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Barely a year after the sport of golf was rocked by one civil war thanks to the brash introduction of LIV Golf, it could be headed towards another.
But this time, it’s got nothing to do with the cashed-up rival tour.
Instead, it’s about golf balls.
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As golfers continue to drive the ball farther than ever, the USGA and R&A have revealed plans to “roll back the golf ball” in an attempt to reduce the driving distances.
It is a debate that has plagued the sport for several years, although it quietened thanks to LIV hogging the stage in recent times.
The USGA and R&A’s changes are expected to come into play in 2026, meaning there is plenty of time for it to be perfected before it is rolled out.
The changes, termed as a ‘Modern Local Rule’, will also create a divide in golf between equipment used by the pros and the average joes.
A six-month consultation period has been set up for golf’s leading manufacturers to discuss the proposal, but based on early comments from figures at major brands such as Titleist and Bridgestone, it may not be enough time.
And, if the divide among players past and present is anything to go by, the changes could create a storm among the people it would affect most.
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WHY ARE THE CHANGES BEING ENACTED?
Quite simply, players are driving the ball further than ever.
Over the last 20 years, the average drive on the PGA Tour has risen from 285 yards to 299.
One figure at the forefront of the increased distances is Northern Irish superstar Rory McIlroy, who averages a drive of 326 yards.
With the increased distance of drives, it has also meant players can get to the green faster and reduce the difficulty of courses.
In turn, it means gold courses may have to extend the length of their holes, which requires time and money.
Even the greenkeepers at Augusta have had to increase the 13th hole by 35 yards to compensate for the lengthier drives.
If players can whack the ball down the course without needing to navigate the twists and bends of the hole, it reduces the challenge level.
The USGA and R&A hope that the changes will reduce the distance of tee shots by approximately 15 yards.
Martin Slumbers, CEO of the R&A, believes enacting these changes will help the sport “retain its unique challenge and appeal.”
“Hitting distances at the elite level of the game have consistently increased over the past 20, 40 and 60 years,” Slumbers said.
“It’s been two decades since we last revisited our testing distances. Predictable, continued increases will become a significant issue for the next generation if not addressed soon.”
WHAT HAVE CURRENT PROS AND EX-PROS SAID?
Safe to say, the immediate reaction has been strong and not in favour of the changes.
After the recent announcement, former US Open champion Bryson DeChambeau was crystal clear in his stance.
“I think it’s the most unimaginative, uninspiring, game-cutting thing you could do,” the LIV Golf star said.
“Everybody wants to see people hit it farther. That’s part of the reason why a lot of people like what I do. It’s part of the reason a lot of people don’t like what I do.”
Justin Thomas is “clearly against” the proposed changes and pointed to the fact humans are simply getting stronger as one reason why golfers are able to drive the ball longer.
“I mean, people are running faster, so, what, are they just going to make the length of a mile longer,” Thomas said.
“It’s evolution. We’re athletes now. We’re training to hit the ball further and faster and if you can do it, good for you.”
However, two of golf’s most famous figures have previously echoed their support for the creation of balls that fly shorter.
Tiger Woods previously claimed the potential for even longer courses was “quite scary” which would result in more money spent.
“We need to do something about the golf ball,” Woods said in 2017.
“I just think it’s going too far because we’re having to build golf courses, if they want to have a championship venue, they’ve got to be 7,400-7,800 yards long.
“And if the game keeps progressing the way it is with technology, I think the 8,000-yard golf course is not too far away.
“And that’s pretty scary because we don’t have enough property to start designing these types of golf courses and it just makes it so much more complicated.”
18-time major winner Jack Nicklaus is also in favour of rolling back the ball and pointed to the number of courses being forced to shut down as one major reason for the change.
“Fact is, more golf courses have closed in the U.S. in each of the last 10 years than have opened,” Nicklaus said in 2016.
“This is thanks in great part to changes in the golf ball and the distance it travels. Courses have had to change along with it.
“It’s now a slower game and more expensive than before, and that can’t be a good thing. We don’t want to change the game for the core golfer, but we need to make every effort to offer alternatives to bring more people into the game and keep them in the game.”
WHAT ARE MANUFACTURERS SAYING?
Like Thomas and DeChambeau, a number of manufacturers are concerned about the impending changes, although their statements were not quite as strong as the duo.
“Golf is an aspirational sport, and we believe at its very best when equipment and playing regulations are unified,” David Maher, President and CEO of Titleist’s parent company, said.
“Golf’s health and vibrancy are at historically high levels. As we see it, existing golf ball regulations for Overall Distance and Initial Velocity are highly effective. … The proposal of golf ball bifurcation is in many respects a solution in search of a problem.
“ … Playing by a unified set of rules is an essential part of the game’s allure, contributes to its global understanding and appeal, and eliminates the inconsistency and instability that would come from multiple sets of equipment standards.
“Unification is a powerfully positive force in the game, and we believe that equipment bifurcation would be detrimental to golf’s long-term wellbeing.
“As a result, we will actively participate in this conversation with the governing bodies, worldwide professional tours, PGA Professional organisations, amateur associations and federations, and golfers, in an effort to contribute to the continued enjoyment and growth of the game.”
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In a statement, Bridgestone Golf claimed the new changes may “confused and dampen the enthusiasm of millions of new participants” as the sport becomes “more popular than ever.”
“We believe the game of golf benefits from the leadership and guidance of the governing bodies,” the statement read.
“Regarding the proposed Model Local Rule, we appreciate the transparency of the process that has brought us to this point.
“Golf is enjoying a significant growth phase and is more popular than ever. We are concerned that the proposed rule changes could confuse and dampen the enthusiasm of millions of new participants to our game.
“We are pleased that the proposed changes do not appear to be aimed at recreational players. … We are confident that our superior engineering capabilities will allow us to continue to push the envelope of golf ball performance for recreational players while also making the best possible golf ball for elite competitions.
“We will closely study the proposed changes and communicate our point of view directly to the USGA and R&A.”