Golf’s plan to roll back the ball and contain big hitters

R&A wants to limit how far golf balls fly to stop big hitters – Getty Images/Michael Reaves

The R&A is expected to propose a ball rollback in the long-distance saga this week – but the decision could be years away.

Telegraph Sport have learned the forthcoming announcement is believed to revolve around “a discussion document” about holding the ball and essentially introducing restrictions that will ultimately reduce the distance it will travel, even in optimal conditions.

Along with the US Golf Association, the St Andrews governing body has been seriously considering the issue for six years after they announced they would produce a joint report, and three years ago their Distance Insight Project concluded that hitting the ever-growing professionals is “game-damaging”.

Since then, the USGA and R&A have consulted the industry about the problem, which they said was beginning to “undermine the fundamental principle that golf should require a wide range of skills to be successful.”

That’s just one concern in a debate that’s been raging for decades. Classic courses are in danger of becoming obsolete as players like Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm routinely launch drives in excess of 350 yards, reducing the test to drive, pitch and putt in some cases.

Longer courses are required which not only results in the nature of the layouts sometimes being stretched beyond recognition and then there is an apparent increase in maintenance costs, with the need for additional water and chemicals stoking environmental concerns. Rounds inevitably last longer, even in club competitions.

Just this week, 12 months ago, the R&A and USGA released an update that essentially alerted gear manufacturers that they were investigating the potential impact on shot distance by increasing ball test speeds to reflect clubhead speeds being measured by the today’s great hitters, with another “key area” being the spec driver itself.

However, after a six-month consultation period in which manufacturers raised objections and exchanged ideas, Telegraph Sport has learned that despite limiting shafts to a maximum of 46 inches over the last year, R&A and USGA appear to be primarily focused on making the ball and not drastically revise the rules for clubs, which could affect recreational golfers.

“We believe we can make changes to the golf ball that can impact long hitters, but have minimal impact on the average shot distance of recreational golfers,” said USGA Chief Governance Officer Thomas Pagel in 2022.

That would allow the hackers to continue playing by the same rules as the pundits, but it might be easier for those in power to introduce the ordinance as a “model local rule” that tours and tournaments can use if they choose.

The news will inevitably draw mixed reactions ranging from relief to anger and, of course, annoyance at the length of time the chatter has continued.

Before the advent of LIV Golf, the Saudi-funded rebel circuit that split the male elite in two, this was the burning issue in golf, with the likes of Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods on the opposite side of the argument as Rory McIlroy stood, many of the modern professionals and even the PGA Tour.

In a way, the LIV controversy has given authorities some breathing space, although Nicklaus, for example, is distraught that he didn’t act faster.

“I don’t know what they’re doing,” said the 18-time major champion. “They are slow to respond to this problem. They say they drew a line in the sand, but that line in the sand keeps getting wider. You keep crossing it. It is very important to the game of golf for everyone involved that the golf ball comes back to put many things back in perspective. I think something will be done, it’s just a matter of how long it will take for them to investigate the issue?”

In order to live up to the R&A and USGA, this has the potential to become a legal minefield, with manufacturer attorneys already handling the case, and the last thing the sport needs right now is another front opening in the civil war.

“This is just a discussion document and this will probably take many years to sort through,” an insider said. “It’s been said that 2026 could be the date when something finally gets implemented.”

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