The golf ball rollback is here, so deal with it

The decision by the USGA and R&A is likely to cost your game about 5 yards in distance, which, TFC's Gary Van Sickle surmises, is less than what you've gained from technological advances through the years

The ball rollback is official. The USGA and the R&A delivered the much-awaited news this week.

Looks like we’re going to need a lot more diapers. Did anyone know there were this many babies?

Recreational golfers, who make up the overwhelming majority of players, will lose 5 yards of distance off the tee or less, according to John Spitzer, the USGA’s director of equipment standards, and probably no discernible difference when using hybrids, irons or wedges. (Results are based on 90-mph driver clubhead speed.)

All these hissy fits by the golfing public over 5 yards?

You people have short memories. You probably picked up more than 5 yards of distance in just the last decade thanks to technological advancements in shafts, driver face material, design (now often by Artificial Intelligence), lower-spin balls and more.

Golf Balls
The rollback on golf balls is expected to cost the game's elite players between 13-15 yards in driving distance, while LPGA players are likely to see a reduction of 5-7 yards.

Did you hate golf back in 2012 because you were 10 yards shorter then? I doubt it. All you’re doing is returning gains that the governing bodies temporarily allowed while they played catch-up on the newest advancements. Why are they always behind, like when they failed to so “No” to metal woods in the 1970s? Because their job is managing a member association, not competing in the equipment business.

That’s not an excuse, that’s an explanation.

Ten yards in 10 years? That’s an estimate by me. Let’s go back to 2001 when the Pro V1 revolution in balls occurred. We all picked up serious yardage there.

Have you forgotten the 1990s? That’s when driver heads suddenly got bigger and bigger like they were being inflated by helium. That was the start of a great era for then-middled-aged guys like me. I started hitting it farther in my 40s than ever before. Then came the new balls and I could drive it farther in my 50s than ever before.

Now the USGA wants 5 yards back and you’re apoplectic.

Golf is the ultimate selfish game. Everyone speaking out about the rollback is doing so because they have an agenda.

Manufacturers are afraid the rollback may hurt their sales. One major company spokesman criticized the timing, saying the golf business has momentum now and this hard-to-swallow-for-many rollback could hurt it. Would before the pandemic, when the game of golf was circling the drain, have been a better time? No, there is no good time for a rollback if you’re in the golf business and you think this will hurt sales. The equipment-makers aren’t here to do what’s best for golf, they’re here to do what’s best for their own company. Period. That’s how business works. The timing excuse was weak, bordering on disingenuous.

I didn’t peruse everything in the avalanche of rollback responses this week but I found one guy who gets it — Dan Murphy, president and CEO of Bridgestone Golf. His statement: "While we would prefer that any new rules did not impact recreational players, we believe further commentary is no longer productive. At this point, we need to concentrate on creating conforming products that allow professionals and amateurs to play their best golf."

To paraphrase: Shut up and play.

Anyone who bleats about this rollback should be upfront about their own agenda.

So here’s where I am: I don’t really have a dog in this fight. I’m a super-senior (over-65) who finished fifth on the Pennsylvania Golf Association’s 2023 super-senior points list in 2023. Don’t be impressed. I got all those point for one one surprising second-place finish.

I’m already battling my own rollback. I’m losing distance every year thanks to the aging process. If Spitzer is right and I’m only lose 4 or 5 yards with my driver under the new USGA testing conditions, I’m barely going to notice.

Any yardage the rest of you lose in the rollback will be proportional and won’t be remotely enough to help me compete against you.

I took part in a Ohio Golf Association experiment more than a decade ago in which the participants had to play the same unmarked ball in a two-day tournament. The OGA wouldn’t tell us what brand ball it was so we wouldn’t be predisposed to like or dislike it.

A launch monitor was set up on the range and, for data collection, our drives were measured with our favorite brand ball and the official tourney ball. I think I lost 12 or 15 yards off my tee shots. It was a solid ball. Oddly, that ball flew a little longer with short irons and wedges and didn’t check up nearly as well.

The bitching and complaining was prolific before the event started. Once it did, everyone adjusted and tried to beat everyone else. The guys who blasted it 20% farther than I did with their Pro V1 or whatever still hit it 20% farther with the OGA ball. It made no difference. The complaints resumed post-round but mainly for one reason — the players knew they were going back to their longer ball the minute the tournament was over.

This USGA/R&A rollback is different. There won’t be a better option, at least not a legally conforming one.

I’m not in love with the universal rollback. I had been a long-standing proponent of bifurcation. Bifurcation was the obvious solution. One set of equipment rules for pros, another set for amateurs.

Bifurcation sounds simple but the equipment-makers were all about their businesses. They would have to continue to spend dollars on R&D for the reduced-distance pro balls because their competitors would, too. And they would have to spend money on R&D for the amateur balls.

Plus, the split balls would ruin their comfortable advertising system already in place. Manufacturers pay tour pros to use their gear on TV for brand recognition … but under bifurcation, that would be a ball recreational players absolutely would not buy. No manufacturer was willing to roll the dice on a change that might potentially hurt its bottom line. Remember, it’s profits first, what’s good for golf second. Capitalism rules.

So while I was in favor of bifurcation, I understand why it didn’t happen. It wasn’t viable from a financial or marketing standpoint. The governing bodies could have done it, anyway. But the pro tours didn’t want any part of it, either.

Tour players are generally against the rollback because, like the manufacturers, they might lose any competitive advantage they think they have. The USGA says big hitters would give up 10-15 yards; elite male amateurs 9-12 yards; and LPGA players 5-7 yards.

The professional tours don’t want anything that could potentially make their shows less interesting to fans and sponsors. Feel free to debate whether watching tour pros hit gap wedges into every par 4 they don’t drive and reach every par 5 in two is more interesting than an emphasis on ball-striking and shotmaking that better identifies the best player. In a nutshell, Happy Gilmore sells better than Kevin Kisner.

Those in favor of the rollback have their agendas, too.

Maybe shorter hitters think their disadvantage will be less (though I doubt it). Purists decry the fact that few golfers in the world are truly long enough to challenge tour players and many classic courses are too short to hold major championships. The argument against that is, Are we really going to penalize every golfer to fix a problem, real or imagined, for 0.1% of the world’s golfers?

The answer, we know now, is, Yes. It’s all under the guise of golf remaining unified. Even though amateurs and tour professionals play completely different games.

What’s going to happen next? Well, you’ve got until 2030 to keep using balls from your current stash if you’re an amateur hack like me. I doubt that we’ve heard the end of this decision. Some equipment-makers may demand a delay in implementation. There could be lawsuits (which is why nobody did anything about the ball for the last 40 years even though Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and kept calling for it, as did recent voices such as Tiger Woods).

There could be fallout. A professional tour could ignore the rollback and set its own equipment rules for competition. State golf associations, amateur and professional, could go their own ways, too. It could turn into the wild, wild west. That would be terrible for golf.

A long-time golf-industry guy texted me earlier this week. He’s always been a critic of governing bodies, mostly based on his frustrating dealings with the groups. The biggest problem with the USGA and the R&A, he said, “is they think golf is their game but it’s not. It’s our game.”

For a moment, let’s forget what came before. After years of being ripped and ridiculed for doing nothing about the ball, the USGA and R&A finally acted. They did something about the ball, like it or not.

Ben Hogan said the most important shot in golf is always the next one.

No matter where you stand on the rollback, let’s move on.