It’s official. Golf, but shorter.

The USGA and the R&A formally announced Wednesday their intention to roll back the distance golf balls can travel. The rollback goes into effect January 2028 for elite competitions and for everybody come January 2030. The decision, part of the governing bodies’ Distance Insights Project, comes after some three years of “Notice and Comment” in which the USGA and R&A accepted feedback from golf’s stakeholders.

“Governance is hard. And while thousands will claim that we did too much, there will be just as many who said we didn’t do enough to protect the game long-term,” said Mike Whan, CEO of the USGA. “But from the very beginning, we’ve been driven to do what is right for the game, without bias. As we’ve said, doing nothing is not an option—and we would be failing in our responsibility to protect the game’s future if we didn’t take appropriate action now.”

The specifics, first reported by Golf Digest, involve the test for the Overall Distance Standard. The governing bodies are increasing the swing speed at which golf balls are tested from the current standard of 120 mph to 125 mph without changing the distance limit of 317 yards (plus a three-yard tolerance) with a launch angle of 11 degrees and 2,200 rpm of spin. In layman’s terms, according to the USGA and R&A, the effect could be a distance loss of nine to 11 yards at the PGA Tour or DP World Tour level, five to seven yards for the LPGA/LET and between five yards or less for everyday players.

All golf balls submitted to the USGA for conformance during or after October 2027 will be evaluated using the new protocol. In other words, if everyday golfers want to continue using longer golf balls in 2028 and 2029, they will be older-model balls. There was no mention in the Notice of Decision how one would be able to tell what is an old conforming ball and what is a new conforming ball other than comparing it to the conforming list. However, John Spitzer, the USGA’s managing director of equipment standards, said approximately one-third of balls currently on the conforming list would still be conforming under the new protocol, primarily two- and-three-piece balls with ionomer covers.

The change in speed and the fact it affects all golfers are significant departures from the governing bodies previous stance. In 2022, the speed being looked at was 125 mph but that was amended in March 2023 to 127. However, also at that time the proposal was stated as a Model Local Rule impacting elite professional golfers only. Said Whan at the time, “We don’t see recreational golf obsoleting golf courses any time soon.”

So why the change to include everybody? The governing bodies say the move to a universal rollback was the result of feedback during the Notice and Comment period triggered in March after the announcement of the proposed MLR. In a note to all industry stakeholders, the USGA and R&A conveyed that, “While we previously proposed a targeted change to only elite golf, we have incorporated feedback from a broad range of stakeholders/players who stressed the importance of unification in the game of golf, mainly the importance of maintaining a single set of playing rules and a single set of equipment standards. This feedback clearly indicated that an across-the-game solution with deferred implementation is the preferred solution.”

Exactly how much distance regular golfers will lose, however, remains a bit grey since the one to five yards mention on Wednesday by the governing bodies doesn’t quite jibe with a USGA published report in June 2022. Although they stated similar numbers, there also was this on the testing of a shorter ball.

“In testing with the NP-500 … participants reported a perceived distance reduction of about 4.9 percent (210 yards compared to a 221-yard self-reported average). This is consistent with expectations based on laboratory testing.” In other words, not quite one to five yards. Still, Thomas Pagel, the USGA’s chief governance officer, told Golf Digest everyday golfers should rest easy.

“It’s five yards at most and likely limited to your driver,” Pagel said. “I don’t want to minimize people’s feelings or concerns about losing even a yard. We all have those concerns. We all want that extra yard or two. But just put this in the practical senses of this would mean, you know, 222 yards instead of 225. And you do have the ability to move tees up. You do have the ability to play forward tees. I would just say trust in the process. Over the next six years, I think we’ll find that the sky hasn’t fallen, the game is still going to be healthy.”

Perhaps just as important as the decision on golf balls, it appears the governing bodies are not quite done putting a governor on distance. Included in the note to stakeholders were two additional areas being looked at. The first is expanding testing of submitted drivers to keep tabs on “CT Creep,” which is drivers getting springier over time due to use, leading to the possibility of a conforming club becoming non-conforming. This is not a change, per se, and does not impact everyday players.

The next item, however, is to continue its research into the forgiveness of drivers at the elite level, which could lead to reductions in moment of inertia (which mitigates distance loss on mis-hits), driver-head size or both. Although the language was aimed solely at elite players, as we have seen with the ball rollback decision, things have a way of changing.

Image: Supplied