Essential Golf: A passion for the Game

The Proposed Golf Ball Rollback Rule

The Proposed Golf Ball Rollback Rule

Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods are considered the two greatest players in the history of the game. Naturally, their opinions carry a lot of gravitas. Everyone takes notice when the two superstars give their approval on a topic as transformative as the R&A and USGA’s proposal to introduce a distance-reducing golf ball.

But does that make it right?

The new proposal from golf’s governing bodies would put a distance limit on how far the ball can carry. The rule would go into effect in January 2026. The reduced ball—a car-racing comparison would be restrictor plates that prevent the drivers from going too fast—will be mandatory at the elite professional level. It would not affect most amateur tournaments and no one is going to grab that Pro V1 out of your hands for the regular Saturday group.

Nicklaus has been a proponent of dialing back distance for more than 30 years. Woods officially expressed his advocacy for the proposal in April this year at the Masters. And four-time major champion Rory McIlroy, one of the game’s current preeminent players, threw his weight in favor, too.

“It’s a big deal and it could dramatically change the landscape of our game going forward,” McIlroy said. “I’m certainly in the camp that believes it’s the right thing to do.” That means a lot coming from a guy who is one of the biggest hitters in golf.

But not everyone is in lockstep with the change. Two-time major champion Justin Thomas vehemently disagreed and said the move is bad for the game. Thomas deferred to the fans who love to watch the pros rip it. And he pointed out how the current generation of golfers are more serious about their health and fitness, which allows them to break the old barriers.

“It’s evolution,” Thomas said. “We’re athletes now. We’re training to hit the ball further and faster and if you can do it, good for you.”

Even the media members who cover the sport—an opinionated lot indeed—are split on the issue. In a recent Power Poll Golf report, which gauged the opinion of 500 men and women who cover golf, 46 percent said using a limited-distance golf ball in elite competition was the correct approach. But 43 percent disagreed, and 11 percent were unsure.

Proponents of dialing the ball back argue that new technology has made some of the game’s most famous venues obsolete. Augusta National spent millions to purchase the land needed to lengthen its iconic 13th hole. But not every club, even the old-money blue-blood clubs, have the desire or the available land to do likewise.

And is it necessary to save the game?

Golf has been constantly changing and evolving. The only gutta percha balls you’ll find these days are in a museum. Hickory-shafted clubs are great for nostalgia, but no one wants to abandon their modern-day shafts. And who would be willing to go back to persimmon woods or drivers that don’t have a head as big as a melon?

Golf, like other sports, will continue to adapt to the times. The current National Football League bears only a faint resemblance to the game played 50 years ago. Major League Baseball enacted rules this year to speed up play and help the offense. Golf, too, will work its way through the issues and will figure it out. Putting brakes on the golf ball is just the first step.

This was first published in Essential Golf – you can read the complete magazine here.