Golf Ball Rollback – The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

Written by John VanDerLaan 

Golf Ball Rollback

In December 2023, the USGA and R&A (the American and European governing bodies for the game of golf) officially announced their latest attempt at changing the rules of the game based on their Distance Insights project.

This announcement comes in the form of a “decision” instead of a mere “proposal” and in plain English means a universal “rollback” of the golf ball for all players of the game, worldwide.

This has been a massively-discussed topic, both leading up to the announcement of this decision as well as in the days and weeks after the announcements. I am going to break down for you the highlights (and lowlights) of the proposals, their history, and the comments provided by the various governing bodies, tours, and major superstars in a direct and digestible form.

What is the golf ball “rollback” ?

The “rollback” means the best golf balls on the market will no longer fly as far. There are many golf balls on the market that are already “dead balls” but the most popular and highest-rated balls, such as the TP5, ProV1, Chrome Soft, and similar high-end models will all need to be re-engineered to meet new standards for reduced flight.

The way this is being enforced is by changing the testing protocols for golf ball. Currently, the rule is that a golf ball hit by a robot at 120mph swing speed, 2520 rpm, and 10 degree launch angle cannot travel more than 317 yards on average. The new rule is simply an adjustment to these standards: 125mph, 2220 rpm, and 11 degrees of launch can only produce a 317 yard shot.

RELATED: Driver Ball Speed To Distance

That’s it, that’s the entire technical aspect of the “rollback” - which is actually a change in testing standards, that will require the top golf balls on the market to release what are essentially “limited flight” versions of their current products.

When does the rollback take effect?

The USGA and R&A are scheduled to implement the new rules for professionals in January 2028, and in January 2030 for all golfers.

I have information from a very reliable source that the PGA Tour will not adopt adopt the golf ball rollback decision.

What is the Distance Insights project?

Golfer Hitting A Driver

The Distance Insights project is an ongoing joint effort by the USGA and R&A to “protect the game.” They have conducted some long analytical studies on swing speeds, course lengths, and driving distances of elite and amateur players and have concluded that driving distance is an existential threat to the game of golf as we know it.

From there, many actions have been conjured up in order to “combat” this threat and “preserve the future of the game.”

The first was a model local rule limiting the length of the driver to 46 inches for professional competitions, while leaving the general rule for all golfers unchanged at a 48-inch maximum.

This “model local rule” situation is a round-about way of effectively introducing bifurcation, without technically introducing bifurcation.

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What is bifurcation?

“Bifurcation” is the trendy “million dollar word” of the last few years when it comes to this entire debate. It literally just means: a different set of rules for pros and amateurs. The easiest parallel would be MLB players using wooden bats, while NCAA and all other levels use metal.

This has been extremely strongly resisted in the golf space, for various reasons, but mostly to do with the long-standing tradition of all golfers being able to use the same clubs, balls, and play the same courses as the top professionals, if they so choose. It is something that is fairly unique to golf, and allows, in theory, amateur players to give themselves a one-to-one comparison to the top superstars. While the 46” driver rule is already effectively bifurcation, most of the debate about bifurcation has centered around the March 2023 “proposal” of a model local rule that aimed to limit golf balls for pros, but not for amateurs.

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The “rejected” bifurcation proposal

Golf Balls Close Up

In March 2023, the USGA and R&A made a joint announcement - this time in the form of a proposal - to introduce a model local rule basically along the same lines as the currently-scheduled universal rule that rolls back the golf ball.

This proposal wasn’t really subject to any kind of formal review, but there was nearly-universal pushback, perhaps most notably from the PGA Tour itself. PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan is quoted in a memo in response to the proposal saying:

“Although there has been some level of support for limiting future increases, there is widespread and significant belief the proposed Modified Local Rule is not warranted and is not in the best interest of the game.”

For some reason, this near-universal pushback from the professionals resulted in the USGA and R&A “fixing” their proposal by … extending the exact same rule that the professionals did not want … to all golfers … instead … 😬

RELATED: Do Golf Balls Make A Difference? Does It Matter For Your Game?

Is this really a done deal?

