Elite golfers, who in recent decades have increasingly used head-turning distances on their drives to conquer courses, should be forced to start using new balls within three years, the sport’s top regulators said Tuesday.
The U.S. Golf Association and the R&A, which together write golf’s rule book, estimated that their technical proposal could trim top golfers’ tee shots by an average of about 15 yards. Although golf’s rules usually apply broadly, the governing bodies are pursuing the change in a way that makes it improbable that it will affect recreational golfers, whose talent and power are generally well outpaced by many collegiate and top amateur players.
But the measure, which would generally ban balls that travel more than 317 yards when struck at 127 miles per hour, among other testing conditions, could have far-reaching consequences on the men’s professional game. Dozens of balls that are currently used could become illegal on circuits such as the PGA Tour and the DP World Tour, as the European Tour is now marketed, if they ultimately embrace the proposed policy change.
“I believe very strongly that doing nothing is not an option,” Martin Slumbers, the chief executive of the R&A, said in an interview. “We want the game to be more athletic. We want it to be more of an elite sport. I think it’s terrific that top players are stronger, better trained, more physically capable, so doing nothing is something that to me would be, if I was really honest, completely irresponsible for the future of the game.”
The U.S.G.A.’s chief executive, Mike Whan, sounded a similar note in a statement: “Predictable, continued increases will become a significant issue for the next generation if not addressed soon.”
In the 2003 season, PGA Tour players recorded an average driving distance of about 286 yards, with nine golfers typically hitting at least 300 yards off the tee. In the current season, drives are averaging 297.2 yards, and 83 players’ averages exceed 300 yards. The typical club head speed — how fast the club is traveling when it connects with the ball — for Rory McIlroy, the tour’s current driving distance leader at almost 327 yards, has been about 122.5 m.p.h, about 7 m.p.h. above this season’s tour average. Some of his counterparts, though, have logged speeds of at least 130 m.p.h.
At the sport’s most recent major tournament, the British Open last July, every player who made the cut had an average driving distance of at least 299.8 yards on the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland. When the Open, an R&A-administered tournament, had last been played at St. Andrews in 2015, only 29 of the 80 men who played on the weekend met that threshold.
Jordan Spieth during a practice round at the Players Championship earlier this month. Dozens of golf balls currently in use could become illegal on the PGA Tour and other circuits.Credit…Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images
The yearslong escalation, spurred by advanced equipment and an intensifying focus among professional players on physical fitness, has unnerved the sport’s executives and course architects, who have found themselves redesigning holes while also sometimes fretting over the game’s potential environmental consequences.
When the Masters Tournament is contested at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia next month, for instance, the par-5 13th hole will be 35 yards longer than it was last year. The hole, lined with azaleas and historically the course’s easiest, will now measure 545 yards; the full course will run 7,545 yards, up 110 yards from a decade ago.
Faced with the distance scourge well beyond Augusta, golf’s rule makers considered a policy targeting club design. They concluded, though, that such a reworked standard would cause too many ripples, with multiple clubs potentially requiring changes if drivers had to conform to new guidelines.
“If you don’t, you’ll end up with a 3-wood that could go further than a driver, and that was a very good point, and that could have affected three or four clubs in the bag,” Slumbers said. Instead, after years of study and debate, the U.S.G.A. and R&A settled on trying to urge changes to the balls that players hit.
The rules currently permit balls that travel 317 yards, with a tolerance of an additional 3 yards, when they are struck at 120 m.p.h., among other testing conditions. The existing formula has been in place since 2004, and Whan has said it is not “representative of today’s game.”
The proposal announced Tuesday is not final, and its authors will gather feedback about it into the summer. Although some members of the game’s old guard have openly complained about modern equipment and the governing bodies’ response to it — the nine-time major champion Gary Player fumed last year that “our leaders have allowed the ball to go too far” and predicted top players would drive balls 500 yards within 40 years — the executives are bracing for at least some resistance.
“We have spoken to a lot of players, and as you can imagine, half of the world doesn’t want to do anything and half of the world thinks we need to do more,” Slumbers said.
The debate may be more muted in some quarters than others, but the surges in distance have not been confined to the PGA Tour. Between 2003 and 2022, the R&A and the U.S.G.A. said Tuesday, there was a 4 percent increase in hitting distances across seven professional tours. Only two of the scrutinized circuits, the Japan Golf Tour and the L.P.G.A. Tour, posted year-over-year declines in driving distance in 2022.