Following years of research, feedback, and proposals, the USGA and R&A are expected to announce a universal rollback of the golf ball this week. On Friday night, Golf Digest’s Mike Stachura reported that multiple industry sources confirmed that the governing bodies plan to announce the rule change.

“It is expected to be announced that the test for the Overall Distance Standard would increase the swing speed at which golf balls are tested from the current standard of 120 mph to 125 mph,” Stachura’s report reads. “While increasing the swing speed, the test would not change the distance limit of 317 yards.” In other words, the ball will have to go the same distance despite being hit harder. The upshot: an approximate 5% reduction in ball flight.

Stachura’s report comes eight months after the USGA and R&A proposed a Model Local Rule that would mandate rolled-back golf balls for elite competitions only. The MLR would have effectively bifurcated the game, requiring professionals and high-level amateurs to play a different golf ball than the one used by the general public. However, as R&A chief Martin Slumbers told John Huggan of Golf Digest in late November, “The game was not happy with the Model Local Rule…. It was very strong pushback against that.”

It appears that the governing bodies have concluded that an across-the-board rollback is the best way forward. -Will Knights

Perhaps I’m just Too Online, but I’ve seen a great deal of confusion around the rollback issue over the past few days. Let me try to cut through some of the noise by answering a few key questions:

1. Why did news of the universal rollback come out before the USGA and R&A had a chance to announce and explain the change?

Golf Digest’s Mike Stachura is an experienced, well-connected journalist, and he got the scoop. In his report, Stachura attributed the information to “multiple industry sources,” and he noted that USGA and R&A officials declined to comment. It’s not a stretch to assume that Stachura’s sources work in the ball-manufacturing industry, given that his beat is equipment reviews, advice, and news. Some OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), particularly those vocally opposed to modifications of the current club and ball standards, would have an obvious motive to leak news of the rollback. Doing so would preempt the USGA and R&A’s announcement and prevent the governing bodies from controlling the initial narrative around the rule change.

Notably, Stachura’s report does not convey the USGA and R&A’s widely known rationale for revising their equipment standards, but it does relay the results of a Golf Digest internet survey on the issue that received 600 responses.

2. Why did the governing bodies abandon the Model Local Rule in favor of an across-the-board rule?

As Will noted above, R&A CEO Martin Slumbers said that the governing bodies discovered strong opposition to the Model Local Rule among the game’s stakeholders, including the OEMs, the PGA Tour, the PGA of America, and professional golfers. Weighing in via Twitter yesterday, Rory McIlroy wrote that “people who are upset about this decision… should be mad at elite pros and club/ball manufacturers because they didn’t want bifurcation.” McIlroy further explained that the players and equipment companies “think bifurcation would negatively affect their bottom lines.”

A common criticism of the Model Local Rule is that it would force ball manufacturers to divide their production capacity and R&D spend between two separate product lines. So it wouldn’t be surprising to me, or anyone familiar with the thinking of higher-ups in the equipment industry, if leading OEMs such as Titleist saw bifurcation as a greater threat to their market share than universal rollback.

3. Why are the USGA and R&A doing this?

To give golf courses a lifeline, basically.

After several years of research, the USGA and R&A concluded that “hitting distances and the lengths of golf courses have been increasing for more than 100 years,” and that “this continuing cycle of increases is undesirable and detrimental to golf’s long-term future.” The governing bodies’ main concerns are twofold:

  • That the strategic challenges of many golf courses have been compromised by distance gains, especially at the elite levels of the men’s game (including not only professional golf but also high-level amateur competition).
  • That increased hitting distances have caused an overall trend toward longer golf courses, resulting in adverse financial and environmental consequences.

Critically, the governing bodies’ research established that the latter concern applies to the golf course industry as a whole, not just to the relatively small group of courses that host professional tournaments. Equipment-aided gains in hitting distance have had a general effect on golf course lengths and footprints. Bigger courses mean more expenses for course operators and greater impacts on the environment. The USGA and R&A hope that rollback will help stop these spiraling effects, or at least slow them down.

4. Is a 5% reduction in carry distance enough to redress the governing bodies’ concerns around golf course viability and sustainability?

Sigh. Probably not. It’s hard to imagine that a 5% rollback—meaning, roughly, that Rory McIlroy would average 310 off the tee instead of 326—would allow courses to shut down expensive-to-maintain back tees or dismantle home-run fences protecting adjoining houses. Also, as biomechanics expert and Ping ambassador Sasho Mackenzie has argued, tour pros may claw back the deficit almost immediately. Some aspects of Mackenzie’s argument strike me as creaky (if players simply swing harder in response to rollback, won’t they lose some face control?), but the general thrust doesn’t seem wrong.

So I’d be more enthused about a 10 or 15% reduction. Of course, that would be a hard sell, especially considering how some folks are carrying on about the current proposal.

Ultimately, for those concerned with the impact of distance gains, 5% isn’t great, but it’s surely better than 0%. And who knows—perhaps some adjustments to driver regulations are next.

5. Will the rolled-back ball make the game harder for average players?

Look, this is tough to predict and worth debating, but I doubt that most average players will see a significant difference.

If you’re a mid-handicap golfer like me, think about what would actually make the game hard for you post-rollback. Would it be that a perfectly struck drive would travel 230 yards instead of 242? I think that would be a minor part of the difficulty.

The more important factor would be what makes golf hard for you—and me—right now: inconsistency of strike. A 5%-rolled-back ball won’t cause you to hit it out of the toe or heel more often, or exacerbate your slice, or force you to lay the sod over more pitches. Making or avoiding these kinds of errors is what drives your score up or down on a given day. A ball that a robot hits 15 yards shorter at elite swing speed would be a relatively small part of the picture, I think.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that average players do find golf noticeably harder after a rollback. Your mileage may vary, but I wouldn’t mind. I’m convinced that new ball regulations would be good for the game overall, so I’d be happy to make the sacrifice of hitting an extra club into greens or moving up a tee box.

Besides, I’ve never played golf because it’s easy.

This piece originally appeared in The Fried Egg newsletter. Subscribe for free and receive golf news and insight every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.