The Golf Ball Rollback – Matt & Andy Discuss

In this first installment of what may become a series, Matt and Andy discuss a golf topic they find interesting or important.  This isn’t an interview or a debate, just a conversation that occurred over email so that it could be shared with you.  If you like it, let us know in the comments.  If there’s a question you’d like to see discussed, share that, too.  Thanks.

Matt and Andy discuss Score vs. Fun in golf HERE

Andy: The golf ball rollback was announced this week by the USGA and R&A.  To sum it up, by 2030 there will be new golf ball regulations that make the ball go shorter than it goes now.  A 300 yard drive will go 15 yards shorter, and a 225 yard drive will go 11 yards shorter.  One thing is for sure, everyone on the internet has a lot of strong opinions.  It’s a complex topic, and it is tough to sum it up in one tweet, so this could be a good time for an email back and forth.  What are your initial thoughts on the golf ball going shorter?

Matt: My gut reaction to this announcement is disappointment.  I have been a long time advocate for bifurcation.  It seemed that we were heading toward that, but instead we got a universal rollback.

My second reaction is a lot of curiosity.  I’m eager to find out how this new, shorter ball changes how I feel about the game.  As I sit here now, I want to say that it doesn’t matter, but I don’t know that.  I’m even more curious to see how the other factions in the game respond.  What will the PGA Tour do?  What will the manufacturers do?  What will the average golfer do?

The USGA and R&A are not the emperors of the game.  Titleist can tell them to pound sand and keep making the current (or better) Pro V1.  The PGA Tour might play with the current ball all year and have players switch only for the US and British Opens.  I think there are innumerable interesting possibilities and conflicts.

Where are you on this?

Andy: I’ve actually been more interested in the conversation around the announcements than the announcements themselves.  I think it says a lot about what people care about and find important. “Golf ball rollback” and “Making the ball go shorter” make everything sound so extreme.  It’s not going to go that much shorter, and it won’t impact that many parts of the game.  It won’t impact putting, chipping, greenside bunkers.  Irons will go half a club shorter, so not a huge difference there.  The place we will notice it the most will be off the tee with the driver.  I have a sense based on the commercials I see on TV, but, how is traffic on Plugged in Golf when there’s a review of a new driver compared to a new putter or irons?

Matt: Drivers are #1, though not by as much as you might think.

I think you’re right on with what you’re nodding toward: distance is really important to people. Or at least that’s what the internet would have me believe. But I think it’s true. If there wasn’t so much ego wrapped up in distance, the OEMs wouldn’t play games with lofts of irons the way they do.

This leads me back to the reactions. Will this open up an era where a significant number of golfers play non-conforming equipment? If the PGA Tour doesn’t comply, will it even be considered non-conforming?

Andy: I think people want to play by the rules, or they wouldn’t be making such a fuss about the change.

The way people react to things has a way of providing a window into what they think is most important.  The reaction to this has been so extreme, which means people must think this will negatively impact their experience of the game of golf.  They are equating a slightly lower distance with a worse experience.  This line of thinking is flawed.  By this logic, they would be thrilled if things went the other way, and the USGA made the golf ball go farther.  Would hitting it farther make people’s experience better?  Would golf be a better game if the equipment somehow allowed 50% of players to hit it 350 yards?

Golf is about challenge, competition, enjoyment, creativity, fascination, self improvement, and so many other things.  None of these aspects of golf are diminished by the ball going slightly shorter, so the overall experience will be more or less the same.  I get annoyed when people get so upset about things like this, because I think they’re missing the picture about what makes golf so great.  Now, someone could argue, maybe what people love most about the game is hitting bombs within the rules, but I believe if they spent some more time in reflection before shouting on TV and the Internet, they would see that there is much more they love about the game.

Matt: Regarding “playing by the rules,” I think that people may feel a difference between seeking out a non-conforming piece of equipment now versus staying with what they have known for their entire golfing life. But, again, I think that depends on what the Tour does and what the OEMs decide to make and promote.  Also, I think the idea of playing by the rules is pretty squishy for most people.  How many people take zero mulligans, never pick up a putt, etc?

I think your second paragraph is a bit of a straw man and a bit judgmental.  To the former, I think most people just don’t like change.  They can hit it 200 now.  Hitting it 210 feels thrilling because it’s past their norm.  If you gave them a new ball that immediately flew 300 yards, they wouldn’t enjoy it the same way because they would know they didn’t do anything to “earn” it.  When the ball changes, they will hit it 190, and that will feel bad because it’s short of their norm.  Will they adapt?  Probably.  I think it’s like the groove rule (now I sound old) where people were upset for a bit and then got over it.

To the second part, I don’t disagree with you that there’s more to golf than hitting it far, but I’m trying to get away from telling people what they should or shouldn’t enjoy.  I’ve spilled a lot of digital ink trying to get people to think about other elements of the game, but there’s a visceral thrill to seeing the ball go fast and far.  As “enlightened” as I try to be, I’m happier when I drive the ball well.  If you give me the choice between shooting the same score with good driving or with scrappy wedges and putting, I’m taking driving every time.  So while I’m not going to go crazy about the rollback, I have a measure of empathy for those who are upset by it.

