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Golf ball rollback has interested engineers scratching their heads about ultimate impact on game

December 06, 2023
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Laurence Mouton

Tom Mase admits he dug deep into his files looking for an answer. The Cal Poly San Luis Obispo professor, who has a doctoral degree in mechanical engineering and a passion for using his knowledge in golf research, was asked to assess the practical impact of a new test by golf’s governing bodies that will roll back the distance balls will fly in the future.

After about an hour of digesting the data, Mase wasn’t sure if he still had anything close to a definitive answer.

“It’s a complex problem with all of the constraints they have,” Mase said, later admitting, “I’ve tried to come up with an ‘ah ha’ quote, but it’s not crystal clear.”

Understand, Mase is a member of the Golf Digest Hot List Technical Advisory Panel—as is Martin Brouilette, Ph.D, also a mechanical engineer and professor at the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec, Canada. Both men have spent hundreds of hours studying various scientific areas in golf. But neither can yet say with certainty how the rule change announced on Wednesday by the USGA and R&A will affect golfers, especially those on the recreational side.

The governing bodies say that the Overall Distance Standard test for golf balls will change in 2028 for elite golfers and 2030 for the recreational players, with the rolling back of distance achieved by the manufacturers through their own means. How they do that is the biggest current blind spot for the scientists outside of the OEM walls, since it’s too early for the biggest companies to have revealed their strategies.

“We can imagine a lot of stuff,” Brouilette said, “but we’re working with very little information.”

In its announcement, the USGA and R&A said the change in the ODS test “will have the most impact on golfers who generate the fastest ball speeds,” which for driving clubs is expected to be 13-15 yards for the longest hitters on the top-level men’s tours, 9-11 yards for average male pros and five to seven yards for female pros. The governing bodies said the distance reductions will be “minimal” for recreational golfers—five yards or less.

Do the engineers agree?

“What I’m intrigued about,” Brouilette said, “is if they were able to do it with ball speed, maybe you could engineer a rubber that would be worse at high speed than at low speed. If you have a slow swing, maybe you won’t lose the ball speed and it wouldn’t affect [amateurs] so much.”

To alter balls, there are three basic elements that can be changed: the weight (lighter would be shorter), aerodynamics (dimple depth and pattern) and the core makeup of the ball and how energy is affected at impact. Both professors posit that altering aerodynamics would lead to shorter hitting for all players, while ball materials could impact faster-swinging players more.

“To just do it with draft [aerodynamics], that would be proportional for everybody,” Brouilette said. “The drag coefficients are not so different between a pro and a chopper.”

Said Mase, “Messing with the aerodynamics also can affect how far your 5-iron or 7-iron goes. The ball companies are going to have to dig deep to make sure they have the [yardage] gaps they want, and the trajectory that certain players like, as well.

“If you just change the initial velocity of the ball [through altering the core], that’s not going to be as big a change.”

The possibility exists that ball makers will combine at least two of the factors to have the balls meet specifications.

If there is a nightmare scenario for average golfers, it’s that they end up losing yardage with all clubs, and even in a 4-percent loss scenario, that could be 15 to 20 yards surrendered per hole.

“I think that’s a big distance,” said Mase, an avid golfer. “Two clubs is like going back to the tips, and I’m happy to be on the members tees now. The game is enjoyable that way.

“In the long run, I think it will all adjust itself out," he said. "The manufacturers may reach back in iron design and make the super-game-improvement irons a little hotter. If we give it time, there’s a lot of smart people in the golf industry who will make clubs and balls to adapt and mesh like they did in the past.”

Brouillette has mostly arrived at the opinion that the impact on recreational golfers will be “minimal.” Further, he said, “How would you know? Who measures each one of their drives on the range and on the course to the yard? Nobody would notice 5-10 yards, considering the wide variability of shots and playing conditions for the recreational golfer.”

As painful as that might be, it’s probably true.