If you ask Jon Rahm, “I think no matter our view, it looks like it’s happening. (...) The USGA and the R&A are going to do what they want to do, no matter what.”In response to the December 2023 decision, the PGA Tour largely mimicked its previous statement, while acknowledging that the governing bodies did incorporate some of their feedback … it was far from an endorsement of the rollback. “We believe the proposed increase in test clubhead speed to 125 mph is disproportional to the rate of increase we see when analyzing PGA TOUR radar data.” And “we will continue to share our feedback with the USGA and The R&A.” - Jay Monahan, December 2023

In theory, there is room for the PGA Tour to refuse to adopt this change. While that would be an unprecedented disassociation from the world governing bodies, it seems even more likely that the LIV Golf League could adopt their own policy, as well. Regardless of who “blinks” first, one league’s actions could certainly bolster the other to follow suit.

If this happened, technically only the US Open and the Open Championship would be directly subject to the USGA and R&A ruling, at least as far as major professional tournaments go. It also seems unlikely that they would stand their ground in this scenario and force “special” golf balls to be used by pros in only these two events each year, but everything about a potential refusal would be uncharted waters, so we can only speculate.

On paper, it’s a done deal. In reality, especially in the radical golf landscape that has emerged over the past two years, there are a LOT of wildcards that could be played by the various major parties, and all kinds of fragmented outcomes could play out until some agreement is finally settled upon.

Who are the power players in favor of a rollback, and why?

Tiger Woods

This is far from a comprehensive list, but there is a VERY influential MINORITY of individuals and organizations in favor of a rollback: The USGA, the R&A, Tiger Woods, and Rory McIlroy are the highlights.

Tiger Woods is often cited as one of the most outspoken proponents of a golf ball roll back, and has specifically lobbied for bifurcation in the form of pros playing a different ball than amateurs.

“We just don’t have enough property anymore.” - Tiger Woods

Rory McIlroy also has endorsed the bifurcation proposal:“In reality, the game is already bifurcated. You think we play the same stuff you do?” - Rory McIlroy

Rory contends that basically greedy equipment manufacturers manipulated the rule to apply to (and thereby hurt) all golfers, instead of just pros, in order to protect their bottom line.

In the same breath however, Rory says that the rollback “will make no difference whatsoever to the average golfer.”

Ultimately, Rory’s comments, like his comments on many subjects, feel completely out of touch. His dismissal that “I don’t believe an average golfer giving up 5-10 yards off the tee is going to have a material effect on their actual score, handicap or enjoyment of the game” gives off very much a “let them eat cake” vibe. 

Rory McIlroy is pretty much the longest TOUR pro on the planet, and also arguably the best long-iron player of this generation, so he materially stands to have an even bigger advantage with these rule changes. It seems that he might actually be the selfish one, here … and yet is the one calling others greedy.

For your average golfer, ten yards off of the tee on every single hole is a full extra club for golfers who have that level of swing speed. This means most golfers will have to move up a set of tees in order to enjoy the game in the same way that they did before, and also pace of play will become even more of an issue than it already is for those who wish to play their current tees, which is arguably a much larger “existential threat” to the game for the 99.99% of golfers who are not male tour pros.

For years now, the USGA has been telling amateurs to “play it forward” but in the same breath they are now telling us that the ball is going too far?

The reality is that the ball goes “too far” for an extreme minority of male TOUR pros, only. Also the reality is that there are only a small handful of relevant courses and events - again only for elite male TOUR pros - that are threatened as “unplayable” due to distance gains.

Rory and Tiger point fingers at equipment manufacturers for insisting this rule apply to everyone, and not just elite pros, but the real story is not that they don’t want bifurcation, it’s that they don’t want any change at all for the most part, and are objected to bifurcation AND a universal roll back, and this is completely glossed over by their finger-pointing.

What are the USGA and R&A’s reasons for the rollback?

Aerial view of a Golf Course With No Room To Expand

The governing bodies have concluded, based on their multi-year studies, that the golf ball goes too far and they have created a projection that it will continue to go farther and farther, with no ceiling in sight, so they have to not only draw a line in the sand, but actually go BACK and draw a line in the sand from the past, in order to protect the future, according to them.

The “problem” with the ball going “too far” is basically two-fold:1) Environmental concerns with courses being lengthened and needing more maintenance and watering2) Some courses being rendered “unplayable” for elite touring professionalsThe environmental concerns are a very catchy justification for any cause these days, but most tee box expansions do not include extended fairways - they are just little postage stamps of playing surface tucked away for players who are going to easily carry all the other tee boxes on their way to reaching the pre-existing fairway. 

In addition, we are barely scratching the surface of new ways for engineers and architects to reduce water usage and reclaim water on golf courses, which is a much better area to press for innovation than actually changing the rules of the game.