Andy: I’m trying to hold back on the judgment, but I guess I have stronger feelings on this than I initially thought.  I agree, people can enjoy whatever they want.  I like hitting far drives too, so it’s lucky we’ll all still be able to hit far drives!  We might not be able to carry every bunker we’re used to carrying, but we’ll be ok.  This back and forth has helped me clarify some sort of conclusion, so hopefully it can help others in their thinking:

Golf is something that means a lot to me.  There’s a historical element, but there is also a sacred element to it as well.  It’s been the source of connection with my dad, brother, and friends.  It’s been an escape from stress.  It’s been a place I’ve learned a lot about myself and the world.  It’s been a meditative place.  It’s been the source of a lot of my best memories.  It’s been very important to my development and growth into who I am as a person.  So when tour pros and commentators go on TV and say the rollback is the worst thing that could be done to the game of golf – maybe I should shrug it off, ignore it, or say they can say whatever they want.  But these loud voices have a way of trivializing what I believe are the actual best parts of the game.  They make it harder for others to see heights and depths of all there is to golf.

So yes, everyone is free to form their own opinion, but can we put the golf ball and distance into its proper place, as something that is a part of the game of golf, but by no means defines our entire experience with it?

Matt: I would like to think that last point is one of universal consensus.  Distance is a lot of fun, the rollback may be stupid, but golf is bigger than just hitting the ball far.  We’d all do well to keep that in mind.

In your frustration about the anti-rollback commentary, I see some of my own frustration with other things.  A lot of media is hyperbolic.  A lot of media – social and otherwise – is incentivized to make us reactive rather than thoughtful.  Nuance is shunned rather than being rewarded.

The one self-critical thing I will say about our discussion is that it does not include the opinion of anyone who hits it short.  You and I can, perhaps, shrug this off more easily because we’ll still drive it 250+.  I can imagine that people who are struggling to maintain a 200 yard drive, or a 150 yard drive, feel the loss of even a few yards quite acutely.

Andy: Yes, agreed.  That would’ve been the biggest argument for bifurcation and having a pro only ball.  They decided that bifurcation would hurt the game more than having the ball rollback impact everyone.   It was clear they were going to do something, and I would have been ok with either outcome.

Where do you stand after all this?  Happy with the outcome?  Against it?  Neutral?

Matt: I’m…meh.  I was a strong advocate for bifurcation, and I wanted to see a pretty strong rollback.  I think it would have been good for golf.  Roll the pros back substantially so they could play somewhere like Pasatiempo.  Let the OEMs sell the “Tour” ball and the “Rec” ball.  For the fraction of golfers who want to measure themselves against the Tour, they can.  The rest of us can continue playing the game as we have for the last twenty, thirty years.

This current version doesn’t really bother me, but it doesn’t excite me at all.  If it goes through as proposed, I don’t think it’s going to reel in the negative aspects of distance gains in the pro game.  It is going to annoy some recreational players.  Feels like a compromise that makes everyone unhappy.  But I’m holding out hope that we get something better.

Andy: In its report, the USGA said they’re going to continue to monitor the driver, and how forgiving it is for off-center hits.  Hopefully they give us a minute to catch our breath, I’m not sure we could handle another announcement anytime soon!

More from Matt & Andy

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Matt Saternus

12 Comments

  1. Hey Matt, great column. I am in line with your views. I feel that the USGA has completely outlived its usefulness (if it ever had any). Yes, why should they rule golf? In any tournament, the person with the fewest shots wins, so why are they so fanatical about “protecting par?” I do subscribe to the theory that the winning score at few old & famous courses is getting higher than the USGA & R&A wants, hence the rollback. And, the idiotic remark of, you can move up regarding tees is absurd. At most courses (at least most public ones), there aren’t many tee box choices & they’re usually hundreds of yards of difference in terms of playing length. If I’m hitting the ball 10 yd shorter on a hole, am I going to move to the more forward tees 40 yards ahead? No. Anyway, I have hundreds of the balls I currently use & if I still have them in 2030, I’ll still play them.

  2. I’m 72 and have already lost 50 yards in my driver length over the past 5 years. Golf is not an easy game. Losing 10 yards per club hurts us old timers more than the younger gamers. The pros play an entirely different game, give THEM an entirely different ball and let us amateurs alone. Here’s hoping the ball manufacturers go deaf.

  3. Bagger Vince

    All the arguments for rollback do not move me.

    What is the biggest concern for the USGA? Simply to protect the old courses and current course design. That’s it. New courses are bomb and gouge airport runways. New designs and old could adjust landing areas, add bunkers, add trees and grow roughs – length is NOT the primary deterministic factor in returning shotmaking to the PGA Tour.

    Rollback is favoring course concerns over manufacturers. Manufacturers sell hope. Limiting equipment specs cuts into their ability to sell hope which lowers revenue. The Manufacturers spend a whole lot of sponsorship money…. What happens if they stop? What if LIV creates an unlimited equipment segment? Callaway already went the ERC route once.

    What if one of the Big 4 just say screw it and let their R&D go wild where the only limits is material physics… LIV would love that.

