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Ball Rollback Buzz Begs Many Questions

by Jim Nugent - December 04, 2017

When it comes to distance and the Rules of Golf, the drums signaling change are beating.

Jack Nicklaus has long lamented modern golf ball distance, arguing for a ball rollback of some kind for as long as I can remember. Lately, he has been joined by a choir. It began with the recent nomination of three-time major champion Nick Price to the USGA Executive Committee; Price is thought to be very concerned about modern golf ball distance.

Shortly thereafter, Tiger Woods declared that the ball goes too far, a statement he never uttered when he dominated golf for a decade. Dustin Johnson, ranked No. 1 in the world, joined the rollback choir and unwittingly spoke to a key risk in this discussion: He wants a shorter ball so as to enhance his already significant length advantage on the rest of his lodge brothers. So much for altruism and the good of the game.

USGA CEO Mike Davis’ comments in an article in The Wall Street Journal last month made it clear that something is happening. In what might be considered the first public clarion call from a rules maker on this issue, Davis said that distance “is increasing the cost of the game” and hinted at potential regulatory changes.

Today’s golf ball undeniably goes farther than the ball of 10 or 20 years ago did. There is a whole host of reasons for this, perhaps the most important of which is increased swing speed by well-trained athletes who are using bigger-headed drivers with very light shafts. The ball is just one element here, but it seems to be the favorite target of rollbackers.

However, the object of the game is to get the ball in the hole quickly, to post lower scores. And on the PGA Tour, there is little evidence of lower scoring to correlate with this increase in distance. Average scoring since 1990, according to PGA Tour data, is relatively flat.

So where is the harm? If it’s not in scoring, where are the cost increases critics claim trickle down to the golfer? Where is the imminent threat to the game?

Speaking of the PGA Tour, allow me to digress. Conversations with my golf friends in Europe give rise to the conclusion that this is an American/ PGA Tour issue. R&A CEO Martin Slumbers seems to be one of the few across the pond concerned about it. Not much pub chatter or blogging is given to this topic.

Nonetheless, if you ask enough questions of people close to the issue, you get the idea that change is coming. Not anytime soon, to be sure. And what is meant by change is a long way from being decided. Will it just impact the golf ball, or are we going to relitigate driver characteristics, something that most people hoped had been resolved during the contentious times of 1998-2003? Will it be an across-the-board ball rollback that affects guys with names on their bag as well as you and me, or will it result in a new “competitive class” of golf balls made for use by professionals and elite amateurs? If it’s the latter, what characteristics will determine a conforming ball? Decisions on that dimension could impact Dustin Johnson as he hopes, and severely disadvantage Zach Johnson and players like him. Or vice versa.

If change comes, a few things need to happen. First off, the USGA and the R&A need to be very transparent with the public and the constituency that faces the biggest risk: the makers of golf balls and golf clubs.

But the rules makers should go beyond this and include the equipment manufacturers in the process. They also ought to bring in representatives of the pro tours, and it wouldn’t hurt to have The Masters in the discussion as well. New Augusta National Chairman Fred Ridley, a past USGA president and an elite amateur in his own right, might well serve as a “wise man” in the old sense of the term, providing lawyerly advice while guiding consideration and seeking consensus in order to do what’s best for the game.

Finally, the governing bodies are going to have to provide real data, hard evidence of a threat to the game. As of now, no such credible evidence has been presented. Forget the bombers and the rollbackers; the rules makers are going to have to convince the global golf consumer as to why this is necessary. Saying the ball goes too far or that the cost to play the game is rising due to distance, without cold, hard proof, is not enough to cut it in the court of consumer golfer opinion.

I firmly believe that the leaders of the USGA and the R&A have the best interests of the game at heart. As 2017 winds down, there is a lot of conversation out there about rollback, bifurcation, or whatever you want to term the coming change. It is today, however, a solution in search of an undefined problem.

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