Ball rollback: Is that all?

  • MLR proposal
    Mark Alexander

    The original challenge of some of golf’s classic venues – like Prestwick, the first course to host the Open – could be recaptured with a reduced flight ball

Toby Ingleton
By Toby Ingleton

The USGA and R&A’s proposed model local rule would allow organisers of professional tournaments to require the use of a reduced distance golf ball. Estimates suggest the specified ball would, when hit with a driver by an elite player, fly about 15 yards less than the current ball.

Justin Thomas described the proposal as “so bad for the game of golf”. Bryson DeChambeau went further: “I think it’s the most atrocious thing that you could possibly do to the game of golf.”

They seem to be advocating that we don’t impose limits on distance. At what point would they change their minds? When par fives are reachable from the tee and the only clubs required are a driver, wedge and putter? It’s difficult to understand why they are so appalled by the idea of having to hit long irons and fairway woods into par fours again.

Thankfully, not all the pros feel the same way. Rory McIlroy told No Laying Up: “I think it’s going to help the overall professional game. I think making guys hit some long irons again, and some mid-irons, and being able to hit every club in your bag in a round of golf… I can’t remember the last time when I’ve had to do that. I don’t know if this change in the ball will make us do that, but it certainly is a step closer to that.”

To me, a 15-yard rollback is infuriatingly little. Almost 90 per cent of golf course architects surveyed by the European Institute of Golf Course Architects considered a reduction in driving distance of between 10 to 15 per cent would be appropriate.

The average PGA Tour drive is just shy of 300 yards. A 15 per cent rollback would bring that down to 255 yards, about the same as the average in 1980.

Tim Lobb, president of EIGCA, summarises the benefits of a rollback well: “Reducing hitting distances not only leads to shorter courses, which are quicker to play, cheaper to maintain, more sustainable, more accessible and potentially more profitable, but also retains the intended design strategies of older golf courses.”

“More land equals more grass, more water, more chemicals, more fertilizer and more labour,” says architect Kevin Ramsey of Golfplan. “This all leads to higher priced golf and a waste of valuable natural resources. If people truly want to ‘grow the game’ you do so by accessibility. Making the game more expensive is not growing the game.

“In a world where water is becoming a scarce resource and clean drinking water even scarcer, it would be irresponsible to continue on the path we are currently on with regards to the distance the ball travels.”

Christian Lundin, architect for (re)GOLF and Henrik Stenson Golf Design, doesn’t think we should try to go back in time. “That has never proven to be a good way forward,” he says, adding: “I don’t see an issue with players shooting low numbers at a tournament”. He does, however, agree that sustainability is the bigger problem. “New courses need more and more land, but these proposals do not even try to address that, as this is only for top players.”

For really meaningful sustainability gains, we’d need a rolled-back ball across the whole game.

This would also mean courses that haven’t had the land to extend hole length could become a worthwhile challenge for the longest hitters again.

Mike Clayton, a partner at Clayton, DeVries & Pont, says: “Great championship courses the world over have been extended to their limits in order to keep up with modern technology, which has completely altered the scale of the game and how the great architects of an era long past wanted their courses to play.”

British architect Adrian Stiff says: “Some courses need 15 per cent taking off the ball, others probably none,” suggesting that clubs could choose the ball that best suits their layout.

Of course, a rollback across the whole game would mean taking some distance off amateurs too. “But golf is too difficult already!” you cry. Does a reduced flight ball really make the game harder? Shorter hitters might be more inclined to start using the correct tee for their game, and those of us who can’t hit it straight would get in less trouble and lose fewer balls.

Courses would become safer too. “As architects, we have battled to get more land for golf courses as the further the ball goes, the further it can go off line,” says Ramsey. “So it has caused the footprint to expand not just for distance but horizontally for safety from homes, roads and other golfers. The old model in the 1970s was 150 acres for a golf course. Now it is closer to 250 acres.”

A reduced flight ball doesn’t mean we lose the joy of long hitting. Because ‘long’ is a relative term. A 280 or 300-yard drive would be a joy to behold, in the same way as a 350-yard drive is now – because it would still be vastly further than most of us can hit it.

Ramsey says: “No other sport allows a player to hit, throw or kick a ball as far as golf does, so long hitters or big bombers will still be big bombers at the local course or on tour.

“However, as an architect my interest is in the game itself and how it’s played. Bomb-and-gouge or grip-it-and-rip-it are not great strategic design principles. Requiring golfers to think and strategise how they play a golf course in a risk-reward setting is a much more enjoyable experience.”

Sustainability, safety, strategy – all great reasons for a big rollback, and for it to apply across the entire game. But instead, after years of research, it’s looking like being a measly 15 yards, and only for a couple of pro events.

I sincerely hope that this was thought as a first step towards truly meaningful distance reductions. But given the reaction and influence of the manufacturers and pros, it seems more likely that by the start of 2026, when the proposed rule would be implemented, it’ll be scrapped altogether.

For the sake of the entire game, let’s hope that doesn’t happen.

This article first appeared in the April 2023 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.

The April issue’s mailbox was dominated by the proposed ball rollback. Read what architects Alex Hay and Andrew Craven, and NextLinks founder Dave Shultz had to say on the subject.