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USGA Technical Chief speaks out on rollback, handicaps, U.S. Open and the '18 yard' effect

March 15, 2023

The announcement that the USGA and R&A have proposed a new model local rule that would roll back golf ball performance "by 14-15 yards" for elite competitions has sparked its share of technical questions. So we sought out the USGA's John Spitzer, managing director of equipment standards, to get some further wisdom. Spitzer has spent more than a quarter century in the USGA's technical division, serving during a time that has seen more equipment regulation and study than any period in the organization's history. That's included major equipment regulations governing driver performance and development of the portable spring-like effect test, golf ball testing and spin generation research that led to the rule redefining the design of grooves. He came to the USGA in 1997 after stints at Princeton studying experimental nuclear fusion reactors and at General Dynamics researching the survivability of nuclear submarines to underwater explosions.

In short, he knows his way around rough waters and incendiary topics. We asked him to clarify a few things as the proposed golf ball rollback rule starts its Notice and Comment journey.

Has the USGA/R&A studied any research on what the biomechanical limitations are for the golf swing? Yes, the trend is driving distance has increased and like all sports, record performances continue to be set. But is there no sense that it will ever plateau? In other words, it doesn't matter how much someone trains, the world record for the 100 meters is never going to be 8 seconds. Does the USGA have research that shows a similar plateau for golf?

SPITZER: No doubt there is some biomechanical limit but it’s clearly nowhere near 127 miles per hour. While we haven’t done any biomechanical studies, we do have a bit of a crystal ball: World Long Drive. The record for a long drive swing speed recorded by Trackman is 159 miles per hour, and they routinely swing at 145 miles per hour.

Where the line of "elite competition" is drawn seems unclear. (Presumably, if it includes the U.S. Amateur, then it includes any event that similar elite players would be competing in. State amateurs, local city championships, U.S. Juniors, AJGA Boys events, etc.) Can you say definitively at this point what USGA events will not be considered "elite competition"?

SPITZER: If implemented, we would envision adopting it for (at least) the U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur level. Beyond that, it’s premature to discuss, realizing this is just a proposal and there is nothing yet for our competition committee to react to.

Toward that end, given the U.S. Open has a handicap qualification, how do you propose to resolve the issue of a player developing a handicap through the use of a non-MLR ball but then having to qualify and or compete with an MLR ball?

SPITZER: The World Handicap System will be able to accommodate the use of the MLR ball, if adopted, meaning players will be able to have one single playing record with rounds using any ball.

Can you explain where the 14-15 yards figure is from? We've seen some simulations that show more like 20-25 yards.

SPITZER: Going from 120 to 127 [the proposed new swing speed for the golf ball test for elite competitions] is a little more than a 5.8 percent increase. 20-25 yards would be more like 6.3-7.9 percent, which doesn’t agree with our research. For players with swing speeds that are near or above where we currently test, we estimate the effect to be 18 yards (which is about the same 5.8 percent). Remember, that you need to consider that golf balls have diminishing returns the harder that they are struck because the coefficient of restitution decreases at higher speeds [Note: Coefficient of Restitution or COR usually refers to the springiness of driver faces, but it also applies to the resilience of golf balls. A super ball has a high COR, a Nerf ball has a low COR.] Players closer to the average swing speed (approximately 115 miles per hour) lose slightly less; 14-15 yards.

Finally, given that one company maintains a dominant share of the ball usage by those currently competing in elite competitions (75-80 percent at times), is there a concern that this rule is disproportionately punitive on one company?

SPITZER: We are interested in understanding the potential ramifications, which is why we have already responded to some of the feedback we received and why we are still at the point in the process of seeking comment across the game. That said, we do not think this is punitive to any manufacturer, and overall our intention is not to materially impact the retail market. An MLR, if ultimately adopted, provides choices to those conducting tournaments and there are choices for manufacturers, as well. No manufacturer is compelled to make product to meet the proposed specifications.