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Why I Support Proposed Golf Ball Rollback For Elite Players

By: | Tue 21 Mar 2023

Last week's announced proposal of The R&A and USGA - the game’s entrusted custodians - to introduce a rolled back ‘tournament ball’ for elite competitions from January 2026 has ushered in a fierce level of entrenched debate between two opposing factions who are steadfastly evangelical in their beliefs.

Social media takes are hotter than a Rory McIlroy drive, the strawmen have been reproducing faster than rabbits, with any sense of nuance lost in the deep rough.

But for those of us who live in the shadow of St Andrews, the spiritual home of golf, this is just the latest chapter in a discussion that can be traced back in these parts to the 1840s when Tom Morris (not yet Old) incensed leading professional Allan Robertson by adopting the new gutta percha ball in favour of its long-established feathery counterpart.

Almost two centuries on, we have reached this fresh milestone in the game largely because golf courses - including The Old at St Andrews that was beloved and formed by Morris and Robertson - have found themselves rendered obsolete or highly compromised by the distances that are now regularly hit by the sport’s most skilled exponents.

The governing bodies have determined that over the last two decades hitting distance has increased on average by around one yard per year - an ongoing trend that has resulted in so many classic designs being stretched or tampered with just to make them competitively relevant.

Take Augusta National, home of the Masters, which in 2023 will play 500 yards longer than it did at the turn of the century. Millions of dollars have been spent - most recently to extend the iconic par five 13th - just to offer a satisfactory test for the players of today. 

That doesn’t even take into account the impact of the cartoonishly quick greens that have been taken to the edge of reality - again to give the venerable course a fighting chance.

And what of The Old Course, the most consequential stage in the game. These days, when the Open comes to town, tees are absurdly located out-of-bounds with pin positions tucked away in the deepest corners of the cavernous greens.

Last year, for the 150th staging of the championship, a Scottish heatwave and absent winds transformed the hallowed grounds into little more than a pitching and putting contest. 

If no action is taken, where does it end?

It’s illogical that it’s seemingly permissible (in the minds of some) to scar these works of art by making them longer, narrower, one-dimensional, but that it’s considered to be such an outrageous suggestion to place a curb on the golf ball used by a tiny percentage of the population. What other sport has to change its playing grounds to accommodate equipment advancements - costing significant financial and natural resources in the process? That seems regressive rather than progressive.

Naturally, the manufacturers don't wish to see any disruption to their successful model, but the question is whether you care about the business of golf or the game of golf.

For a long time, the business has dictated the terms of that relationship, which seems to be a backwards dynamic when that partnership should be moulded within the constraints of the game.

The unconvincing argument against so-called bifurcation is that by placing a distinction between elite and recreational golfers, a sacred and uniting link will have been broken. However, that divide has occurred naturally; the two games have never been so disparate. 

How many 15-handicappers really believe that they are playing golf on the same terms as Jon Rahm? Unless they're taking on a championship course in tournament conditions from identical tees, using equipment that has been scientifically tailored to the most minute of specific requirements, there is no comparison. Not even the lucky members of the media who play Augusta the day after the green jacket has been presented can genuinely make that claim.

Golf Ball Debate

Standing behind a tee during a practice-round of the 2018 Open Championship at Carnoustie, I was struck by the sight of watching dozens of players simply blast drives over a multitude of carefully positioned bunkers and mounds. These hazards weren't even a consideration - that is a testament to their skill, but also a reflection that the modern game often completely bypasses the examination presented by these wonderful courses.

Maybe the golfers of today are simply better than previous generations; they certainly have every advantage of science and technology available to them, but it's also true that the equipment they play is demonstrably easier to hit than ever before, making it possible to swing at athletic speed and gaining the maximum benefit from that perfect combination of club, shaft and ball.

This debate will rage on for months and years, but the one partner who doesn’t have a voice is the golf courses themselves - the creatively, imaginatively, and architecturally laid out canvases that make that this game so compelling to watch and play.

Those of us who care about seeing the integrity of these courses protected welcome the opportunity that we could once again see them ask questions of the best players that the designers of the past and of the future intend. Tom Morris and Allan Robertson might have agreed on that point.

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