The Guardians Got It Right
Rolling back the ball is the sensible solution for the long-term health of the game
By Michael Bamberger
Legal guardian tells the child, “No screens in bed. Minecraft can wait.”
Legal guardian knows best.
The USGA and the R&A are the authorities and the guardians we need in the game, more than we realize. Otherwise, we’d play Minecraft all night. Otherwise, we’d carry 16 clubs.
We used to call these authorities the Blue Coats. Or the Blazers. Fair enough. But they are also the Guardians, and we need them now more than ever.
You could argue that golf would be a better game if a player could carry no more than 10 clubs. But the Guardians would never agree to that because the revolt would topple their place in the game, and they rule at the consent of the governed.
Yes, there’s a power dynamic at play here, as there is in every relationship, same as it ever was. Those who are opposed to this (estimated) 15 percent golf-ball rollback are all motivated by short-term profit, and money makes the world go ’round, right?
Well, in this instance, no.
Golf was not nurtured over the centuries as a business, but as compelling recreation, unlike any other one mankind had ever created.
The Guardians get that and then some. They were founded by that essential truth: golf as recreation.
The modern golf ball, at the highest and most athletic levels of the game–golf on TV, played by men with trainers—goes too far. The proof of this is that the par-5 is dead. As is the driver, 3-iron par-4.
The only aspect of Golden Age golf-course design that has not been overwhelmed is the pitch-shot par-3 to a tight pin. That, and the frightening prospect of losing a ball in a lake or on the wrong side of white stakes.
The fright factor is not because golf balls are expensive. These powerful athletes don’t buy golf balls. Companies pay them to play particular balls, the hotter the better. They’re scared of water hazards and OB stakes because the Rules of Golf impose a penalty if your ball settles at the bottom of a lake or in somebody’s backyard.
And those penalties cost professional golfers money, peer-group status, playing opportunities, and the chance for ball manufacturers to pay them more money to play an ever-hotter ball.
Those penalties, stroke-and-distance and all the rest, are imposed by our golfing guardians, the USGA and the R&A.
The USGA and the R&A are protecting, ultimately, four great events with this (way too) modest rollback, by which (to be crude about it) 285 becomes the new 300. The U.S. Open and the U.S. Amateur; the British Open and the British Amateur.
You can be sure that the Masters and the PGA Championship will follow suit, requiring contestants to use what most likely will be called the Slow Ball or the Tournament Ball, just as golfers playing in the British Open, years ago, played the R&A-approved Small Ball. The small ball held its line better in the wind.
For various and sensible reasons, the R&A and the USGA don’t want 8,000-yard courses to become the norm for the world’s best golfers. (For starters, how much land can one game consume?) The guardians don’t want the Old Course and Pebble Beach to become pitch-and-putt courses for the Lord Brysons, although they already are.
LIV Golf will, one might reasonably guess, never go for the Slow Ball because Golf But Louder stands in opposition to slow anything.
But golf is slow. Slow, contemplative, methodical, strategic. Now it is less strategic than it once was.
What Bryson DeChambeau did at Winged Foot in the Pandemic Open of 2020 was impressive. But his path to his winning 274 was (one could argue) far less interesting than Hale Irwin’s march to his hoist-the-jug 287 at the 1974 U.S. Open at Winged Foot.
Golf is at its best as a finesse game, in combination with power. Golf requires it all.
The great championships draw millions to the game, not just to watch, but to play. The overall health of the game does come from what the high priests do.
What they do now is something 99.9 percent of us cannot relate to, and that is not good for golf’s long-term health.
They play the longest holes on a course with a 3-wood and an iron. The rest of us play the longest holes with a driver, a 3-wood, and an iron. Followed by a pitch, a chip or a bunker shot.
It is an almost impossible task to turn anybody around on anything these days. Interests have become so narrow and I blame the death of newspaper reading for that. The Guardians have an immense task here, to persuade manufacturers, broadcasters, certain pros—a tiny group with outsized influence—that a slower ball for golf-on-TV will be best for golf in the long run.
Yes, in the long run, as John Maynard Keynes noted, we’re all dead. But golf on a shorter course, with a reasonable green fee, where you can readily find your ball is a better game than the one many of us suffer through now.
Golf-on-TV is played on glorified pitch-and-putt courses. The courses we play are far more difficult–for us. The Slow Ball doesn’t create two sets of rules, one for them and one for us. It does the opposite. It narrows the gap. That’s good for golf.
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at [email protected]
Michael Bamberger was briefly a caddie on the PGA and European Tours, invented a golf club (the E-Club) that Lee Trevino used in his final British Open, spent 22 years as a writer at Sports Illustrated and joined the Firepit Collective in May 2022.
email: [email protected]
15 thoughts on “The Guardians Got It Right”
“Play the ball the pros play,” is why the ball manufacturers are up in arms, it kills an ad campaign. I am okay with that.
….if the ball is too hot and they are going to dial the ball back for the top players, why not dial it back for everyone? This way ball manufacturers can continue to claim “amateurs play the ball the pros are playing” and the actual impact of a dialed back ball will have essentially no noticeable impact on amateurs. Either dial it back for all or dial it back for none.
