The Washington Post
Pro golfers keep going longer. The sport’s leaders have a plan to stop them.
Under a new proposal aimed at reining in distance, the game’s best golfers might soon be forced to use different equipment than weekend duffers and other amateur players.
The plan, sure to polarize the sport, addresses a growing concern by some that the game is getting too long. The composition of golf balls is a key part of the problem, they say, tempting course designers to tweak layouts and elongate holes.
The solution proposed Tuesday by the U.S. Golf Association and the U.k.-based R&A, which oversee the rule book and standards of the sport, would allow recreational players to continue using highperformance balls but would force professional players to use a ball designed to limit distance.
The decision, which is not final and wouldn’t take effect until at least 2026, would have a farreaching impact on the game, creating a stark divide between amateurs and pros and forcing a variety of stakeholders to give extraordinary consideration to one of the smallest pieces of equipment in sports — including manufacturers, the professional tours, the college ranks and even organizers of youth events and country club tournaments.
“This is not really about today,” Mike Whan, the USGA’S chief executive, told reporters Tuesday. “It’s about understanding the historical trends over the last 10, 20, 40 years and being able to [foresee] . . . increases that are so incredibly easy to predict. If we simply do nothing, we pass that to the next generation and to all the golf course venues around the world for them to just simply figure out.”
“Golf has become far more athletic, and technology has improved substantially,” added Martin Slumbers, the R&A’S chief executive, “and it is the future impact that is the most pressing concern to the USGA and the R&A.”
Officials stressed that, in rethinking the game’s policies, they prioritized protecting the recreational game while trying to ensure that golf courses remained competitive and sustainable.
Equipment has continuously changed over the years, helping pros and amateurs alike get more distance off the tee. The average driving distance on the PGA Tour has increased from 267 yards a quarter-century ago to 299.8 last season, led by Cameron Champ, who averaged 321.4 yards.
The proposed changes seek to reduce hitting distance by 14 to 15 yards on average for the longest hitters. Under the proposal, the golf ball for elite players would have to conform to more stringent testing standards — a limit of 317 yards with a clubhead speed of 127 mph. Though clubs are also an important factor in the increasingly long drives — average clubhead speed has increased by 2.2 mph and launch angle has lowered by 0.5 degrees since 2007 — the USGA and R&A are not recommending any changes to drivers or other clubs.
Because the USGA and R&A run two of the sport’s marquee events, the U.S. Open and British Open, those events would adopt the new rules. Other majors, along with pro circuits such as the PGA Tour, PGA Tour Champions, LIV Golf, the Korn Ferry Tour, the LPGA and even golf at the NCAA level, would have to decide which ball to use.
In a statement Tuesday, the PGA Tour said it will continue studying the topic and will offer feedback. “The Tour remains committed to ensuring any future solutions identified benefit the game as a whole, without negatively impacting the Tour, its players or our fans’ enjoyment of our sport,” the statement read.
While USGA and R&A officials said they had no indication whether pro tours would adopt the changes, they said the new ball standards are not needed for the LPGA Tour but could be useful for high-end amateurs.
“It would make sense to me given what we’ve seen at the college level to implement this,” Whan said.
At the sport’s highest levels, the change could affect everyone, taking away some players’ advantage off the tee and potentially encouraging a more well-rounded game. More than 80 players average more than 300 yards per drive, a distance no tour player averaged until John Daly in 1997.
“The longest drivers today will still be the longest drivers,” Slumbers said. “The best drivers of the ball will still be the best drivers of the ball.”
The idea that the sport could have different parameters for pros and amateurs — so-called “bifurcation,” as those in the game call it — is sure to be divisive. Thomas Pagel, the USGA’S chief governance officer, emphasized that the proposal is more about creating options than aiming to keep the game sustainable and competitive.
“It’s not the start to writing two different sets of rules,” he said. “It truly is just an option around a piece of equipment.”
Golf manufacturers are likely to be among the most vocal opponents. Acushnet, the parent company of Titleist, said in a statement that “bifurcation would divide golf between elite and recreational play, add confusion, and break the linkage that is part of the game’s enduring fabric.” Its chief executive, David Maher, called the proposal “a solution in search of a problem.”
“One of golf ’s unifying appeals is that everyone in the game plays by the same set of rules, can play the same courses and with the same equipment,” the company said. “Golfers can watch professionals and compare themselves to the world’s best, aspiring to hit the same shots.”
Slumbers acknowledged that the proposed change is likely to face resistance, but he said the game cannot continue along its current trajectory, adding a yard or so of distance every year on average.
“We know this is challenging,” he said, “but it’s our responsibility as governing bodies to do what is right and not what is easy and ensure we leave the game in a better state for future generations.”
While the review formally started in 2018, Tuesday’s announcement amounted to an important step in the process. Industry stakeholders have until mid-august to offer feedback. The USGA and R&A stressed that the new ball standards would not go into effect before 2026.
“It’s a fairly simple approach,” Whan said, “meaning it’s not only simple to understand, it’s simple to implement at a local level, and it gives the game choice that it doesn’t have today.”