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Steve Otto is the Executive Director of Equipment Standards and Chief Technology Officer at The R&A. When it comes to the changes coming to golf ball regulations, there are not many people as closely linked to the process as him.

Since the bombshell December announcement that golf balls will now be tested at a higher speed of 125mph, rather than 120mph, there has been plenty of reaction, with many in the industry worried about the impacts this may have. Of course, there are some on the other side of the argument, who believe this will be beneficial to the game.

These changes aren’t set to come into play until 2028 for the professional game and 2030 for amateur players, but for manufacturers, there’s a ticking clock to make sure they’re ready for the changes to be implemented.

So why are we seeing this change to the golf ball, and how is it likely to impact us, club golfers? We went in search of answers by speaking to the man who is helping to implement the rule change, Steve Otto. Here’s what he had to say…

What does your role involve and how will the changes to the golf ball impact that?

I look after all the equipment standards at the R&A, so that’s what is important when it comes to the golf ball. I work in Kingsbarns at the Allan Robertson House and this is where all the testing is done. This is where data was captured that led to the changes that we’re going to see to the golf ball.

We tend to stay away from that rollback term. Instead, we tend to think of this as reducing the pressure on golf courses to lengthen. It’s sort of a rebalancing in a way, making sure that we’re going to be OK going forward, rather than thinking of it as a rollback.

We’ve been looking at the data and looking at what is in the best interests of the sport. That was all done with the teams that work with me here at Allan Robertson House.

How much are these changes likely to impact your work over the next few years?

Well, they’ve been impacting my work over the last 20 years.

The Distance Insights Project has been going on for five or six years, and I would say it’s not as exciting a story as you might want it to be.

We’ve been doing a lot of work behind the scenes about what these balls might look like, what different clubs might look like and how people might engineer these products. We’ve already been testing prototypes from manufacturers that would meet the new specifications.

The challenge for us is to be able to test these things reliably and responsibly. There are 1,200 golf balls on the conforming list at the moment, and 900 of those balls come through this building every year.

There will be a time of transition when we get to ‘28 and ‘30, where we’ll need to test them at both speeds, 120mph and 125mph.

We’re already giving manufacturers indications if what they’re submitting is going to conform to the new specifications that are going to be in place in 2028.

Golf ball rollback blog
By the year 2030, golf balls will be more tightly regulated. (Credit: Getty Images)

Will testing golf balls at two speeds as opposed to one, make your work quite challenging for the next few years?

Without going into all the details of it, there are clever things you can do to test the values at one speed, and give you an indication of how it will perform at the other speed. So, it doesn’t completely double the stuff we’re doing.

Once we knew the direction this was going and when we came out with the proposal last March, whether it was going to be 125mph or 127mph, we could start working on the test and the process. It probably adds about 25% additional work, rather than another 100% of work.

We’ve been really pleased by the manufacturers who have, maybe a little bit behind the scenes, said, ‘Let’s start working on prototypes.’ That’s really helped to inform us on what we think the impact is going to be on the world of golf.

We wouldn’t have done this unless we understood what we thought was going to happen. In our releases, we spoke about the impact this was going to have on slow swing speed golfers and this was a big part of the decision process. It was a big part of us saying that we can do this across the game, we can move on from the bifurcation as proposed, to this other scenario. That was based on very good prototypes.

One thing that people mix up quite often is they’ll say these are ‘inferior’ balls. No, these are very good balls, they just don’t go as far. But, they have different affects at different swing speeds.

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Is there a lot of golf balls that you see right now that will still be conforming when 2030 comes around?

There’s about 30% of the golf balls we have that are submitted that would still be OK. In that list, there’s some very high quality golf balls, too.

How much of an influence did you have personally in coming to the decision on how golf balls will now be tested?

I guess I’m the facilitator of the data and information that’s used in the decision process. It’s not completely remote, where I hand over the data and the decision is made, we’re constantly reviewing and updating the data we use to come to these decisions.

I’m very involved in the overall process of where the numbers come from and then we have our decision process, where we go out to the industry and solicit feedback, which was massive for us.

We talk a lot more to manufacturers than perhaps is realised. We’re in constant dialogue with these people behind the scenes. We’re engaging with them on both scientific and data levels, but also strategy levels.

At the end of the day, all of us want golf to be thriving 50 years into the future. People sometimes try and paint the manufacturers as being against them, but they’re not, they’re trying to work for the betterment of the sport. I think us really listening to their feedback and their comments really helped with the process.

We talk a lot about data and we spend a lot of time going over our data and their data. The presence of really good data collection on world tours has been really fantastic for us. But, so has the change in technology, which means we are able to look at amateur golfers, to know how they hit the ball and know how we think this will react for them.

R&A chief golf ball rollback
Steve Otto is at the heart of the changes being made to the golf ball. (Credit: Getty Images)

How important is it to have that data from amateur golfers?

It’s actually the reason we built the Allan Robertson House. We had 300 golfers come in and hit drivers for us, and we said, ‘Let’s replay their shots, but with different prototype balls.’

We also have robots that can do that too, and things like Trackman that enable us to get those numbers. Scenario planning is a big part of what we do.

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Will golf ball manufacturers need to change the way they make balls, and will it be a big change if they do?

It’s minor changes, but I think there’s an opportunity for them to make more major changes if they want to.

This gives them an opportunity to engineer balls for slower swing speed players, so I think there’s opportunity there as well. The biggest and the best ones are really well set up to do this.

What we do, is we set the specification, we don’t tell them how to do it. We might give them a rough idea on what we think are the best solutions, but that varies depending on the cohort that they’re aiming at.

I think it would be eye watering for people to know the R&D budgets these companies are dealing with. They are always innovating, they are always challenging us.

This is part of the reason why we gave the industry four years to react, to ensure that there are high quality golf balls ready for January 1, 2028. I’m in touch with the manufacturers all the time, it really does help.

• This interview first featured in bunkered 209, as part of a larger study on the golf ball rollback. You can subscribe to the magazine here.

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Lewis Fraser As bunkered’s Performance Editor, Lewis oversees the content that’s designed to make you a better player. From the latest gear to tuition, nutrition, strategy and more, he’s the man. A graduate of the University of Stirling, Lewis joined bunkered in 2021. Formerly a caddie at Castle Stuart Golf Links, he is a member of Bathgate Golf Club where he plays off four.

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