What fresh hell is this coming from golf? The suits who run the game have decided to reduce our length, assail our pleasure zones, attack our chest-thumping manly distances, deflate our egos all in the name of protecting golf’s records, history and course integrity. Ye gods, they are emasculating the game.
That’s not actually how the R&A and USGA put it when they released new rules on what counts as a conforming golf ball, following years of studying the impact of hitting long. The plan is to implement changes that will reduce how far a golf ball will travel in the professional game from 2028, and recreationally from 2030.
Think of it like this: from here on the older you get, the harder it’s going to be. Conjure up the image of a 80-year-old who can still shoot his age for a round and hand him a sleeve of balls that just don’t go as far. Plain and simply cruel...but maybe not.
When the new balls come into play, those with fast swing speeds like Rory McIlroy, Bryson DeChambeau and Scottie Scheffler will drive it 13 to 15 yards shorter than they have been. The average tour professional will hit the ball nine to 11 yards shorter than they did before and the recreational hacker like most of us will drive the ball up to five yards shorter. With an 8-iron, 9-iron or pitching wedge we probably won’t notice any difference at all.
On that, years of watching 18-handicap players driving the ball informs an opinion that any on given day, there can be a difference of 50, 60, 70 yards between drives because the 18-handicap player does not have a consistently repeatable swing and therefore hits the ball slightly differently on every strike, sometimes catastrophically.
A reduced distance of five yards will probably have zero impact and make zero difference to a score. So, be still thy beating heart.
The change has been years in the making as golfers over that period have become more body conscious. The modern lads are athletic, work out in the gym, pay attention to diet and selectively develop the muscle groups they use every day to hit the ball.
Professional golfers are different animals to everyone else. Beware the amateur who tries to generate a club head speed like that of McIlroy. From a doughy 20-year-old to a champion on the squat rack, trainer Steve McGregor specifically trains McIlroy’s body to stand up to the torque by loading one side only in the gym to correct imbalances from constant rotation in the same direction.
Add the physiological changes to innovations by equipment manufacturers and it all adds up to the R&A and USGA taking the position that top professionals are hitting the ball too far. For that we must all suffer.
McIlroy is currently top of the PGA stats table. He has hit the ball 41,771 yards with 128 drives for an average drive length of 326.3 yards.
Concern is for courses that are hemmed in, like the Old Course at St Andrews, which has water on one side and a town on the other and has nowhere to go when long hitters rock into town to try and win The Open. Other courses like Augusta have been consuming adjacent land to keep pace with the changing game.
“As some people have said, we’re running out of property. We can’t keep building new tees further back,” said R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers.
In 2000, Tiger Woods shot a winning four-day score of 19-under on the Old Course. In 2010, winner Louis Oosthuizen was 16-under. Five years later, Zach Johnson was 15-under. You can talk about little wind and soft greens but...
Last year on the PGA Tour, Scott Stallings hit a monstrous drive of 460 yards during the WM Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale. Stallings’ drive was 47 yards ahead of the second-longest of the season, when Cameron Young striped one 413 yards at The American Express.
The ball change, though, is a compromise and not the first solution the governing bodies came up with. Earlier this year they had spoken about using the same ball for club players and producing a different one for the tour professionals and even gave the scheme a silly name, bifurcation.
The manufacturers then came in shouting blue murder that it would cost them tens of millions. Money talked and the universal rollback is what they came up with.
The change is a small dent on distance but suggests the game’s custodians are overlooking the drawing power of power, that people are fascinated when they go to watch the freak awesomeness of DeChambeau waving the crowd back from his line because he’s going to explode his drive over every stream, man-made obstacle and architect’s hazard to hit a par four green in one.
Maybe they have some idealised form of the game in their minds, where light touches and hitting fairways and greens in regulation with sound putting is considered more ‘golfy’ than smashing the bejaysus out of the ball and feeling good about it.
It’s dangerous tinkering because there is already a sameness about the PGA Tour offerings, one week indistinguishable from the next unless there’s a McIlroy or DeChambeau, before his defection to LIV, mincing the ball stupid yardage.
Taking distance out, even a little, is surely driving in the wrong direction.