Yesterday’s R&A and USGA roll back the golf ball announcement spells good news for the vast majority of the world’s golfers. The proposal of a Model Local Rule (MLR) that may be introduced in 2026 to allow tournament organisers to limit the distance golf balls travel is a win/win move by the game’s power brokers.
Here are the key words for you and me in yesterday’s joint statement from the governing bodies.
“The MLR is intended for use only in elite competitions and, if adopted, will have no impact on recreational golf.”
The only golfers the proposed new rule will impact are the less than 1% who call themselves tour professionals and elite amateurs. And who cares about them? What really matters is that the game the vast majority of us play will not bear the brunt in the move to limit distance.
That’s just as it should be. I don’t want to hit my clubs shorter than I do now. I’m sure you don’t either. Why should we be punished because there are gorillas impersonating tour professionals who can launch 380-yard bombs, hit 6 irons 220 yards and carry their 9-irons 160. To paraphrase Bobby Jones: they play a game with which we’re not familiar.
The worry over the governing bodies’ approach to an issue that has been rumbling on for over 20 years was always that the average golfer would suffer as a result of any attempt to roll back the golf ball.
Flashback: In April 2004, then R&A chief executive Peter Dawson asked for a show of hands from the assembled media on whether we favoured a tournament ball for tournaments such as the Open Championship.
I don’t have an exact count of the yeas and nays, but the yeas won. The majority in the room for that Open Championship press conference ahead of the event proper at Royal Troon thought the B word was perfectly okay given the prodigious distances the game’s top players were capable of even 19 years ago.
The B word? Bifurcation. It was a hot topic in those days. It still is, and will more than likely become reality just under three years from now.
Twenty two years after Dawson asked that question, the 2026 Open Championship could be played with a “tournament ball.” Martin Slumbers, Dawson’s successor, said as much in yesterday’s press conference. So did USGA boss Mike Whan with regard to the U.S. Open.
Aside from not impinging recreational golfers, there’s an obvious benefit at the top level to the solution the governing bodies are suggesting: we may just see golf courses being played the way course architects meant them to be played.
Don’t know about you, but watching a constant diet of drive and pitch golf is about as exciting as watching grass grow, no matter that TV commentators try to tell us differently.
Just think, the 2026 Masters might feature the game’s top players having to hit 3-woods and 3-irons into Augusta National’s par-5, 15th hole rather than 6 and 7 irons. We may see par-4s playing as proper two-shot holes, with players having to hit long and medium irons instead of bombing a drive and hitting a three-quarter wedge into greens.
Royal Lytham and St Annes probably won’t have to be changed if it is designated the 2026 Open venue. Just as well, the Lancashire course has no more space in which to cater for the bombers if the current trend had continued. It’s stretched to the absolute limit.
The USGA hopefully won’t have to trick up Shinnecock Hills's greens, as it's done in the past, to try to protect par in the 2026 U.S. Open. There’ll be no need for ridiculous 288-yard, par 3s as we saw in the 2007 U.S. Open, when Oakmont’s 8th hole was stretched to that length.
Therein lay the dilemma for the governing bodies if they hadn’t taken the action they took yesterday: classic championship courses becoming obsolete because technology had run rampant. Goodness knows enough courses have already suffered that fate. Perhaps we’ll see a return of classic courses staging big tournaments as a result of the action the law makers have embarked on.
Of course, there will be those happy with the status quo, those who prefer unlimited power to skill and finesse. It’s a challenge the governing bodies are going to have to overcome, because no professional tour, no amateur golf committee, has to endorse the new model local rule. Remember, the USGA and R&A have no statutory powers. They rule by consent.
It's going to be interesting to see how this scenario plays out. But well done the R&A and USGA for coming up with a solution that only impacts the one percent and maintains the status quo for the 99% who really matter.
#JustSaying: “If we don't do something about the ball, it'll go 500 yards.” Gary Player