A ball roll-back is a dilemma for golf, not just pros

Each week we ask our panel of writers, PGA members and golf industry experts to weigh in with their views on the hot topics of the day.

Last week the USGA and R&A announced a proposed Model Local Rule (MLR) that would allow organizers of elite competitions to require players to use a special ball that doesn’t go as far as current balls in use. The MLR, if adopted, would take effect in 2026. The proposal was universally panned by pros and amateurs alike, while manufacturers were more diplomatic with their comments. Is there any merit to this move by the ruling bodies or is it, as Justin Thomas suggests, “a solution in search of a problem?” 

Jim Deeks, Fairways Magazine (@jimdeeks): Not sure I agree that the proposed rule was “universally panned”.  I’ve read quite a few comments suggesting it’ll bring more shotmaking skill back into the game and bring the pro game back closer to the amateur game, and therefore something we can all identify with.  I applaud both those outcomes. But then, I’ve been saying they need to dial back the ball for years, so I’m all in favour of it.  Despite some moaning (even though it affects only about 1,000 pro golfers throughout the world), this will relieve many golf courses from having to spend millions of dollars to lengthen their courses to accommodate the gorillas who think that golf should simply be a test of length and strength.

Craig Loughry, Golf Ontario (@craigloughry): They need to draw the line somewhere. Too many courses had to leave rotations because the best players in the world were simply making them obsolete. The only way to protect scores was/is to trick up the course, and that doesn’t necessarily make for good TV. We could get into a “long” discussion about this, but I think we would all end up “far” apart from the other side.

Michael Schurman, Master Professional / Hall of Fame Member, PGA of Canada: I don’t know what to make of the USGA/R&A. On one hand, they could stop everything where it is now and control the scores with rough, pot bunkers, fast, firm, small greens or a ‘roll back’. I’m not a fan of the ‘rollback’ because one thing the fans want to see is something they can’t do. If a Club has players who can drive the ball 330 when the Tour guys can’t they won’t appreciate the skill it takes to play. Of course, we know distance takes up acreage. The problem now is the lack of action in 2000 when Titleist released the PV1.  The other option is a universal ball. The manufacturers would go nuts over which ball to choose or would every company make one? Every sport plays with the same ball, puck etc. Imagine if the Masters came out with a one-ball rule. It’s easy for Thomas to be a critic, he is one of the players who will have to give something up. Maybe the answer is to ban drivers, fairway woods and hybrids. 6500 yd courses, irons only. I’m like Old Mother Hubbard who lived in a shoe and didn’t know what to do.

TJ Rule, Golf Away Tours (@GolfAwayTJ): I’ll be honest, I flip flop on this debate.  I see the logic in introducing a tournament ball in order to make some of the older courses more relevant again, but at the same time, fans like watching guys bomb the ball 360 yards and reach 600-yard par 5’s with an iron. Hitting the ball 7 miles while keeping it in play is a skill that shouldn’t be diminished.  But there’s only so much room to move the tees back further at the Old Course!

Hal Quinn, Freelance Writer, Vancouver: Back in the day, hitting a balata on the screws occasionally resulted in a 300-yard drive. Now the sweet spot is about 10 times as big and the ball is at least 10 times as responsive and the bombs are no biggies. It’s not just the Tour guys who are swinging out of their shoes and bombing it easily over 300. The penalty for off-centre driver hits — on the new irons as well — just isn’t there. And the ball? Guys like Tommy Fleetwood are hitting 200-yard 9 irons! This proposed ruling addresses the problems, Justin, of land and water availability on a planet enduring catastrophic climate change. The USGA and R&A are searching for solutions to a very real problem — the future sustainability of golf.

Peter Mumford, Fairways Magazine (@FairwaysMag): As I stated in my column last week (HERE). I’m against bifurcation as it fundamentally alters one of the game’s most appealing attributes. So, whatever they decide to do should apply to everyone. Having said that, this discussion is about 20 years too late. 350-yard drives are scary but what’s even scarier are 220 yard 6-irons and 190-yard 9-irons. I’d be in favour of rolling back the ball for everyone. It likely would require more shotmaking from the pros, while the rest of us would learn to deal with a bit less distance as we move up a tee deck, which is not a bad thing either.

The PGA Tour’s designated events have many tournament organizers worried that their ‘non-designated’ events will be unable to attract top players. Recent non-designated events like the Honda Classic and Valspar Championship had exciting finishes and compelling storylines of journeyman players trying to break through for a first victory and veteran players trying to find magic once again. Probably better entertainment that seeing Scottie Scheffler win by five shots. Or is it?

Deeks: I think both outcomes are just fine, although you can easily have a “non” event won by a runaway, and a designated event go down to the wire.  But I do feel the pain of the non events being unable to attract big names, and therefore spectator and TV viewing numbers.  As I’ve wondered here lately, how many sponsors will hang in when they find their numbers declining substantially?  In five years, there may be no “non” events.

