What Day 1 of a golf ball rollback could look like
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What Day 1 of a golf ball rollback could look like [GNN+]

It’s Tuesday of the 2018 Masters. Augusta National’s new chairman, former Masters contestant and ex-USGA president Fred Ridley is set to deliver his first news conference at the helm of golf’s most important private club.

For chairmen past, this time has been their stage to opine on topical golf conversations, perform a little salesmanship magic around things important to the Masters and, most importantly, take some time to promote the Masters Tournament.

This Tuesday, however, is different.

The media hive congregates in the interview room at the vaunted Augusta National press building, and there’s Ridley in the middle of the desk. One of the club’s members is to his right, chatting up Ridley before he referees the expected flood of raised hands. And to Ridley’s right are two unexpected guests: USGA CEO Mike Davis, who became the organization’s Director of Rules and Competitions under Ridley’s USGA presidency, and R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers.

This isn’t their show. What are they doing here?

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Ridley begins speaking, welcoming everyone to Augusta National and the Masters, thanking them and the broader golf community for their support as he takes over for Billy Payne, who was arguably the most important club and tournament chairman this side of Clifford Roberts. Ridley mentions Payne’s leadership in expanding the Masters’ reach, including developing the Asia-Pacific and Latin America ams, bringing Drive Chip & Putt to Augusta National, expanding the club’s hospitality options and continuing to improve the patron and contestant experiences at the event.

Then Ridley pauses.

He shares has been working with Davis and Slumbers and their respective organizations, recognizing, in their collective view, that the modern golf ball is too technologically advanced. It goes too far for modern athletes playing the game.

The spin profile — including an increasing gap between driver spin and wedge spin — has outmatched reasonable design elements. The only human-controlled deterrents to modern scoring are narrow fairways, deep rough and on-the-line putting surfaces. There’s only so much land available for Augusta National to purchase to lengthen the Alister Mackenzie design, and mowing the fairway grain into the players can only do so much to halt low-spin rollout to mind-blowing lengths.

Something has to be done to preserve not only the home of the Masters, but too the game’s hallowed stadiums finding it near impossible to suitably and fairly challenge modern greats with spectacular equipment.

Ridley turns things over to Davis and Slumbers, who explain the game’s governing bodies have equipment rules which afford tournament committees power to make local rules, known as Conditions of Competition, dictating contestants’ equipment. The joint bodies’ equipment guidelines will remain as a guide for most competing players, but host clubs like Augusta National and presenting organizations like the PGA Tour have the blessing to add more specific conditions.

For Ridley and Augusta National, this means the birth of the Masters Tournament Ball. All Masters contestants will have to play a ball conforming to the Augusta National standard beginning with the 2020 Masters, and the more stringent requirements will require complying manufacturers to make a ball which flies 10 percent less than existing USGA and R&A standards. The spin profile must also have a smaller gap between driver and wedge spin. Balls must be submitted to Augusta National for testing and be approved by Jan. 1, 2020 for contestant use. Contestants can choose any complying ball, but they must pick from a stock submitted to Augusta National to prevent tampering or cheating.

By this time, jaws have hit the floor among the assembled media. Some of them have called for a rollback in vague terms for more than a decade, but they had never considered the game’s key governing organizations would endorse that idea. Those advocates never imagined what a real implementation would look like; they just yearned for a change. Now, they’ve got it.

There are so many questions, and Ridley, Davis and Slumbers agree to answer as many questions about this change as possible.

  • When will Augusta National publish the ball configuration standards? Will the public get to see them?
  • How will Augusta National test the ball? Will the USGA offer their testing facility, or is Augusta National building its own?
  • Can any golf ball maker submit a conforming ball? What are the tolerances for conforming characteristics?
  • Did you talk to any players about this? What do they think?
  • What about the advances in club and shaft materials and manufacturing? Will there be a persimmon prerequisite in the future?
  • Will the PGA Tour, European Tour, LPGA Tour and other major professional golf organizations also roll back the ball? Will their standards be uniform?
  • Why now? Why not 10 or 15 years ago? Why not 5 years from now?
  • Why do this when launch monitors have taught so much to improve performance? Doesn’t physical fitness play a role in distance gains?

The trio on stage has considered most, if not all, of these questions, and they have talking points for all of them. Yes, the public will see the specs if they want. Augusta National is doing the testing on site with assitance from Far Hills. Ballmakers must apply to get clearance to submit a tournament-legal ball. We did talk to players, and Tiger Woods is in favor, but a number of others have reservations we understand and respect. We’ve spoken to the leaders of the major tours but they’ll have to decide on a rollback on their own timeline. Augusta National needs this now because, short of buying Augusta Country Club and re-routing the road infrastructure outside the club, they’re out of land to expand the course and don’t want to make it any longer.

