Amateur, professional players on the First Coast strongly disagree with the decisions, which will take effect in 2028
ST. AUGUSTINE — The field for the 18th St. Augustine Amateur was as diverse as an amateur tournament can get: it had teenagers and men old enough to be their fathers, active college stars and former professionals who had regained their amateur status.
Also present were coaches, the PGA professionals at the St. Johns Golf Club who were helping run the tournament (one of whom will begin playing on PGA Tour Americas in 2024) and one golf course architect.
With that variety of golf demographics, they were nearly in unison about one thing: they are dead-set against the announcement last week that the United States Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, the bodies that govern the rules of golf and equipment specifications, will roll back the distance the golf ball travels.
“I haven’t heard anyone except the people making the decision [the USGA and R&A] say that the ball needs to be rolled back,” said former University of North Florida coach John Brooks, who now owns a consulting firm, Red Numbers Golf.
“It’s a dumb thing they’re doing,” said St. Johns Golf Club assistant pro Sam Anderson, who will begin playing on the PGA Tour Americas next month. “People panic when they see golf scores getting lower and lower and they say courses are not holding up to the test. They all jump to the golf ball being the reason.”
“It’s going to take the fun out for guys who can’t hit it 200 yards already,” said Jim Kavanagh, a Jacksonville Area Golf Association director who works numerous local tournaments as a rules official. “You make guys hit more long irons, they’re going to say ‘I’m going fishing.'”
Proposed ball standards go into effect in 2028
Beginning on Jan. 1, 2028, golf balls will have to fly shorter to curb the distances the elite players are reaching. The PGA Tour average, for example, is 299.9 yards in driving distance, with 98 players averaging 300 yards or more.
For a golf ball to be deemed conforming, it cannot exceed 317 yards of carry and roll when tested with a robot that swings a titanium club at 125 mph and hits the ball on an 11-degree launch angle with 2,200 rpm of spin.
The USGA has estimated elite PGA Tour players with ball speeds of 183 mph or more (10 players met that standard on the Tour last season) will lose between 9-11 yards per drive. The average Tour player and elite college and amateur players might lose 9-11 yards.
Rory McIlroy, who led the PGA Tour in driving distance last season at 326.3 yards and was sixth in ball speed at 184.48 mpg, will still be an elite player if he averages 313 yards per drive, and he’s already proven that.
Just turn the clock back to the 2012 season. McIlroy won two majors and a World Golf Championship averaging 310.1 yards off the tee (fifth on the Tour that season) and 178.07 in ball speed.
In other words, the slower the swing speed, the less distance will be lost. But the USGA still estimates the handicap player will lose 5 yards per drive.
That’s 5 yards players at that level don’t want to give up when they’re already trying to get more distance.
“When it comes to most of my customers, I’m in total disagreement with a ball rollback,” said Wes Tucker, director of golf at St. Johns and the Northern Chapter PGA President. “I don’t want to see us go backward because of a rule change only one segment wants, and that’s the governing bodies.”
There continues to be talk of “bifurcation” — a restricted-flight ball for the highest levels of professional and amateur golf and another ball for the handicap player. But Brooks said one of the charms of golf is that the average player can use the same equipment as Tiger Woods.
“One of the greatest things about our game is that everyone plays by the same rules and with the same equipment,” he said. “What I think should happen is the USGA draw a line in the sand and hold the golf ball at its current level.”
Ball announcement comes during a golf boom
The announcement by the USGA and R&A is, in a sense, bad timing.
The governing bodies released their “Distance Insights Report” on Feb. 4, 2020, stating that distance was playing “an outsized role” in golf. Players and equipment manufacturers braced for a ball restriction announcement.
But the COVID-19 pandemic put further studies on hold. An unforeseen development then took place: golf, since it was played outside, was one of the few activities that not only continued through pandemic-era shutdowns but thrived. Golfers who had left the game came back, beginners were flocking to the sport and casual golfers began playing more.
The National Golf Foundation estimated that rounds went up 13 percent from 2019 to 2020-2021. Around three million new players came to the game. Tee sheets are full nationwide and with more players came a boost in golf equipment, apparel and travel. According to Forbes, golf had an economic impact of $102 billion in 2022, up 20 percent in a six-year period.
Current estimates are that 25.6 million people play golf in the U.S., an increase of 1.3 million from 2019 and 3.2 million more than in 2012.
Many view the announcement on the ball rollback as dousing cold water on a sport on fire.
“We don’t need to make golf harder on people when we’re encouraging them to play more,” Tucker said. “Golf is on the upswing and now we’re going to discourage people?”
“People want to hit it as far as they can,” he said. “Rolling the ball back is going to affect them more than [the USGA and R&A] think it will. They keep saying they want to grow the game but this has the potential to hurt it more than help it. People who hit it shorter aren’t going to have more fun hitting longer clubs into par-4s.”
