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I work for a golf magazine, so it’s my job to see both sides of every story. And yes, that includes the golf ball rollback. So, here we go. Strap in.
Chances are you’re likely either for the rollback or against it. I’m neither. If there’s a fence in this debate, I’m sitting on it.
Some of what I’m about to say will ruffle feathers. Trust me, I know. I’ve been blocked on social media by some notable ‘rollbackers’ because they didn’t like my arguments against it. They didn’t even stick around to hear my arguments for it. That’s how angry they were.
This is a divisive issue. It is, in my opinion, the single biggest change to the game since Arnold Palmer and Mark McCormack realised you could make money from endorsement deals.
When this new rule comes into play, the game will change. I’m just not sure if it will change completely for the better.
Here’s where I’m at…
PRO: We Save Our Courses
With the exception of Chambers Bay and Erin Hills, we’re not building new golf courses to host majors. History matters. That’s what makes golf different to other sports that are influenced by technology, such as F1 or Moto GP. Our oldest courses are the best courses and are inextricably linked to the game we love for a multitude of reasons. We should absolutely protect that. If you take only one thing from this development, let it be this: the authorities are hitting us with the rollback to protect what the game will look like in 20, 30, 50 years’ time. It’s not about now.
PRO: The Bryson Effect Was Very Real
And don’t think it wasn’t. Arrange all the comments in chronological order and you’ll see a straight line between what Bryson DeChambeau said and did, and how the authorities subsequently reacted.
Oct 2019: Bryson – “I’m going to come back next year and look like a different person. Going to be hitting it a lot further.”
Dec 2019: Bryson – “The sky’s the limit. I’m going to become massive.”
Jun 2020: Bryson wins the US Open by six shots, the only player under par. On the Saturday, he only hit three fairways. Bryson – “The next generation that’s coming up into golf hopefully will see this and go, ‘Hey, I can do that, too.’”
Sept 2020: Bryson – “I’m not going to stop.” He says he’s testing 48-inch driver shafts.
Apr 2021: Fred Ridley, chairman of Augusta National – “This is an important crossroads, so we will continue to urge the governing bodies and all interested parties to put forward thoughtful solutions as soon as possible.”
Oct 2021: The R&A introduces a local rule to give the option of limiting driver length to 46 inches.
Mar 2023: The R&A proposes a new golf ball testing standard for elite competition that would roll back performance by 20 yards or more. Bifurcation, basically.
Dec 2023: Bifurcation is taken off the table and, instead, a golf ball rollback for everybody is announced.
Make no mistake, this rollback has been expedited by Bryson DeChambeau. Watching him win the US Open by six, McIlroy called it “just the complete opposite of what you think a US Open champion does.”
The “complete opposite”. Think about that for a while.
R&A boss Martin Slumbers and his USGA counterpart Mike Whan aren’t necessarily running scared of what Bryson was able to do. They’re running scared of future Brysons. When you combine incredible technology and a forward-thinking physical specimen meet head on, the results can be dramatic as Byrson proved. He said he believed he was going down a path that allowed him to “have an advantage over everyone”.
That spooked the R&A. If you don’t think Martin Slumbers was shaking in his FootJoys in his St Andrews HQ, you’re on another planet.
But back to the point. The game of golf is an art form and the best players should be the best examples of that. They shouldn’t be “bombing and gouging” their way to victory. Or, to put it another way, it’s not right that you can win a US Open hitting only nine fairways over the weekend.
PRO: Bifurcation Sucks
Bifurcation would have been a disaster in my opinion. Yes, it would have allowed manufacturers to potentially sell two lines of product: a conforming line used by tour players, and a non-conforming line used by punters who don’t play competitions and just want to have fun. That idea disgusts me. That’s not what golf is. I’ve played with a ton of tour players, from PGA grassroots pros and national champions to DP World Tour winners and major champs. I’ve seen first-hand why they excel at the game and why I don’t. So can you. Let me explain. Romain Langasque is the joint course record-holder at St Andrews with a 61. You can stand on the same tees, play to the same greens, use the same ball, the same clubs, and walk the same fairways and try to work out how the hell he went round in 61 blows. Bifurcation removes that opportunity. The rollback means we don’t have to suffer bifurcation.