As far as protecting courses - this may be unpopular but at this point in time it seems to be almost exclusively a European issue. And it is definitely true - there are a lot of “old world” courses in Europe that are no longer able to host elite TOUR events because they have been completely outgrown, and there is no way to expand the properties. However all of these courses are still a complete delight for recreational golfers, and you don’t need thousands or even hundreds of tour-level course setups in each continent, you really just need a handful to a few dozen.

It’s hard letting go - but to use the baseball parallel again … we no longer play at the Polo Grounds, Ebbets Field, or old Yankee Stadium … and the dimensions of many “classic” parks have been modified many times over the years … and everyone is just fine, and the game is still fully stoked with tradition.

Who is against the golf ball rollback, and why?

Keegan Bradley At Press Conference

Mike Whan, USGA CEO, was quoted in their announcement as saying “while thousands will claim that we did too much, there will be just as many who said we didn’t do enough to protect the game long-term.”There doesn’t actually seem to be any evidence for this statement, as it's hard to find the thousands saying they aren’t doing enough, and there certainly seems to be a landslide of commenters saying the change is completely unnecessary or over-done.

In March 2023, Acushnet (Titleist’s parent company) CEO David Maher pointed out that the USGA and R&A’s rollback efforts seem to be “a solution in search of a problem.

Justin Thomas echoed this exact sentiment in 2023, saying "You're trying to create a solution for a problem that doesn't exist. To me, it's just so bad for the game of golf.”

Meanwhile the PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan immediately sent a memo to players on December 6, 2023 stating unequivocally that they “do not support today’s announcement” and reiterated that their data does not agree with the data used by the Distance Insights project of the USGA and R&A.

The PGA of America released an immediate response to the new ruling:“We remain opposed to any change that may potentially lessen the enjoyment of the game for recreational golfers (...) It appears recreational golfers will see a greater reduction in distance than we would advise (...) At this time, we continue to have concerns.”

Bryson Dechambeau, when asked for comment in March, echoed the sentiments of the PGA Tour that the distance “problem” can still be adequately addressed through course setups, “I still think there’s more to go on designing golf courses than designers think right now.”

And Scottie Scheffler added to the rare chorus of unified LIV and PGA Tour voices in saying “Look at The Players; guys can't overpower that one. It's more of a golf course design thing than it is a golf ball deal.”

Rickie Fowler was quoted as saying “Looking at it as far as the game and everyone talks about growing the game, I think it's going to be a huge step back. ”And perhaps most ferociously, Keegan Bradley didn’t pull any punches when he said “For the amateur world to hit the ball shorter is monstrous (...) I can’t think of anything more stupid than that.”

What will be the actual effect on the pro game?

The USGA data has specifically laid out that the longest TOUR pros will lose about 15 yards off of their drives.

This conclusion, however, is based off of data that is heavily debated amongst both the PGA Tour and independent experts. The real kicker, however, is that even if they are exactly correct - it is an extremely short-sighted attempt at regulation that, according to forward-thinking industry leaders, will almost definitely lead to the complete opposite result of what the governing bodies claim to be trying to accomplish.

Dr. Sasho MacKenzie is widely regarded as one of the pre-eminent “swing speed gurus” in the modern game, and has spent his lifetime studying biomechanics and club data to help understand the role of speed and distance in the game at all levels. His full comments can be read in this article from Golf Digest, but we will summarize them here:-Top TOUR players actually have more in the tank, and rolling back the ball will just cause them to swing harder to achieve the same distances, or more

-This will actually exacerbate the problem of making the game dramatically more one-dimensional and only accessible to certain types of players at the highest levels

"That means that the David Toms, the Zach Johnsons, you'll never hear from them again. That's the reality," - Dr. Sasho MacKenzie

Effectively this will phase-out the current “style” of golfer and within a few years or a generation, we will see pro golfers with shorter careers, more injuries, less “legacy”, and less well-rounded games - which is exactly the opposite of what Rory McIlroy and the governing bodies are suggesting.

Is distance really a problem in the pro game?

Rickie Fowler

One of the major contentions of the USGA and R&A is that this change isn’t for “now” but is for the “future” - they have measured distance increases, and are basically assuming that they will continue in a linear fashion into the future. But as we’ve seen with other pseudoscientific conclusions in recent popular culture, this isn’t necessarily an accurate prediction.

