goes too far and needs new rules to make it go shorter.

Why do people think that the golf ball goes too far?

Not all people, just some people.

Why do some people think that the golf ball goes too far?

Because over the years golf equipment had gotten more and more advanced (think about the shift from wooden to metal drivers, for instance) until basically the mid-2000s, when equipment companies started bumping into the ceiling of what they were allowed to do. Bumping into that ceiling did slow down players' distance gains, but it didn't flatline them like industry leaders thought would happen.

Hole 4 | 628 yards | Par 5

Why not?

Mainly because equipment companies and players are super smart and keep figuring out ways to innovate in other areas. Different materials on the equipment side, for instance, or smarter training techniques on the player-coaching side.

Why is this a problem?

Well, not everyone thinks it is.

*sigh*

Why do some people think this is a problem?

Mainly because it means in response, golf courses need to get longer in order to avoid becoming obsolete and keep up with the modern game, often past the point where they can (AKA, they literally start running out of space). It also means they trick-up the course in other ways, like getting the greens super fast, which slows pace of play and makes the game a little silly.

What does the other side think?

It's sort of a mind-your-own-business mindset. That long drives make for an entertaining product to watch, that players hitting it longer is the product of various innovations that should be celebrated not derided, and that it's backwards to shape the future of the game around the idea that a golf course from a different era should be as relevant in the future as it was in the past.

Where do you stand on the issue?

Personally, I'm skeptical that a rollback rule can be implemented well, but this isn't about me. It's about you.

That's a bit of a cop-out answer, but anyway, what happened in March?

After years and years of deliberation, in March USGA and R&A said they were planning on implementing a new model local rule that would change the way they test golf balls which, in practice, would chop an estimated 15-to-30 yards of driving distance off the top of golf's longest hitters. Effectively, it brings us back to the late 1990s.

The local rule was designed to be enacted for "elite" competitions. A form of bifucation between the best golfers, and the rest of us.

Bi-fur-what-now?

It means a different set of rules for amateurs and pros, just like your high school baseball team uses metal bats and the major leaguers use wooden ones. Golf historically has stayed away from large-scale bifurcation.

So what's the latest update then?

Well, the pros and lots of the equipment companies voiced their opposition to the proposal, so on Wednesday the USGA and R&A announced a non-bifurcated proposal:

Starting in 2028, all pros would be required to play the rolled-back golf ball in competition.

Starting in 2030, all golfers—amateur and pro—will adopt the rolled back ball.

Wait! I don't hit the golf ball very far though, why am I getting punished?

It's a fair first reaction. The USGA have and would say that the new testing requirements won't actually amount to much for lower speed amateurs. USGA predicts:

  • A 13- to 15-yard decrease for the longest hitters
  • A 9- to 11-yard decrease for average pros
  • A 5- to 7-yard decrease for female pros
  • A 5-yard or less decrease for most recreational golfers

Basically, the USGA and R&A are saying that the distance drop-off will be more severe the more swing speed a golfer has. For most golfers, they're saying even the minimal distance hit won't really effect your game.

How do they know that?

They've been testing, and part of how they've worked this rollback is changing the testing requirements that golf balls have to go through. With the updated test conditions, a drive hit with 125 m.p.h. clubhead speed, with an 11 degree launch and 2200 RPMs can only travel 317 yards. That's the effective ceiling, and the governing bodies say it's designed to hit high-speed players the hardest.

It seems like you're leading me into the weeds with all this.

You're right, let's back up.

So what's next then?

The governing bodies have made their decision, and said it's final. Maybe there'll be some equipment companies that try to fight it, which will prompt some change. But really, it's in the court of public opinion now, which means lots of furor from the anti-rollback side; lots of dismissing of concerns from the pro-rollback side; lots of conflating arguments all around.

Sounds fun.

U.S. Open Trophy

J.D. Cuban

Not really, to be honest.

I was being sarcastic, but anyway, any closing thoughts?

Well, I guess thank you for reading all this, if you still are.

Let's not get too personal, meant more specifically on the rollback thing.

Ultimately, I'd take all of the predictions of how this is going to play out—and especially the specific predictions about how much yardage players will lose—with a heaping grain of salt.

The governing bodies have an incentive to soften the blow for the rest of us, so it makes sense that we would project something that may be too-good-to-be-true. But it's also true that the governing bodies have been painstaking in the amount of research they've put into this.

golf-ball-tee-distance-art-photo.jpg

It's also worth remembering we're still more than four years away from the equipment companies actually launching their first round of rollback-compliant golf balls. Those companies are full of incredibly smart, innovative people. As the USGA's Mike Whan said himself on Golf Channel on Wednesday:

"One industry CEO said, 'Mike, we disagree with the rule, but we're going to go innovate.' And I said, 'I know you are.'"

And, of course, no change happens in a vacuum. People adapt. Golfers will change their behavior, in a never-ending search for an edge over their competitors. That'll create new problems to solve and open other opportunities for others.

It's a boring answer, but we're going to have to let this play out.