Drawing lines in the sand blown away by timidity and time

Home > Opinion > Drawing lines in the sand blown away by timidity and time
The need for an elite golf ball for certain competitions could have been alleviated if the USGA and R&A acted sooner. M. James Ward outlines how the proverbial horse left the barn years ago and what that now means.
Posted on
March 22, 2023
M. James Ward in
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

The USGA / R&A announcement on having a special golf ball for certain ill-defined elite competitions while maintaining the specifications for existing golf balls for recreational play has already sparked heated debate even though implementation is not expected till January 2026 at the earliest.

Being the self-anointed referees for golf is never an easy situation. In this particular case a determination was made by the USGA and R&A that a clear line in the sand had to be drawn given what both groups see as an unsustainable future for a whole host of reasons previously stated which include environmentally, economically and on the competitive side.

But the timing and nature of the solution is now front and center. Why weren't more impactful actions taken sooner?

The issue of golf balls going longer distances has been around since the sport's earliest days going back to the days of Old Tom Morris. When overall consistency in the manufacture of golf balls became the norm, it was only a matter of time before companies producing golf balls fine-tuned the production process creating balls aerodynamically superior from those of an earlier generation.

The usage of the two-word phrase, "elite competition," is an apt one. Those who play the game at the highest of levels have enormous skills and can-do things with golf clubs and balls that the bulk of those playing the sport can only dream about.

But let's rewind the clock just a bit shall we.

The growth of distance began to accelerate when graphite shafts entered the market in the 1970s. Graphite was far lighter, and even stronger, than previous steel shafts. An action by the USGA and R&A could have taken place then but neither did.

Fast forward to when wooden clubheads were replaced with metal ones starting roughly in the late 1980s and rapidly expanding by the 1990s. Was anything done? Nope.

Chief Executive of the R&A Martin Slumbers (Jane Barlow/PA)

New metals, such as titanium, were brought into the manufacturing process, providing lighter and stronger club faces propelling the golf ball even more distances. Once titanium was brought into play, larger sized clubheads and longer shafts followed suit.

One would have thought if a new type of clubhead is producing a noticeable "spring-like" effect the USGA and R&A would have acted to enforce existing prohibitions already on the books. Both groups opted to punt and compromise on that front.

Frank Thomas, the long-time Technical Director for the USGA said as much in a Golf Digest article about "Regrets" (October 17, 2012). "I wish during my final years at the USGA I had not conceded to a compromise of the "no springlike effect" rule. This decision caused a devastating blow to the long-standing mission of "no more distance" that dates at least to 1900.

"Allowing for some springlike effect - which is what the rule establishing an .830 limit on coefficient of restitution essentially did - upset the apple cart and started a reactionary trend in rules-making that we're still suffering through today.

"There was no good argument for conceding, save for one: the USGA's Executive Committee was not willing to be sued. So, the potential legal consequences influenced the decision rather than what was in the best interest of the game. I became a reluctant instrument in setting a coefficient of restitution standard, which I didn't believe was good for the game. I think about it frequently."

Thomas is no longer with us but his candor still resonates loudly.

Then the most profound introduction came when balata golf balls became dinosaurs. Replaced with three-and-four-piece golf balls. The most notable coming October 11, 2000, with the PGA TOUR stop in Las Vegas. Titleist brought to the market the highly successful Pro V1 and Pro V1X golf balls and the winner that week was Billy Andrade using the new ball.

Balata balls disappeared faster than Howard Hughes. The new golf balls provided added distance without compromising crucial spin control. Was the USGA and R&A paying attention?

The gains in distance were now accelerating and the sport's most noted luminary, Jack Nicklaus, was sounding clear alarms the gains made were undermining the sport.

Frankly, the USGA and R&A slept at the switch. Part of that paralysis came because of a lawsuit brought on an unrelated matter dealing with the measurement of grooves on irons initiated by PING.

If the two rules making organizations were serious about stopping the clear escalation of distances attained, the time to have done that was when the matter at-hand was in the embryonic phase.

Jack Nicklaus (Philip Toscano/PA Wire)

Major League Baseball realized years ago that having aluminum bats for play would mean the necessity of having far larger ball parks. That result would be a clear turning point in how the sport was played. That outlawing took place in 1973 and looking back now that action was both smart and timely.

Prior to this past Tuesday's announcement, the USGA and R&A had long pronounced the importance in having all who play golf operate under one set of rules. Each organization stated publicly no desire to see the game become bifurcated. Such a move would be a clear break from the traditions of the sport.

So, what happened?

The USGA and R&A announced the very thing they both did not want to see happen. The insertion of a ball for just elite competitions will be an interesting one to see unfold. Which competitions for usage will apply?

Both rules making organizations have respective championships that fall under their domain. Leading the way is the U.S. Open and The Open Championship respectively. There are other key events within their administration and likely they too will use an elite golf ball for those events.

What's not known is whether other key events will opt to do so. The first that comes to mind is The Masters. In years past, Chairman Fred Ridley declared a rolled back golf ball just for the event was not something of interest. One can only surmise that since the USGA and R&A have stated this new direction it's likely Augusta National will follow suit.


The other major event is the PGA Championship. The PGA of America is the group that administers that event and it's unknown if the association's brain trust will do similarly. The PGA of America and the PGA TOUR have a far closer relationship now than in years past and each is also quite close to the key equipment manufacturers. A possible split could very well happen.

But what about other events that range the gamut in terms of different levels of competition. The net result will be a general level of inconsistency with some events defined as "elite" and others not so. This silly hodge-podge will only facilitate more confusion requiring golfers to buy different types of balls to cover themselves. Heaven help the local golf associations attempting to sort these matters out and then enforce the appropriate penalties when situations are brought to life. Go even further and ask what individual clubs will do in making such a determination.

What's amusing, and likely to happen, is that the golf ball manufacturers will simply have the broadest numbers of recreational players pay more for the balls they use so that elite golf balls can be created.

To be clear, the USGA and R&A allowed precious time to slip away. Unquestionable check points from the recent past should have been heeded with alarm bells going off loudly. A much keener sense of responsibility was abdicated. Meaningful actions taken collectively could have prevented the seismic shift we are seeing.

As Thomas mentioned, the threat of lawsuits scared both groups and the lines in the sand spoken about forcefully were quickly blown away by timidity and time.

As much as bifurcation was an issue of concern, the USGA and R&A were likely more adamant that having a rolled-back golf ball applying to everyone would have been a far greater and broader public relations disaster.

There's still time between now and 2026 but it's hard to imagine the USGA and R&A opting to scale back what's been proposed. Figuratively, the USGA and R&A jumped out of the airplane and they hope the parachute strapped to their collective backs opens without issues for a soft landing.

"Have a ball" is a long-time phrase meant to convey fun for everyone at the party.

Now we need to ask - for whom and with what ball?

Confused yet?

The party's just getting started.

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About M. James Ward

A GWAA and MGWA member, the 66-year-old from the USA has covered golf in all facets since 1980, notably the major championships and other high level events. He has played over 2,000 courses globally and has competed in USGA Championships.

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