Loughry: I think tournament organizers are worried about stellar fields for good reason. They need to sell tickets and corporate suites, and that is much easier to do if you can say you have the top number of players or named commodities to sell from. Hey, want a suite/tickets, Tiger is coming to town, or Spieth, Schef, Schauff, Rahm, Homa, Rory, etc.  If you’re a core fan though, you still find entertainment in the battles coming down the stretch, with underdogs vs superstars, like last week.

Schurman: Sorry to say but I like the majors because the major league players compete on the toughest courses for the most prestige, the most points and the most money (until now). I watch certain events for a variety of reasons, but none carry the influence around our house like the top 5. In fact, during the Masters we’re a “No talking Zone”. No visitors; no work. No nothing! If you want to talk, come back next week! I’m afraid the PGA TOUR has widened the gap between the elite events and the regular tour events. The big question is how big is big? At what point do the sponsors determine their ROI isn’t worth it?

Rule: I agree the last two non-designated events had great finishes and I was interested to watch the end of the Valspar to see if a young guy could change his life with his first win, that’s definitely a draw for me.  I wasn’t going to watch it though, unless there was a good finish to see.  The field was decent, with Spieth and JT playing, among others.  Unfortunately, there will be some weaker fields for other tourneys that won’t draw as many eyes, so they better hope for a closer Sunday finish, or else it could be ugly.

Quinn: In the pool with 1,400 of my closest friends, I selected Schenk back in January. (I also took Cam Young over Scheffler, but no one’s perfect.) I watched the Valspar only because of Schenk, but it turned out to be great TV and was more fun than watching the World #1 winning by five. But odds are against too many repeats of that compelling level of story. Even if one or two comes along, starting next season pretty sure the Majors, Players’, and the designated events will be more than enough TV golf for most fans.

Mumford: I like seeing competition that means something. A rookie looking for his first win, a veteran trying to regain his form, or anybody struggling to make the cut, are all compelling stories filled with tension, grief and joy. Tournaments don’t come with guarantees, whether they feature elite players or the B list. You just have to wait and watch. Non-designated events can still build compelling storylines for fans to be excited about and viable reasons for sponsors to write cheques. Part of the reason Honda and Valspar were dramatic had to do with the courses – both are tough and exciting to watch. That’s not going to change.

Golf broadcasters have been experimenting with new features like mid-round player interviews, having a player wear a microphone and NBC’s latest, the ‘bag cam’. Do you like the innovations or are they just a distraction from the play by play?

Deeks: I like them, although some are hit-and-miss.  The play-by-play can get a little tedious and irrelevant.  Or in the case of Lanny Wadkins on the Champions Tour events, pointless.  (Lanny either tells you what you’ve just watched — “Billy Joe just pulled his ball into the rough there… may be a tough shot coming up” — or what you already know — “If Billy Joe misses this putt, he’s gonna fall another stroke off the lead”.   Uh, yeah, thanks for that, Lanny.)  Any innovations they can add to the broadcast are helpful, in my view.

Loughry: I do like them trying different things during the broadcast. The one I like most is the ear pods on the player and talking to the player “during play”. I missed the big cam, but I did hear about it. I’d like to see it in action to see if it captures anything interesting.

Schurman: The players are about to see impositions the like of which they have never seen before. Drones perched 20 ft above the hole looking back at the player while putting, caddies and players both mic’d up, GPS plugs in the end of their grip to send feedback to the TV van, loud fans all the time just like a foul shot in the NBA, numbers on their shirts to ID them for the fans. You cannot introduce gambling as a revenue source, multi-millions in prize money and expect fans to obey a ‘quiet’ sign. What I would like to see is the ball illuminated on the green like “Peter Puck” so I can see what’s going on.

Rule: I like it, they have to try new things.  The interviews with the players are more interesting than the interviews with the CEO of the title sponsor, so there’s that.  I still think they need to show more golf, but the innovations they are introducing are making the broadcast more interesting to watch.

Quinn: Enjoyed the walk and gab with Hadwin for patriotic reasons but could do without it. The questions aren’t that great and find the eavesdropping on player and caddy more interesting and informative. The drone shots and shot tracers (wish they didn’t have to pimp the sponsor all broadcast long) are enough innovations for me. The less talking by non-players, the better.

Mumford: I’d like the innovations more if the broadcast crew could just let us enjoy them without a constant explanation and analysis of everything we’re seeing. Sometimes a picture is worth a million words. How about more Faxon and less of the rest. The bag cam needs some work.

The Round Table
The Round Table is a panel of golf writers, PGA members and industry experts.

2 thoughts on “A ball roll-back is a dilemma for golf, not just pros

  1. Question for the panel.

    Will the ball rollback affect the playability as well as distance? What modifications will manufacturers have to make to reduce distance? Will club manufacturers create clubs that compensate for reduced ball distance?


    Mark Kahansky

    1. Good questions Mark. Probably why the manufacturers are being very quiet now while they figure it out and do lots of testing. I’ve sent this to the rest of the panel and will post answers as they come in. Peter

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