PRO: It’s Only 15 Yards…
I’ll contradict this shortly – like I said, I’m on the fence – but 15 yards? Is that it? That’s really how much distance we stand to lose? Maybe it’s just me but I’m not sure that’s worth panicking about. The real change is having to play more long-irons… but surely that’s what golf is all about? Let’s not forget this is still supposed to be a game of skill. In 1932, respected course architect Dr Alister MacKenzie – he of Augusta National fame – said he would like to reduce the distance the ball of the time could fly. It would be a leveler, he reasoned. Effectively, we’re all in the same boat, so what’s the issue? I find that hard to argue (although I’ll try soon enough).
— Bryce Ritchie (@BRitchieGolf) December 4, 2023
CON: Gear Helps Average Players
Back in 2017, it was reported that the average male handicap in the United States had improved from 16.3 to 14.4. For women, it had improved from 29.7 in 1991 to 26.1. Considering this improvement has come in a 25-year period during which the greatest advancement in technology has occurred, it’s really not that significant. As a group, us golfers are getting better. But not by much.
The rollback will make it harder to improve. Mike Clayton, a very influential golf personality on Twitter, is long-time rollback endorser and a highly intelligent man but his arguments are usually skewed by what the few can do, not the many. “The equipment is, in my eyes, far too easy to use,” he said recently. “It’s too easy to drive the ball and the ball goes too far.” Too easy? When was the last time you played golf and thought it was too easy? It seems to me that he’s talking solely about a small percentage of tour players. However, this rollback means average golfers will need, potentially, two extra clubs.
The average 18-hole score in the US is currently 91 – and now we’re making the game tougher? Even typing that made me twitch. Nobody seems to know what effect this will have on the game as a whole – which is worrying – but we’re supposed to take comfort from knowing that tour players will lose some yards. I’ll be honest, that doesn’t comfort me one bit.
CON: At What Cost?
Let’s talk about the financial implications. If some well-informed experts are to be believed, we’ll not be rolling back to a golf ball from 2010. We’ll potentially be going back 25 years or more. Callaway recently spent $50million upgrading its golf ball factory at Chicopee to improve quality control. TaylorMade opened a ball factory in South Carolina less than a decade ago. Thirteen months from now, Titleist, the No.1 ball in golf, will unveil a new Pro V1. The financial implications of a rollback to these brands is unimaginable. You have to wonder – maybe even expect – that those costs will be passed on to consumers. That’s a worry.
CON: Is It That Big a Deal?
In a video from a few years ago, Rick Shiels, golf’s biggest YouTuber, compared a Titleist Pro V1 from 2018 to a Titleist Professional 90 from the mid-1990s. A 7-iron yielded a difference of six yards. The driver? Eleven yards. Hardly panic-inducing numbers. But put the driver in the hands of someone like Bryson DeChambeau and those numbers widen. Tour players make gains that are unthinkable for average players… yet average players will be impacted the most.
Also worth noting…
• In the last 30 years, driver heads have gone from 190cc to 460cc with the COR increasing from .760 to .830. Driver shafts have also gone from 43¼ inches to 46 inches. When driver heads moved from 220cc in 1995 to 285cc in 2000, there was a ten-yard increase in average driving distance. That cannot be ignored. The R&A managed to keep the part about ‘driver creep’ very secret. Nobody saw that coming. So, this looks like we could be heading for a rollback of drivers down the line as well. This is likely just the start.
• Distance gains have not been huge in recent years, despite some shouty voices on Twitter saying otherwise. Between 2007 and 2017, one ball brand noted that the average distance gain on the PGA Tour was 1.3 yards. The USGA stated that the average PGA Tour player hit driver 277 yards in 2003 and 289 yards in 2021. That’s an average increase of about 12 yards over 18 years. Twelve yards! According to today’s release, ‘longest hitters’ will lose between 13 and 15 yards. All this effort for 15 yards? Seems like a lot of work for very little.
• Clubs and balls aren’t the only equipment that has improved and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise just to suit their own agenda. In the 1970s, greens typically rolled at 6.5 on the Stimpmeter. Today, it hovers between 11 and 12. Courses are different beasts these days, yet all we talk about is protecting them. Fast-running fairways didn’t exist in the 1950s. But I get it: courses have to run faster these days to protect them because, simply put, players destroy soft courses with relative ease.
And that is why I sit on the fence.
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