Why don’t we now reduce the size of the driver head? A smaller sweet spot will help identify the best player and just maybe limit some of those swing for the fences pros.
Sir Bob Charles (Open winner in 1963) won the NZ Hickory Golf championship last weekend. Imagine the ingenuity, imagination and skill required! Pitch and puttfests are boring and killing the game. The best golfer is the most creative and imaginative, not the longest hitter. I’d love to see a sanctioned tour event in which they do need to use only 8-10 clubs, or cannot play driver and 3-wood; or balata balls only, or hickory shafts. To bring back the long irons. To test players’ skills and imagination.
As always, Mr. Bamberger, you are the voice of contemplation, of sanity. I so much appreciate your comments, and thank you for posting your works on a site that allows for rational thought.
Thanks for taking a stand. As most of us on this site know, Jack Nicklaus, the true King of Golf (no disrespect meant to Arnie), said decades ago that the ball needed to be adjusted to avoid making courses obsolete. Although I have no respects for Jack’s politics, he is nearly ALWAYS right about golf. Think of the dollars spent by those who lengthened golf courses over the last 40+ years rather than take Jack’s excellent and essentially free solution. As one who has played for over 60 years and can no longer hit it very far, I would be quite delighted to continue playing the same ball as the pros and give up yardage. Maybe if this comes through, we might see more crucial, tournament winning, amazing long iron shots like Hogan’s on the 18th at Merion on Nicklaus hitting the pin on the 17th at Pebble!
While rolling back the distance the ball will go is a step in the right direction, as long as the ball doesn’t spin more it might
actually make scoring easier for some pros. A certain amount of offline is less likely to get in trouble at 285 than 300.
If they could specify a ball that would spin more on mishits that might rein in some of the all-out swings we see now.
As an old guy, I remember the tricks you could do with a balata ball and how far offline a good mishit would go.
What about pro golf and entertainment? Everyone loves the «bomb & gouge»! And what about drivable par-4´s? No more going for it at Riviera´s hole number 10? Or will they play from members tee ? No more Par-5´s in two? Remember it´s not only the drives that will be shorter..
Golf is a contest between the golf course architect, and the golfer. Watching excellent golfers manage the obstacles of a course is interesting. Watching bombers hit the ball over all the obstacles, is akin to watching Alabama beat Vanderbilt 55 to 3 (fun for the alma mater but boring for the uninvested fan). The LPGA, Korn Ferry, and even the PGA non-designated events with fields without the masters of the game, offer a more compelling event. The managers at LIV are not stupid. They know the money is in TV. Imagine if they get over their “Golf, only louder” nonsense, and with their stable of compelling players, and team format, start playing “Golf, as it was meant to be played”.
Michael, you are an amazing writer. You belong in the Hall of Fame. Admire your perspective, even in short sentences. You should talk (or write) about what the opposing camp of golfers (Thomas et al) are really worried about. I heard “growing the game” and that is just BS. Please talk to some Masters of the Golfing Universe and report on your take on this. Thank you.
As usual, I couldn’t disagree more. Altering the golf ball to decrease length doesn’t narrow the gap. It reduces length for everybody, and consequently widens the gap between long hitters and shorter hitters. Long hitters will still hit short irons into greens, whereas shorter hitters will be hitting long irons and hybrids.
Further, denying progress is foolish. Imagine if the same logic was applied to other sports. Lebron James would have to bulk down and be restricted as to how high he could jump, MLB would have to move the fences back ten feet everytime Mike Trout came up, and Patrick Mahomes wouldn’t be allowed to scramble or improvise. Players get better over time. Embrace it instead of lamenting that a few ancient courses built when hickory shafts and feather balls were the norm are now less relevant. Sorry Jack, modern guys hit it farther than you did. It doesn’t make you less relevant, just bitter.
Pro’s will adjust & All Player’s have a choice > Red, White, Blue, Black!!
In the Camp of Owners/Operators/Designers. Think longest of 7500 yds. suits most of
“Long Ball Hitters”. Just Sayin’ … Sports Fans!!
I agree with you, Michael. Unfortunately the Guardians have taken too long to react and there is an entrenched belief with too many people that any “progress” is good. Perhaps the same group who think that throwing exorbitant amounts of money (LIV or PGAT) at the top players is “progress” and a measure of growth for the game. I feel after the last 18 months that golf is becoming another sport that I am losing my taste for at a professional level. Fortunately this will have no effect on my own love and enjoyment of the game whenever I am out on the course alone or with my mates.
I think it is time to keep ball specs as they are now so that courses don’t have to get longer. However, I don’t think it is necessary or practical to roll back. The game, as it is, is fun to watch and play.
If I was a manufacturer of golf balls I would be very annoyed because the distance that drives travel is also a function of the total weight of drivers, the size of driver heads, the spring of driver faces, the length of drivers and the length of the grass on fairways all of which could also be regulated and should have been 30 years ago. Tennis and Baseball have fixed size playing areas so had to deal with this but golf has put it off too long now.
The good news is that I can actually cancel my SKY Sports subscription and stop watching boring modern pro golf and watch old Opens on YouTube and play my little dinky golf course with a bag with 8 clubs in it. I have no personal interest in the future of pro golf anymore.