This Isn't a Return to the Feathery
Proposed Model Local Rule is a step in the right direction
Reactions to the Tuesday announcement by the USGA & R&A to slow down the golf ball for high-level competition were as predictable as night following day. The proposed Model Local Rule is about the most modest of partial remedies to a situation that has existed for a long time. It won’t go into effect for nearly three years, in January 2026. Yet some would have you believe goose feathers are being plucked and the pot is heating up and we’re heading back to what golfers used in 1845.
It is tempting to say the action by the governing bodies is too little and too late because in many ways the cow is long out of the barn. There is much talk of “stakeholders” these days, including yesterday when the rollback was rolled out. The history of the sport should also be a stakeholder, too, but has been mostly muted as equipment manufacturers ran roughshod during the last few decades. Yesterday, if a little timid and a bit raspy, far from a shout, history’s voice returned even as those in opposition tried to overwhelm it with talking points. “Creating a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist” or a version of that sentiment has been a common response, especially from those with a financial piece of the equipment pie as currently exists.
Those who govern the game were out-scienced years ago by companies who make and sell clubs and balls used by elite golfers and the rest of us, corporations whose bright minds in R&D took equipment to a place the USGA and R&A couldn’t imagine. When the high-tech revolution kicked in high gear toward the end of the 20th century, the rules makers were flat-footed and slow, rec leaguers trying to guard Michael Jordan. The equipment concerns won the game, and their victory altered the power-finesse equation that highly skilled golfers had been having to figure out for decades if they wanted to succeed. Distance always was an advantage, but it came with a caveat that was lost, or at the very least severely diminished, in the gold rush of nearly untethered technology.
In limiting their action to the ball instead of also addressing the size and construction of driver clubheads, the governing bodies passed up a more thorough re-set of the skill set required in elite play. A reduction of maximum driver dimensions to, say, 300 cc, and a tightening of allowable COR would have enhanced how the game is played at the top (and is something that should have been done years earlier).
But it was clear from comments by both Mike Whan of the USGA and Martin Slumbers of the R&A that the de facto bifurcation through the Model Local Rule—and the avoidance of getting into the more complicated issue of driver specifications—was a nod to the status quo and a desire not to alter what recreational golfers play.
Nowhere on the golf landscape is the “growing the game” mantra more nonsensical than when it is thrown around in conversations about distance.
Golf’s popularity as a recreational activity waned, not spiked, in the years when equipment advances were most evident. Golf participation surged because a global pandemic gave people more time to play a fresh-air sport and socialize safely with friends in the process not because golfers suddenly picked up yards from clubs and balls and delighted in a game they had previously ignored. Are younger golfers more enthralled with tech, and does that draw them in? Yes, but that tech is not necessarily about longer shots.
And the belief that fans—of whatever age—will turn away in droves from watching the professional game if the longest hitters lose a fraction of their distance, if they hit it the length of three American football fields off the tee instead of three and a quarter such spaces, is more baseless than the argument about why everyday golfers pursue the game.
As golfers of a certain age from outside the United States have noted over the last 36 hours, they went through a transition during the 1970s from the 1.62-inch diameter ball that had been allowed to one of 1.68 inches (long the standard under USGA rules). They lost some distance, but they didn’t give up golf. And the gnashing of teeth over how hard it will be for the world’s finest golfers to adjust to a new ball contrasts with the reality of how players from the U.S. used to do it for a week at a time when playing tournaments overseas. For certain, golf at the top level is much more analytical than in those days, but it remains a sport, not a medical specialty.
Golf had its aluminum-bat moment some time ago, and it chose to let batters swing away at a helpless third baseman. What the USGA and R&A announced this week was like putting a little bit more fuzz on a tennis ball, which has essentially happened in that sport in some championships without widespread outcry.
If the major pro tours and other elite competitions accept the new ball specs, the best players will still be the best players. The longest hitters will still be the longest hitters. This is a speed bump not a stop sign, and it needed to be installed well before now.