If you've been reading the tea leaves for the last year or so, then you know golf's governing bodies have been looking hard at somehow scaling back how far the golf ball travels.
USGA CEO Mike Davis has openly lamented about the golf ball's impact on the sport, particularly at the highest competitive levels, as host courses are continuously stretched beyond their intended dimensions to create tests long enough to challenge even the longest modern players. Davis has also suggested the golf ball could even impact recreational play, as many golfers pick tee boxes too long for their capability, perhaps buoyed by a false sense of how far they hit the modern ball.
The R&A's chief executive, Martin Slumbers, also recently suggested the Rubicon may have been crossed, teasing findings of a joint golf ball study.
“For a number of years there has been a slow creep upwards, but this is a little bit more than slow creep," Slumbers said. "It’s actually quite a big jump. Our 2002 joint statement of principles put a line in the sand. But when you look at this data we have probably crossed that line in the sand. A serious discussion is now needed on where we go.”
Where that is seems unclear for most everyone involved, with the USGA suggesting the R&A is holding things up, and the R&A suggesting the opposite. It's a small room with a lot of opinionated minds. However, in a recent dinner with Jack Nicklaus, Davis assuaged the Golden Bear, suggesting something is going to get done on this front.
“Mike said, ‘We’re getting there. We’re going to get there. I need your help when we get there,” Nicklaus said Tuesday at the 2018 Honda Classic, where he is pseudo host as a children's hospital bearing his name is a philanthropic beneficiary of the tournament's proceeds. “I said, ‘That’s fine. I’m happy to help you. I’ve only been yelling at you for 40 years.’ 1977 is the first time I went to the USGA.”
Nicklaus seems concerned about golf-ball distance on two fronts: the impact it has on golf architecture and the viability of championship golf courses, as well the impact on pace of play. He would like to see the ball rolled back to about 80 percent of the modern ball's distance -- basically to the days before the Pro V1.
There are obviously plenty of the game's stakeholders opposed to a potential rollback -- whether that's for all golfers or just high-level competitive players. However, Nicklaus pins the primary objection and pushback on the company with the highest market share in the ball market, the company who made the solid-core ball popular.
“You can start with Titleist,” Nicklaus said. “Titleist controls the game. And I don't understand why Titleist would be against it. I know they are, but I don't understand why you would be against it. They make probably the best product. If they make the best product, whether it's 20 percent shorter ... What difference would it make? Their market share isn't going to change a bit. They are still going to dominate the game."
It would seem the idea that has traction with both Davis and Nicklaus is the idea of rating golf courses and offering golf balls that fly a limited distance based on that course rating. A short golf course, then, would have a shorter-flying ball to play it. Everyday golfers could still play those courses with whatever length ball they wanted, but the handicapping system -- already set to change for 2020 into a global system -- would account for players who didn't use the scaled-back, course-specific balls.
“And so then if a guy wants to play with a 90 or 100 percent golf ball, it makes it shorter and faster for him to play,” Nicklaus said.
Davis expressed the sentiment last March to Golf Digest.
“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 said.
Frankly, that doesn't seem feasible at any level but the highest competitive levels of the game. However, if that's going to be the case, then there's also the case to be made for a complete separation of equipment rules for amateurs and high-level competitive players. That could open a whole other can of worms. That's likely not in the offing, meaning the USGA and R&A can allow for scaled-back golf balls as a back-door way of rolling back golf ball distance on a case-by-case basis.
“We don’t foresee any need to do a mandatory rollback of distance," Davis said in that same Digest piece. "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?”