Should the USGA roll back golf ball distance

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Last week we asked our visitors a very straightforward and simple question in light of the USGA’s field-testing of a ball that goes 20 to 25 yards less for the elite player. This will probably mean 15 or up to 20 yards less for the average golfer who now hits the ball less than 200 yards. (Based on an extensive research study the average golfer thinks he drives the ball between 230 and 240 yards.)

The poll question was: “Do you think it is in the best interests of the game of golf to roll the ball back 20-25 yards?” Seventy-four percent said NO, 26 percent said YES.

I received many unsolicited e-mails asking why the USGA doesn’t just develop a competition ball so the average golfer is unaffected.  

To this very common comment, we must recognize that the USGA – based on its Joint Statement of Principles – is having difficulty with the one particular section of that statement i.e.:

“The R&A and the USGA continue to believe that the retention of a single set of rules for all players of the game, irrespective of ability, is one of golf's greatest strengths. The R&A and the USGA regard the prospect of having permanent separate rules for elite competition as undesirable and have no current plans to create separate equipment rules for highly skilled players.”

However, we effectively have two sets of rules in place now with the new “groove rule” (pros now, but amateurs in 2024) and various other “local rules” which are different for the pros, such as the “One Ball rule” (i.e. only one ball type with identical markings during a single round). Others are, using the list of conforming drivers, and a list of conforming balls for elite tournaments, or using a laser or GPS type distance measuring devices (for us but not the pros) etc.

It seems like a problem of their own making. Instead of making equipment rules with the intent of reining in the elite golfer, first determine whether we have a real problem, which can be well defined. If so seek a method of resolving it by means other than that which affects 99 percent of the golfers who are not contributing to the problem. I think we have enough statistical evidence to indicate that the change to the groove rule is not doing what it was supposed to do. Why then did we change without first testing for a year or so under a local rule, if we were unsure, and before we disrupt the game which needs help, not disruption?

I have for some time suggested that if the R&A and USGA think that the elite golfers need to better exhibit their skills and thus a change to equipment is called for, then let’s make the change by reducing the number of clubs to 10 for only them. This would certainly be a form of “bifurcation of the rules” but certainly no different from what we presently have, and certainly not as disruptive as some recent rules changes have been – without significant effect on the reason for the change. Ten clubs, only for the pros, would not affect the average golfer and the only problem we would have in monitoring this rule would be the ability to count to 10. No complicated and cumbersome lists of conforming equipment, etc.

Would a “10 club” rule solve some of the perceived problems the elite game seems to have? I am not sure but it would be very interesting to find out and the cost is zero. If, for elite play, we modified course set up to rein in the long drivers, make par-4s reachable with a high risk/reward factor, and use only 10 clubs, we would allow the elite golfers to exhibit their skills more effectively and make viewing the events more interesting and exciting. This is always a major consideration for televised tournaments where the entertainment value is paramount.