New balls, please

The R&A and USGA are stepping in to change how far the best players in the world drive the ball, but is it a good idea?

Ever since plans to curb driving distance were announced, golfers at every level have been debating the merits and weaknesses of the proposed Model Local Rule (MLR).

In short, The R&A and USGA want to reduce driving distance to rebalance the matrix of skills required at the top of the game and ensure golf courses remain relevant without the need to become longer, which is increasing the land and resources they use to an unsustainable level.

The MLR proposes giving competition organisers the option to insist on the use of golf balls that are tested under modified launch conditions. In short, those conditions will see balls have to fly the same distance as they do in the current test (317 yards) but they’ll be hit 7mph faster. The governing bodies predict this will reduce distance by 14-15 yards on average for the longest hitters with the highest clubhead speeds.

So, is that a good idea? If you accept that golf courses should not get longer to satisfy the needs of less than 1% of golfers, and that golf is a game of many skills and not just power, then it’s a good start.

Of course, they could do it differently, but we’ve already seen the uproar from manufacturers and the players who are paid millions to promote their products – apart from Rory McIlroy. Imagine if they proposed changes to clubs too?

The cat is already out of the bag. Driving distance exploded in the early 2000s as equipment development outpaced the rules. It has continued to increase, averaging one yard per year over the last 20 years. That is simply unsustainable economically and environmentally.

Sports change their rules to suit changes in equipment and athleticism all the time – the increased weight of javelins and the reduced size of cricket bats to name just two. The key to any change is how it relates to all competitors. So long as a faster swing speed is still rewarded relative to a slower one as it is now, the game will remain balanced.

I hope any changes will ensure a greater balance of skills. Long driving is a great skill, but so is hitting a three iron which can stop on a hard green. At PGA Tour level, all the guys are good with a wedge – from the fairway or the rough. With longer shots into greens come more chances to differentiate themselves. Great long iron shots will be more of an advantage and as players use longer clubs, they’ll miss more greens, meaning more opportunities for the best short games to shine.

Of course, the proposed change isn’t perfect – golf is a complex game decided by imperfection.

Rebalance is needed for the good of the sport and its venues – economically and environmentally – and this proposal is a good first step. I expect the feedback period, which runs until August 2023, will be full of debate.