  4. Bagger Vince

    I quit my USGA membership after the COR debate. Dick Rugge and I went back in forth in email after the announcement where I expressed my dismay. Mr. Rugge was a gentleman and responded in depth. The answers I received were less than convincing regarding if COR was actually an issue that needed to be regulated.

    My position was that the horse was out of the barn when titanium was allowed for clubhead design. Physics cannot be defeated, therefore materials should be limited not design which is subjective. Spring effect only occurs beyond a perfectly elastic collision (e.g. 1.000 CoR). Unobtainium does not exist so to deliver a true spring as described by the rules would require a mechanical intervention.

    This ball decision reminds why I never renewed my membership…

  5. Great article.
    Amateurs do not hit the ball any further than they did when ProV1 launched.
    The vast population of club and regular golfers (those that keep the game going) care about their game at their club, NOT the pro game.
    When this roll back comes out, what would stop my club saying ‘play the ball the DTC’s now provide that R&A ban’. Who cares what they say? Are they going to stop me playing?
    NO.
    It affects amateur golfers that are the most important part of golf. The pros will just increase speed.
    LIV won’t rollback and they run golf now!

    • This is exactly how the USGA make itself obsolete… you can only govern those who choose to be governed.

      The USGA feels little need or requirement to explain its decisions to the golfing public. They pearl clutch and hide behind Nicklaus’ and McElroy’s misappropriated concerns. Jack is a course designer, I’ve played several of his designs he knows the ball is not the primary problem

  6. This is an was an easy fix,

    1. Limit Pro’s and very high-level tournament amateurs to a 350 CC driver. Create a disadvantage to swinging to hard or a bad swing. They could market them as pro-only equipment to people who are interested. TM has a mini-driver that must sell fairly well.

    2. Gradually rise the allowable COR to .086 or higher on everyone else’s driver.

    Pro’s still get distance however now there is a penalty for a bad swing. The vendors get something to sell say over the next 5-10 years with the rise in COR. Absolutely no one cares how far a 12-Handicap like me hits a golf ball except me. They do the same thing with baseball bats why not golf clubs.

    • Bagger Vince

      Bi-forcation is unnecessary; course design can solve almost every problem the USGA claims to be concerned with.

      Just watch YouTube or Golf Channel to see tournaments played in the 60s and 70s. The course conditions are a bit more challenging than the highly manicured grass pastures that currently exist. Put angles back in the game, trees were removed because they “interfere” with turf growing conditions. Place waste area that require little maintenance and no water in landing zones about 320-350, force the layup decision.

      The average golfer deals with this at munis all the time. Current course design has moved away from history, there seems to be little acknowledgement of that by the USGA.

  7. If they were to do anything, I felt bifurcation was the way to go. I average 240 and the loss of distance would definitely be felt by me. When I first heard about it, it sounded like it was basically a club of distance loss throughout the bag and I was infuriated. The average golfer doesn’t have a distance problem. I’m also of the belief that they should utilize the conditions to their advantage, growing the rough, softening the fairway, adjusting the rakes in the bunkers so they are a hazard, etc. I’ve also heard proposals to remove spotters, and not have galleries in the landing area.

    Going back to the rollout, the usga has recently come out and said that players like me won’t be affected, but I don’t trust them, I do trust the OEM’s and their experts to do their best to do so though. Also, it’s seven years away for the general public, if I’m playing then, I deal with what comes.

    • Matt Saternus

      Joseph,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
      I think it’s incredibly telling that you don’t trust the USGA but you do trust the OEMs. If that isn’t a wake up call to the USGA, they’re too far gone.

      Best,

      Matt

      • Bagger Vince

        The USGA lost my trust years ago…

        The USGA lives in an echo chamber; there is only lip service paid to “concern for the average golfer”. The average golfer cannot afford to play any of the courses (Bethpage exempted) they seek to protect… most of which are private to begin with.

  8. The issue is that the pros have optimized their tee game for distance because, with the advent of shotlink and SG data, it is inarguable that hitting it as long as possible and straight enough is the most effective style of play. Laying up and playing the angles and emphasizing pure accuracy is just not the the winning strategy, to the chagrin of the architecture fans and romantics. Pros have optimized their launch characteristics, their course strategy, and their swing mechanics accordingly so that they hit individual drives longer, but also are statistically “longer” because they hit driver on more holes. Upcoming players are even longer because they have focused on swing speed their whole golfing life. The USGA distance insight report specifically acknowledges this and says that almost all of the distance gains since 2004 are PLAYER driven, NOT equipment driven. It also acknowledges that the amateur game is almost unaffected by this increase in elite distance. Essentially, at this point, the pros alone are demonstrating exceptional advancements in skill at executing the most fundamental part of golf – hitting the ball with speed and accuracy, and it has changed how a few famous holes on a few famous courses are played. The USGA, R&A (and Augusta) had a choice to make regarding who or what to side with. Do they side with accommodating exceptional athletes doing exceptional things, or do they side with those who prioritize the interests of the golf courses? Bizarrely, for something that is ostensibly a sport, they sport’s governing bodies sided with the courses over the athletes.

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