How many golfers will actually use the new ball?
There’s also another issue: how many recreational golfers will abide by the ruling on Jan. 1, 2028? They’ve got four years to stock up on golf balls and besides, estimates are that only 11 percent of the 26.5 million golfers in the U.S. keep a handicap, which means playing by the rules and using conforming equipment.
“When you get down to it, most people will play the balls they want to use and I think some manufacturers will sell non-complying balls for those golfers,” said Jim Laudenslager, owner of Lauden Golf. “Four buddies, playing on a Saturday afternoon are probably giving each other mulligans, gimmee putts and rolling the ball in the fairway. The new balls won’t matter to them.”
But those who want to play by the rules and keep an honest handicap will use the new balls, even if they have to grit their teeth.
“I play by the rules and the guys I play with do the same,” Kavanagh said. “We will continue to do that when the new ball comes into play.”
First Coast architect has both views on the issue
Erik Larsen, who oversaw an $8 million renovation of St. Johns and also redesigned the Atlantic Beach Country Club, said he sees both sides of the issue.
“As an architect, yes, I’m in favor of a rollback,” Larsen said. “It means less land will be needed to build a golf course and it keeps the older, historic courses relevant. As a player, no … I want to hit it as far as I can but I’m just a hack amateur.”
Larsen estimated that current ball distance levels require building golf courses about 10-to-15 percent larger, which can translate into as much as 20 acres. Obviously, that increases the more the best golfers get longer.
“We’d rather use less land,” he said. “But if developers have to buy extra land to accommodate a larger golf course because a very small percentage of players are hitting it 300 yards or longer, they might re-think it. I know it’s a small number of players but you still have to account for them.”
Gabrelcik, who played in the Walker Cup in September at the birthplace of golf, St. Andrews in Scotland, understands the point about being able to play U.S. Opens, U.S. Amateurs and other events at old-school courses such as Winged Foot, Merion, Shinnecock and Pebble Beach.
“I get the whole point about preserving older golf courses like St. Andrews,” he said. “You want to keep them challenging.”
Larsen formerly worked for Arnold Palmer, who was a staunch supporter of curbing the ball, along with Woods and Jack Nicklaus, was another in favor of freezing the distance balls travel at current levels.
“If it stopped advancing, fine,” he said. “But pulling it back … no one is going to like it.”
Will rolling the ball back create other issues?
If handicap players are shorter off the tee, they will have longer distances to reach greens of par-4 holes — and usually, there are 10 of 18 golf holes on a course that are par-4s, and as many as 12.
“A ball rollback could change everything,” Tucker said. “Players will need longer clubs to the green and they may have to replace their whole set of irons. I think the trickle-down will be astonishing.”
“It’s going to make golf different,” said Andrew Riley, a UNF junior who won the NCAA Division II national championship in May. “The balls are going to spin differently, they’re going to act differently in the wind … I think everyone is going to have to re-set their games a little bit.”
Kavanagh said the decision might force him to change his entire bag but golfers, as usual, will adjust to the new conditions.
“I’ll have to hit 6-irons where before I hit a 7-iron,” he said. “I’d have to learn how to putt the new ball. I think it could take a couple of years but everything would get back to normal.”
Are golfers longer because they’re better athletes?
Anderson also said the golf ball is one of only a handful of reasons players are longer off the tee. He said it boils down to one key fact: Woods and other players after him were more athletic. Players work out more, are eating better and are not prone to habits such as smoking and drinking.
As such, they are stronger and have faster reflexes, and are increasing their swing and ball speeds. The result: longer distances.
“We’ve put such an emphasis on fitness,” he said. “Golf is a sport and we’re trying to be better athletes. That means we’re hitting it longer. Look at other sports. Football players are getting faster, bigger and stronger. Baseball pitchers are throwing it harder. Basketball players are dunking all over the place and Steph Curry makes 3-pointers from midcourt and makes it look easy.
“Golf is changing for the better,” he continued. “Why not embrace it? The USGA should sit back, hit pause and not panic.”
Agronomy is another issue. Players such as Tom Watson have said “It’s Toro, not Titleist,” referring to manicured fairways with generous roll.
Jason Duff, the 2022 Jacksonville Amateur champion and a junior at UNF, said he sees both sides of the issue and understands how leery golf’s governing bodies are about driving distance and scoring.
“We’re working very hard, physically, to get our distance,” he said. “And Tiger was right about golf-course properties. The way the game is trending, the best players are getting longer and longer. I’m not a huge fan of the USGA’s decision because it doesn’t affect everybody the same way. They don’t want 25-under winning golf tournaments but they’re also taking the fun away from the average golfer.”
Kavanagh has a simple message for golf’s governing bodies.
“If they want to keep the pros and elite players from hitting it longer, then give them a different ball. Leave the rest of us alone.”