While average driving distances are bound to continue to increase, keeping the golf ball where it is at least gives the “little guys” a chance to compete, instead of being wiped out by the rollback as Dr. Mackenzie suggests. The other factor is that there DOES seem to be an “upper limit” to distance- both based on driver technology currently being capped, as well as diminishing returns based on effective course design …Rickie Fowler pointed out as far back as 2020 that “There has to be some sort of peak in there. It seems like it may be around the 190 area. It gets tough to control the ball going straight once you get to the 200-plus area.” (in reference to ball speeds of TOUR players)

His assessment has largely been proven true in the years since, with even Bryson Dechambeau opting to abandon his pursuit of unlimited speed gains and bulk-down his body because he could not find a driver that could perform consistently enough at those speeds. So while college golfers and better athletes will continue to bump up the average distance on TOUR for years to come, there is effectively a cap on distance as things currently stand, and that is due to the cap on the driver technology and effective course setups.

In 2023, the top 10 longest drivers on the PGA TOUR averaged a world rank of over 160th, which puts them, on average, in a battle to keep their TOUR status each year.

Nobody is saying that distance isn’t an advantage, but also the fear-mongering surrounding the supposed “deterioration of the game” might, actually, oddly enough, lead to its deterioration much more rapidly through overreactions and unintended consequences. Once again this mirrors the all-to-common trend of governing bodies of all types actually creating more problems for everyone with their so-called “solutions” that nobody asked for.

RELATED: Correct Tee Height For Driver: Distance and Accuracy

Are golf courses really becoming unplayable for the pros?

12th Hole At Augusta National Golf Course

The last major aspect of the effect on the pros is the topic of courses being overpowered, and traditional, historic courses becoming obsolete. This is an interesting topic because there is a very short list of courses on the entire planet that are actually used for elite men’s competitions, and an even shorter list of courses that could potentially be affected by this.

Ultimately, we are really talking about three courses and three courses only that this “debate” really matters for: Pebble Beach, Augusta National, and St. Andrew’s Golf Links. Once again, an extremely tiny fraction of extremely influential places. But let’s take a closer look and see if there’s really an issue here for the pros? Pebble Beach has already fallen out of favor with TOUR pros, as almost none of the elite players put it on their schedule anymore, and it serves as a bucket-list destination for recreational golfers and a corporate fundraiser for the TOUR to host a Pro-Am. And this will not change in the slightest even with a golf ball rollback. It is one of the best photo-ops in golf, but it is no longer one of the top TOUR stops. It will never again be the host venue that it was in the 1960s, and that’s okay. Unfortunately, the USGA has already committed to Pebble Beach as a regular US Open host venue through 2044, and these short-sighted commitments might be putting unnecessary pressure on their regulators.

Augusta National has proven that they have nearly unlimited resources and strategic consultants to tailor their course to be the perfect host for even the longest players, and could and should serve as an example or model for how to adjust your setup for prospective TOUR stops. Also, environmental concerns cannot possibly rank very high for a venue that lays dormant for half the year. Again this seems like a moot point - Augusta isn’t really threatened, and while other courses might not look as pretty in doing so, they serve as an example of how thoughtful expansions can be invested in for once-a-year tournaments.The one potential kicker is the Old Course at St. Andrews. It is obviously still very playable even for a major championship venue, but it doesn’t exactly have much room to expand. This is a layout that should be protected, and everyone wants to see it host major championships for generations to come. There have to be ways to preserve this gem, and find a way for it to host a championship once a decade or so, without changing the entire game for every player at every course in the world.

Honestly, though, as sentimental as one locale or another might be to a given venue - literally none of the other courses in North America or Europe are “important” enough to change the rules of the game over. European traditionalists may cringe at that notion, and The Open Championship rota courses are no doubt special, but there are also a lot of other very special courses in Europe.

Make adjustments, and if you can’t, then let another course host a professional tournament or major championship, and build their own tradition. There are truly amazing layouts being created every year in the golf course architecture world, and this is just part of the evolution of sport, and there are still plenty of pathways for mixing innovation with tradition at all levels without changing the rules of the game.

What will the rollback do to amateur golf?

The main talking point of the USGA, R&A, and some TOUR pros such as Rory McIlroy is that the rollback will have “no effect” on the “average golfer. ”First of all, the “average golfer” is not a very useful data point. This includes senior citizens, junior golfers, etc. etc. and belies the fact that the “average golfer” very much would be impacted by a 5 to 10 yard decrease in driving distance, which is roughly what the USGA and R&A studies claim the effect will be.It’s kind of absurd to argue that 5 or 10 yards of driving distance won’t affect a recreational player’s score - we have plenty of data to prove that those things really do add up, and it’s one of the most impactful aspects of scoring. It’s more that they are saying that the “average golfer” doesn’t or shouldn’t care about their score, because they aren’t getting paid to play.

