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December 21, 2023

Our view on the USGA, R&A ball rollback

By Alabama Golf News Staff – Opinion
Titleist Pro V1 ball affected by USGA rollback

Not much downside for amateurs

At Alabama Golf News, we think that golf’s governing bodies’ mandated rollback of the maximum distance a golf ball can travel when hit by a tour pro is good for the game.

As for the gripes by some of the distance-obsessed among us, we say, chill out.

It’s official. The rollback will go into effect in January 2028 for tour players. It will apply to the rest of us in 2030.

What will the rollback do?

While the rollback will likely shave up to 15 yards off the biggest hitters’ drives; 9-11 yards off the drives of the average male tour pro; and 5-7 yards from the drives of female pros — the effect on the rest of us will be miniscule.

Male golfers with an average swing speed of 93 mph, and female golfers with swing speeds of 72 mph, can expect to lose about 3-5 yards on their tee shots, the USGA and R&A said. You can read the Dec. 6 announcement here.

“The loss of distance for irons “is expected to be imperceptible,” wrote Jack Hirsh of Golf magazine.

What exactly is changing?

The maximum distance a USGA-conforming ball can travel when hit by a robotic test machine – 317 yards, plus or minus 3 yards – won’t change. What will change is the swing speed of the robot, which will increase from 120 to 125 mph.

The rollback is aimed at the biggest hitters – guys who average 306-350 yards with swing speeds of 120 mph and above. To put that in perspective, Bryson DeChambeau’s swing speed in 2021 (after he bulked up) was 133 mph. Allowing The Incredible Bulk to use the same ball as mere mortals made a mockery out of the USGA limit.  For a chart on how swing speeds and ball speed translate into distance, click here.

The effect on tour had players driving the green on par 4s and routinely hitting par 5s in two. Which led to lots of waiting around, which trickled down to even more slow play among recreational golfers as we, too, waited for the green to clear to go for it in two.

So, the USGA and R&A faced a choice: set a different standard (a shorter ball) just for tour pros, or roll back the distance a ball can travel and mandate that everyone, pros and amateurs alike, use balls that meet a new standard. They chose the latter.

We’ve all gotten longer

The R&A and USGA found that since 1996 – due mostly to balls like the Titleist Pro V1, which debuted in the fall of 2000 – the average golfer’s driving distance has increased from 200 to about 216 yards. So, thank you for that, Titleist.

But what does losing 3 to 5 yards off the tee mean for us? If a 216-yard drive becomes a 211-yard drive, will an 8-iron into the green instead of a 9-iron be a round killer? Probably not.

And then there are the misses. Even average-length golfers who yank one or crush a banana into the next fairway know they’re endangering others. Who believes that anyone can hear screams of “fore” from 275 yards away?

As to the argument that the modern golf ball has made classic courses obsolete, we agree. However, like USGA CEO Mike Whan has said, we recognize the rollback will not return those old courses to championship rotations.

But what the rollback does do is slow the march to toward the need for courses that are 7,800 or 8,000 yards long. Like most of the golf world, we believe that’s a good thing in terms of water and land use, maintenance costs, and sustainability of the game in general.

Is the rollback a big step back?

“This is not about taking the game back 20 years, 30 years as it relates to ball technology,” Thomas Pagel, the USGA’s chief governance officer, told Golf magazine’s Jonathan Wall. “But the reality is we’re confident in our estimates that this will have a minimal impact to the recreational game and for the recreational game.”

Some effect, yes. About 70 percent of the balls now on the USGA conforming list won’t be legal under the new standard. It’s unclear yet whether the current formulation of the Pro V1 will be conforming. Our guess is probably not. In any case, you have six years to use up your current supply of Pro V1s.

One really big upside

Finally, from our point of view, the rollback is a good thing because ever-longer balls have allowed us to delude ourselves in our thinking about how far we actually hit the ball. If you’re genuinely concerned about what losing 3-5 yards off the tee will do to your enjoyment of the game, we have an answer:

Move up one, maybe even two, sets of tees and see how you do

Maybe you’ll help speed up play. Maybe you’ll even score better, and maybe enjoy the round more.

And maybe you’ll realize it’s something you should have done years ago.

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