For years, golf purists have wanted to see the game's governing bodies further limit how far the golf ball can travel, effectively rolling the ball back some percentage of the current limit. The reasoning for that has typically been twofold
Modern pro golfers hit the ball too far, and that distance game eliminates some of the skill once required to play the sport
Modern pro golfers hit the ball too far, and those distance gains have rendered so many great courses obsolete that they are no longer able to host major championships or have to be lengthened, redesigned or entirely tricked up to remain relevant
The USGA and R&A, the game's rule-making bodies, have pushed back on the sheer data about distance gains, creating an arbitrary viewport of the data that begins in 2003, after the solid core ball had alread rocketed average distance up some 15 yards. The governing bodies claim the golf ball isn't traveling that much farther -- less than a half-yard per year -- in the 14 years they think are relevant, despite the fact that PGA Tour data shows the increase is closer to a yard per year in carry distance alone, some three or four times higher than their estimates made from data across global tours, including the LPGA and Ladies European Tour.
Purists have taken the reporting as a signal that the governing bodies are disinterested in acknowledging the problem, which would then compel them, in theory, to do something about it. If we're not even working from the same data, how can we come to the same conclusions and what to do next?
It's also been postulated that the USGA and R&A are afraid of legal action that equipment manufacturers would take if they rolled back how far the golf ball can travel. After all, amateurs still stink at golf despite the abundance of great modern equipment discoveries in the ball, club and shaft. Affecting the manufacturers' ability to innovate and remain legal in the eyes of most legal-eagle-leaning golfers also affects their bottom line, and that would, no doubt as some claim, lead to massive lawsuits -- ones the governing bodies have expensively lost in the past. Even with a cushy $100-plus million annual TV rights check from Fox Sports, the USGA isn't trying to hemorrhage money over 20 yards that less than one-half of one percent of the golf population has gained and used to their advantage on the toughest golf setups on the planet.
However, perhaps we golf purists have seen it all wrong. We shouldn't have seen golf technology, particularly the ball, as as issue which needed to be fixed solely with a Wal-Mart roll back. Rather, we could have framed the issue differently, viewing technology as fluid and which could be used to make the golf ball go farther or shorter, depending on circumstances. Golfers have handicap indexes to even the odds; so why not make golf equipment that could also level the playing field?
It is that somewhat stunning view that USGA executive director Mike Davis expressed Tuesday at the North American Golf Innovation Symposium in Vancouver, suggesting that there could be room in golf for a "variable distance" ball. What's that mean? Davis is saying the sport could benefit from having a golf ball that doesn't go as far as others. His rationale is that a rolled back ball could make golf more equal for two very different players from the same set of tees.
Imagine playing with Dustin Johnson at four-time U.S. Open host Myopia Hunt Club, which plays 6,539 yards, almost 1,500 yards shy of how far Erin Hills can be played this June at the Open. There's a reason Myopia Hunt hasn't hosted an Open since 1908: It's too short. But what if you played with your normal ball and Johnson got a "variable-distance" ball?
“Throw him an 80 percent golf ball and go play the back tees, and guess what? It would be a great experience for him, and he would be able to play this wonderful historic golf course that by and large he can’t play anymore," Davis told Golf Digest.
It's a more open-ended and, frankly, open-minded argument as to why offering a scaled-back (as opposed to forcing a rolled-back) golf ball is a good idea. Level the playing field or give better golfers a challenge more fitting of the original or existing architecture of a golf course. After all, as Davis has noted plenty of times, the availability of land and water, particularly water, will be increasingly sparse in the coming years. Expanding championship golf courses to 8,000 yards to host majors and accommodate technological advances isn't realistic or environmentally friendly.
Such an approach of creating a spectrum of golf balls, from floaters to full-throttles, could offer further variability in golf, something the sport is trying to promote. An 18-hole round from the back tees on firm fairways and fast greens isn't for everyone. It's for almost no one. Encouraging anything but that style of golf could appeal to more players. It also saves the governing bodies the headache of fighting manufacturers in court and the perception among golfers that they're not playing with legit equipment.
“We don’t foresee any need to do a mandatory rollback of distance," Davis said. "We just don’t see it. But that’s different than saying if somebody comes to us and says I want an experience that doesn’t take as long or use as much land, can we allow for equipment to do that?”
Sure. And that somebody could be the USGA or another major golf body. Imagine the U.S. Open back at Merion East on a sub-7,000-yard golf course with a golf ball fitting the architecture? It would be so much better than the way the USGA had to trick up the Philly club to keep players around par, with Merion looking like a shadow of itself. The USGA doesn't appear to be in a rush to reach that conclusion, with Davis telling Digest that kind of idea hasn't been discussed. However, by floating the idea of welcoming golf balls which don't go as far as the modern ball, the USGA is inviting a voluntary scale back, which is a good start.
The question is if manufacturers would be willing to try selling such a ball to the masses. Can you imagine your weekend buddies agreeing to play a ball that flew 20 yards less? Well, if they got to play a box or two up, maybe. If they could go play a golf course they thought was fun but too short, maybe. There are thousands of golfers who love playing with hickory-shafted clubs in combo with the modern ball, so why not the hickory equivalent of a ball with modern clubs?
This was a trial balloon, surely, from Davis. And it's a good one. It's one we should talk about more and maybe even play with a little bit. The USGA has taken to expanding its championship roster to offer a well-received fourball championship and has been widely praised for finally creating the U.S. Senior Women's Open. Why not trying a championship for golfers playing in a smaller sandbox of equipment regulations?