The USGA and R&A made a joint announcement this week to outline their plans to roll back the golf ball after years of speculation. This is currently only a proposal, but may give competition organizers the power to require golfers to use a specific type of golf ball.
This process has been started by the USGA and the R&A issuing a Model Local Rule (MLR) to the leading manufacturers of golf equipment on 13 March 2023. This proposal will not affect your Sunday morning Foursomes as it only applies to elite competitions.
The R&A defines a MLR as:
"“a modification of a Rule or an additional Rule that the Committee adopts for general play or a particular competition”."
The manufacturers have to review the proposed MLR and respond to the USGA and the R&A with their comments by 14 August 2023. If successful, a limited-flight golf ball may be implemented to elite competitions as early as 1 January 2026.
The year-by-year increase in driving distances in professional golf has been a focus of discussion in the last 10 years. In many ways, it is unsurprising that a sport invented hundreds of years ago with wooden clubs and leather balls is being undermined by advanced metal technology.
Forty years ago in 1983, the leading average driving distance on the PGA Tour was held by John McComish at 277.3 yards. Fast forward to this season and Rory McIlroy is leading the average at 312.3 yards (at the time of writing), a gain of 35 yards.
For years, golf courses have been taking matters into their own hands to combat increased driving distance. At the 1940 Masters, Augusta National measured 6,800 yards. Last year, the same course measured 7,510.
This causes problems for the USGA and the future of the game altogether.
Golf course expansion comes at great financial cost; it’s not as simple as pushing back the tee boxes. Land acquisition is often required to lengthen the course as demonstrated by Augusta National’s long-term expansion strategy.
Equally, some golf courses simply aren’t able to expand. St Andrews, the Home of Golf, is a perfect example as expansion would mean either building out into the North Sea or demolishing parts of the ancient town.
Lengthening the golf course is not a sustainable solution to the problem. Driving distance has grown consistently and will continue to grow. Adding 30 yards to a hole may provide some immediate solutions, but after 20 or 30 years that increase will again be swallowed up by technological advancements.
The USGA and R&A proposal may offer a relatively simple solution to a very expensive and complicated problem. After all, ball modification in sports is not without precedent as a larger, slower ball was introduced in tennis to create longer rallies and more captivating performances; and that produced good results.
The downside to this implementation would be creating a distinction between the professional and amateur game which for so long has been based upon everyone in golf using the same equipment.
This may be a small price to pay to preserve the likes of St Andrews from becoming irrelevant by modern technology.
We will learn more in August once the manufacturers respond to the MLR.