The R&A and United States Golf Association (USGA) held a press conference Tuesday to announce their proposals to roll back the distances that golf balls can fly at elite tournaments.
In response, several of golf’s elite let fly.
Speaking ahead of the PGA Tour’s Valspar Championship, world No. 15 Sam Burns described the plans as “pretty silly,” with Justin Thomas’ self-described “rant” on the topic lasting over three minutes.
“You’re trying to create a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist … to me, it’s so bad for the game of golf,” Thomas told reporters.
The criticisms from Bryson DeChambeau were even more scathing. Renowned for his driving distances, the 2020 US Open champion described the proposals as “a great handicap” to other big-hitting players.
“If you could say I’m the complete opposite times 1,000, that’s what I would be,” DeChambeau told the LIV Golf website ahead of the Saudi-backed Tour’s event in Tucson, Arizona on Tuesday.
“I think it’s the most atrocious thing that you could possibly do to the game of golf. It’s not about rolling golf balls back – it’s about making golf courses more difficult.
“I think it’s the most unimaginative, uninspiring, game-cutting thing you could do. Everybody wants to see people hit it farther.
“That’s part of the reason why a lot of people like what I do. It’s part of the reason a lot of people don’t like what I do. I’m all about equality. I’m not about equity on this front.”
What are the proposals?
Under the R&A and USGA’s proposed rules, tournament organizers would have the option to make it compulsory for golfers to use balls tested under modified launch conditions to limit the perceived problem of growing hitting lengths.
The gradual rise in hitting distances over the last two decades, and the subsequent lengthening of golf courses, “threatens golf long-term sustainability and undermines the core principles that a broad and balanced set of playing skills should remain the primary determinant of success in golf,” a press release from the two governing bodies read.
The proposals – set to take effect in 2026 if adopted – would reduce striking distances by 14-15 yards on average for the longest hitters with the highest clubhead speeds, the statement added.
“Hitting distances at the elite level of the game have consistently increased over the past 20, 40, and 60 years. It’s been two decades since we last revisited our testing standards for ball distances,” said Mike Whan, CEO of the USGA.
“Predictable, continued increases will become a significant issue for the next generation if not addressed soon. We are taking the next steps in this process, guided first and foremost by doing what’s right by the entire game.”
The new measures – termed the “Model Local Rule” (MLR) – will apply solely to elite competitions, with recreational golf unaffected.
Whan and his R&A CEO counterpart Martin Slumbers said the MLR would be applied to their bodies’ events, including the US Open and Open Championship majors.
“At the core of our proposal is a desire to minimize the impact on a flourishing recreational game,” added Slumbers.
“We believe the proposed Model Local Rule will help us move forward in a way that protects the inherent qualities of the sport and reduces the pressure to lengthen courses.
“This is an important issue for golf and one which needs to be addressed if the sport is to retain its unique challenge and appeal.”
The PGA Tour said Tuesday it would be collaborating with the USGA and R&A, as well as conducting its own independent analysis, “to evaluate and provide feedback” on the proposals.
“The Tour remains committed to ensuring any future solutions identified benefit the game as a whole, without negatively impacting the Tour, its players or our fans’ enjoyment of our sport,” the statement added.
‘I don’t understand how that’s better for the game of golf’
The head of Acushnet, the company who produces Titleist golf balls, criticized the plans for driving a wedge between the professional and recreational game.
“The proposal of golf ball bifurcation is in many respects a solution in search of a problem,” Acushnet President and CEO David Maher said in a statement released by the company Tuesday.
“Playing by a unified set of rules is an essential part of the game’s allure, contributes to its global understanding and appeal, and eliminates the inconsistency and instability that would come from multiple sets of equipment standards.”
Thomas, who is a brand ambassador for Titleist, echoed Maher’s comments.
“For an every-day amateur golfer, it’s very unique that we are able to play the exact same equipment … you can go to the pro shop and buy the same golf ball that I play or Scottie Scheffler plays,” he said.
“But the USGA wants to bring it to a point where that’s not the case. They want it to be, ‘Okay, well, the pros play this way and the amateurs play this way’ … I don’t understand how that’s better for the game of golf.
“If you can swing 127 miles an hour, power to you,” Thomas added later. “I mean, people are running faster, so, what, are they just going to make the length of a mile longer so that the fastest mile time doesn’t change, or are they going to put the NBA hoop at 13 feet because people can jump higher now?
“Like, no. It’s evolution. We’re athletes now. We’re training to hit the ball further and faster and if you can do it, good for you. So yeah, as you can tell, I’m clearly against it.”
Burns agreed with his American compatriot, questioning whether fans would want to watch players hitting shorter distances.
“They enjoy watching guys go out there and hit it 350 yards, I don’t see what the problem is with that,” Burns said.
“I think that’s a skill and I don’t really agree with trying to take that away.”
‘There’s so many winners’
Not all golfers have been critical of the new proposals.
Pádraig Harrington, who set to be inducted into the golf hall of fame in 2024, believes reducing flying distances will lead to an array of benefits.
“There’s so many winners to rolling back the ball,” the 51-year-old Irish golf great told SiriusXM PGA Tour Radio on Tuesday.
“The cost of building a golf course, the cost of maintaining a golf course, the speed of play is going to be incredibly improved by reducing the distance, by reducing the size of the golf course and also reducing the amount of waiting time on par-fives and par-fours.
“Old golf courses come back into play, great golf courses come back into play. Environmentally, reducing the footprint – so many reasons.”
As the 336th ranked golfer in the men’s game, Brandon Matthews’ name may not carry the same prestige as three-time major champion Harrington’s, but the American has been among the biggest hitters on the PGA Tour this season.
The 28-year-old’s 320.4 yard driving length average puts him second only to Rory McIlroy in 2023, while he leads the Tour in club head speed, ball speed, and hang time.
Even so, Matthews believes the proposals to curtail flying distances have been “a long time coming.”
“I think it’s going to create a lot more imagination and a lot more creativity that used to be in the game instead of just hitting it far and straight,” Matthews told Golf Channel on Tuesday.
“I don’t know how far they’re going to go with this, but it’s going to be a really exciting change and I think it’s going to make the game a little bit better,” he added.