The most important question: Aren’t you worried about a massive lawsuit?

We’re confident our approach would hold up in a court of law.

Suddenly, the Masters Tournament — and, likely, the entire golf world — is about to change permanently.

Manufacturers have been in the loop this one-two punch could be coming on this day. They have statements ready. Some are in support. Bridgestone Golf, as well other OEMs, have submitted limited-flight balls as the USGA and R&A further investigated a potential de-centralization of equipment rules. Cobra Golf is fine with it because they don’t make balls. Others with smaller market share demonstrate varying levels of concern and skepticism in their statements, but much of their marketing has shifted toward fitting consumers and away from touting their touring pros’ success. The indy ballmakers don’t care; they aren’t paying many, if any, pros to use their stuff.

However, Titleist parent Acushnet, whose outgoing CEO Wally Uihlein has been outspokenly opposed to such a rollback, is not pleased. They’re the No. 1 Ball in Golf (TM) among amateurs and touring professionals. They dominate the ball count each week at pro events, and that’s not only a source of pride but also marketing. They seed golf balls with high-school and college teams, smartly developing brand loyalty in up-and-coming players before they potentially make the big time. Now their long-held category edge is threatened by the possibility that more groups than Augusta National could make world-class players use a different ball than the ones normal hacks buy in droves, particularly at green-grass retail.

No matter how they feel about the added burden, what can any aggrieved-enough manufacturer do to stop this?

They could sue the USGA and R&A. But the governing bodies would argue their version of prior art, trotting out the existing ball rules and appendicies in place since 1976. Then there’s the groove regulations in the prior decade and the elongated rollout for pros, high-level amateurs and recreational players, respectively. Wedge makers quickly got hip to getting around the grooves issue, and they made wedges as good as they were under the old groove standard. Also, no lawsuits. Besides, the USGA would say they’re not making new rules, just letting others make rules. A suit would take years to decide anyhow, and the USGA is flush with cash from its TV deal with Fox and other sponsorships to handle burgeoning legal bills.

An OEM, or a group of them, could sue Augusta National Golf Club for inhibiting their business by making their staffers use a rolled-back ball. It might not be the best PR move to sue the sport’s most public and arguably beloved club. Aside from that, the Masters is their tournament. They set the rules, just as they decide who is and isn’t a member. If Augusta National wants the Masters played with shovels, they can set that standard as a private organization.

Perhaps the best option, other than giving in, would be colluding as a group of manufacturers to not submit a ball conforming to the Augusta National specs. How are they going to play the Masters without a ball? It’s not like the club is sitting on trucks full of untarnished balatas from the 1990s to hand out like candy to contestants. However, at least one manufacturer is going to submit a conforming ball if they think they can corner that very tiny market and make the claims that come with that (“the ball played at Augusta”).

The options aren’t good. But, to defend their business model, a few OEMs quickly band together and sue the USGA and Augusta National. They allege the groups’ collaboration negatively affects their businesses and the golf equipment industry as a whole to the tune of millions, if not billions, of dollars. Some amateurs will want to play the Masters ball (or a PGA Tour ball or the US Open ball that will no doubt come next), but most will still want their Tour-caliber ball. Not only will manufacturers have to spend in R&D to make a tournament- or organization-specific set of balls, but they’ll have to reword contracts with staffers and rip up marketing plans and realign budgets. The consumer, they’ll argue, will have to pay more for equipment as costs from a ball rollback they didn’t want will be passed along to them.

Some fans will rage. They love seeing Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy — you get the idea — bomb the ball. They love seeing the pros’ wedge shots stick and stop on greens. What’s wrong with technological progress, they’ll ask. Those who know the game’s history will point out this argument has been going on not since the development of the solid-core ball but since the evolution of a wound ball in the early 20th century.

Other fans, mostly the kind who love to see the US Open winning score at 5 over, will delight in the change. They want to see the pros struggle as much as they do when they play. A niche percentage will be thrilled to see the governing bodies stop the architectural rot of majestic designs forced into hurried changes just to keep up with ball flight.

From that one announcement, scores of unexpected and unintended consequences will emerge. The impact of the move won’t be understood for decades, if ever. A long-term rupture in the sport could be the fallout from a sudden move to stem a long-term problem. Uncertainty will reign.

Is drawing a line in the sand worth it?

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Ryan Ballengee

Ryan Ballengee is founder and editor of Golf News Net. He has been writing and broadcasting about golf for over a decade, working for NBC Sports, Golf Channel, Yahoo Sports and SB Nation. Ballengee lives in the Washington, D.C. area with his family. He used to be a good golfer.

Ballengee can be reached by email at ryan[at]thegolfnewsnet.com

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