The USGA released its much anticipated distance report this week, and while the findings were not all that surprising, the depth of the report and data included was impressive. To make a long story short, the report confirms the fact that professionals are hitting the ball longer than ever. The report focuses primarily on the golf ball as the leading reason for this evolution. Somewhat surprisingly, the USGA and R&A clearly indicate that a change from this current trend is needed to not only grow the game, but sustain this game at its current level.
The report does spend a lot of time confirming what most us already knew, golfers have started hitting the ball farther. The “knee jerk” reaction to this gain in distance was for many courses to add length. Perhaps the most obvious example would be Augusta. The reaction to Tiger winning the 97 Masters was quick. He was hitting mid irons into those iconic par 5’s and the golf world took notice. The quick fix was to move the tee boxes further back and that trend quickly spread across the golfing landscape with top tier courses all scrambling to find yardage to get the card to read 7200 yards. For a long time, it seemed that every year featured the “longest course in XXXXX championship history.” Before we knew it, five hundred yard par fours were showing up on scorecards, and nobody was thinking twice about it. Distance started to grow, and continued to grow for nearly 20 years before somebody said stop.
It is safe to say that driver technology and the golf ball are the primary reasons for this growth. This report really seemed to focus on the ball. Without getting into the details of the report, I think the general consensus is that the golf ball may end up being “rolled back.” There are multiple ways to do that, and more research will have to be done, but it seems like this report is the starting point. The finish line may be a couple of years away, but we are now on a journey. Interestingly, the report also did indicate that a local rule could be implemented to impose a “one ball” type rule for courses. That essentially means that a course or tournament could choose to play with a single ball right now instead of waiting for the USGA. In this event, players would not be able to use their own ball as is the case now, but rather a ball approved or provided by the tournament itself.
The reaction to this report has been mixed. In my opinion, changing the ball would probably be in the best interest of the game, but it comes with some serious baggage. Their might be some trial steps that could be taken before a blanket change is made. The first step I would take would be to experiment with truly penalizing players for hitting the ball in the rough. The “bomb and gauge” mentality would eventually fade away as players realized that the birdies came from the fairway. On Tour, far too many times players will hit driver deep but crooked and get away with it. The problem is that the rough does not create enough of a penalty and guys will take their chances from the rough with a mediocre lie and a short iron.
I would look at using a graduating scale of rough and maybe even narrowing fairways. Again, this would only be for the top tier of players and not the golfing world in general. In that way, a premium would once again be put on finding fairways and perhaps even strategy. This could be experimented with on the Korn Ferry level the same way MLB trials initiatives in the minor leagues. The events that used this rough could be marketed as such and may even draw some interest. Data could be collected and the golf world would have an opportunity to digest this style of course setup.
If this is met with resistance, then perhaps the answer is a rolled back ball for everyone. I really do not think that it would have a tremendous impact on the everyday player in terms of actual distance lost. It would make shorter courses more relevant and probably more popular. Shorter courses take less time to play, they usually cost less, and they have a smaller footprint. These are all positives. Some people will inevitably complain that rolling back the ball is “less fun” and point to the USGA as “old man golf,” but I think this could actually make golf more enjoyable. If changing the golf ball is something that happens, I will not be opposed. I think there may be some incremental steps to take prior to making that move, but if that is the end result, I think it is a good thing for the game of golf.