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Basically the governing bodies - who make rules for the entire world of golf, which is 99.9%+ amateurs - are saying that the scores and enjoyment of the casual golfer are not as important as protecting their contractual commitments to a very small handful of US Open and Open Championship venues over the coming decades.

Then, naturally, they point the finger and accuse a small but vocal minority of greedy tour pros and equipment companies are just trying to protect their income streams.

It’s a dubious claim, at best, and the numbers presented by the USGA and R&A are heavily skewed to try to “pitch” the claim that a limited-flight ball won’t be noticed by the golfing public.


The biggest conclusion about this debate is that - despite the “decision” by the USGA and R&A - the unspoken threat is that the PGA Tour could refuse to adhere to the ruling. This would be completely unprecedented, but we should be used to that at this point when it comes to PGA Tour decision-making.

Unlike other TOUR decisions lately, however, it seems that the consensus is that this would be an exceedingly popular direction for the TOUR to take.

The situation is perhaps most simply summed up by social media commenter Lou Stagner:


"What do you think about a rollback?"


"Nope - we don't want that."


"OK. We will just roll it back for elite play."


"Nope - we don't want that."


"OK. We'll roll it back for everyone."


RELATED: Why Is Golf So Hard

It really is kind of a head-scratcher, and the observations about “a solution looking for a problem” seem particularly astute. There are myriad solid arguments and cases to be made for a different approach, including a simple “freeze” of golf ball technology akin to what we already have for driver technology. There also doesn’t seem to be a case that the maximum driving distances will continue infinitely into the future, that players very much do hit a wall around 190 MPH ball speed when it comes to playing PGA TOUR setups

Those setups can also continue to be adjusted - either through modifications or by introducing new courses to PGA Tour, DP World Tour, and major championship rotations, using places like TPC Sawgrass as an example of how you can host the top players in the world while giving equal opportunity to every style of play. But a LOT of contracts are already signed by the USGA and the R&A for the coming decades, so there isn’t as much wiggle room here as the fans and golfers would like to see.

And given that lack of wiggle room, it seems like the squeeze will mostly fall on the “everyman” golfer - who wants to watch their favorite golfers rip drives on a Sunday afternoon after finishing their round at their local course in less than 4.5 hours, without having to move up a tee because of a new rule that only allows golf balls to fly as far as they did 20 years ago.

Overall, the short list of proposed “positives” seem to be overblown or speculative, and there are some obvious and immediate consequences that almost nobody is in favor of. At the end of the day, however, the worst of all might be the unintended or unforeseen consequences.

The golf ball rollback will likely push golfers to get bulkier, be more one-dimensional, and force a different “type” of golfer to the forefront - one who gets injured more, plays less often, and is forced to maximize swing speed off of the tee in order to be able to win at the elite tournament level, while the “finesse” golfer could officially become a thing of yesteryear, which would be the biggest shame of all and the exact opposite of what is supposedly intended.

Golfers hitting more long irons, hybrids, and fairway woods into greens (and naturally missing more greens) will also result in longer rounds for golfers at all levels, which is arguably a bigger threat to the game than a tiny few number of courses being threatened by a tiny sliver of elite male touring professionals.

All in all, it seems a shame - since the last thing the golf world needs right now is yet another fracture between “power players” - but as fans and competitors at every level, the best hope is for the PGA TOUR to decline the adoption of a rollback, and see where the dominoes fall from there.

There’s almost no way for that to happen without making a little bit of a mess of the game at the highest levels, but at this point we are unfortunately already living with that reality, and sometimes things need to get worse before they can get better, and a major tour diverging from the governing bodies’ ruling seems like the only way to avoid implementation at this point.

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John VanDerLaan

John is the Lead Editor and founder at Golf Gear Advisor. He is a golf coach and mentor to his 2 sons that are current playing professionals. His son John is currently playing on the Korn Ferry Tour and his son Michael is currently playing on mini tours and preparing for Q School. John Sr. has been their coach and mentor since they were 2 years old. He helped them to succeed in golf with the right equipment, instruction and mindset. John knows a thing or two about playing good golf and he has a passion for sharing his knowledge with others.

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