USGA and R&A to implement golf ball rollback for all golfers, not just professionals

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In an announcement nearly four years in the making, the United States Golf Association and the R&A, golf’s governing bodies, announced today that they are changing how golf balls will be tested for conformity to reduce the effects of distance in the sport. 

Starting in 2028, for a golf ball to be deemed conforming and be legal for play, it will be tested using a robot that swings a titanium club at 125 mph and hits the ball on an 11-degree launch angle with 2,200 rpm of spin. The shot can not exceed the Overall Distance Standard (ODS) of 317 yards of combined carry distance and roll (with a 3-yard tolerance).

Currently, balls are at 120 mph with a launch angle of 10 degrees and 2,520 rpm of backspin, so the change increases the robot’s clubhead by 5 mph, increases the launch angle by 1 degree and decreases the spin rate by about 300 rpm.

Current test conditions

New test conditions

Change

120 mph clubhead speed

125 mph clubhead speed

5 mph clubhead speed

10-degree launch angle

11-degree launch angle

1-degree launch angle

2,520 rpm of spin

2,200 rpm of spin

320 rpm of spin

Nearly every golf ball being sold today – including the Titleist Pro V1, Callaway Chrome Soft, TaylorMade TP5, Bridgestone Tour B and Srixon Z-Star – would go too far and fail the new test because manufacturers design their balls to go right to the current distance limits. Increasing the test speed by 5 mph and hitting shots at low spin rates and higher launch angles would make all of today’s balls go too far and become non-conforming.  

Balls that had previously been legal but failed the new test will be removed from the Conforming Ball list, making them illegal for official play starting Jan. 1, 2028.

USGA Golf RobotUSGA Golf Robot
USGA Golf Robot

The USGA’s golf robot swings a test club at exactly the speed technicians want. (USGA)

According to Thomas Pagel, the USGA’s chief governance officer, using golf balls that pass the new test will result in a loss of distance, with the fastest-swinging players being affected the most and recreational golfers being affected the least.

“The longest players, which means those generating ball speeds of 183 mph or higher, are going to lose 13 to 15 yards [with their driver],” Pagel said. “The average PGA Tour player and elite male, like a college player, would lose closer to 9 or 11 yards. LPGA players, given their clubhead speed, we’re looking at 5 to 7 yards. And recreational golfers, we’re talking about 5 yards or less.” 

Only 10 players ended last season’s PGA Tour with a measured ball speed average of over 183 mph. ShotLink reports the PGA Tour’s average ball speed for the season was 172.85 mph.

According to John Spitzer, the USGA’s director of equipment standards, the average male club player who swings his driver at 90 mph will lose 4 to 5 yards off the tee but will likely not lose any yardage when hitting hybrids, irons or wedges.

“The typical male amateur and female amateur in the recreational game hit the ball with a lot more spin than is optimal off the driver,” Spitzer said.

Balls that are submitted for testing by October 2027 will be tested under the current standard, while any balls submitted for testing after that will be tested at the new standard and added (assuming they pass the test) to the Conforming Ball list on Jan. 1, 2028.

“Golfers in the recreational game don’t have to worry about this until 2030,” Pagel said. “We will leave the last list for 2027 published and recreational golfers can continue to use those balls. So, if they have any balls left in their golf bag or at home and they want to use those balls and post their scores, they will be playing under the Rules of Golf and there won’t be any issues there.”

The USGA and R&A plan to work out the details that will allow recreational golfers to play pre-2028 balls but have professionals and elite amateurs use reduced-distance balls at a later date, likely with Clarification.

Nine months ago, the USGA and the R&A thought they had a solution to the distance problem and proposed a new Model Local Rule. It would allow tournament organizers and tours to require players to use golf balls tested under conditions very similar to those announced today. The goal was to enable tournaments for elite golfers to mandate the use of distance-reducing golf balls while not changing equipment rules that govern recreational players.

Golf ballsGolf balls
Golf balls

A look at several golf balls that have been cut in half to show their insides. (David Dusek/Golfweek)

Today’s announcement, which will affect all golfers and not just the fastest-swinging elite players, resulted from feedback given to the USGA and the R&A during a Notice and Comment Period that began on March 14 and ended on August 13.

“The feedback we got during the Notice and Comment period was overwhelming, and it was extremely consistent across all stakeholders,” said Pagel. “Whether it was the tours, the tour membership, manufacturers, the PGA of America or, frankly, just recreational golfers themselves, we heard loud and clear the desire for unity. A unified game, played under a unified set of rules and standards is important.” 

Several of the biggest names in golf have said for years that they think modern golf balls fly too far and too straight, including Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. However, the process that led to this change took time to happen.

On Feb. 4, 2020, the USGA and R&A released their Distance Insights Report, a 102-page document with data and information from 56 projects. As part of that report, the determination that distance played an outsized role in the sport was formally made. 

After the COVID-19 pandemic put many tests and programs on hold, a Model Local Rule was created that allowed tournament officials to limit driver length to 46 inches to discourage elite golfers from gaining more speed and distance using extra-long equipment. Then, in March of 2022, the USGA and R&A sent a three-page Areas of Interest letter to manufacturers informing companies that the governing bodies were exploring changes to how balls are tested. 

The Model Local Rule proposed in March would have increased the speed to 125-127 mph in a range of launch angles between 7.5 and 15 degrees with backspin rates from 2,200 rpm to 3,000 rpm.

However, to many golfers, an essential feature of golf is everyone plays by the same rules.

Justin Thomas, a two-time major winner, said, “It’s so bad for the game of golf.” He added, “For an everyday amateur golfer, it’s very unique that we are able to play the exact same equipment. Yeah, I understand that I may have a different grind on a wedge, whatever you want to call it, but you can go to the pro shop and buy the same golf ball that I play, or Scottie Scheffler plays.”

The USGA and R&A have said for several years that they had three options regarding distance. The governing bodies could do nothing, which they considered a non-option. They could target fast-swinging golfers with a Model Local Rule, but that was unpopular. The third option has been chosen: change the rules for everyone while leaving some room for further reductions in the future.

“This is about the long-term management of distance, and this test has been updated in the past,” Pagel said. “We fully anticipate that golfers at the elite level will be back to the distance of today at some point in the future. Is that 15 years, 20 years … that’s to be determined. But we would expect to be back here and expect to make future changes.”

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek

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