The games elite players have hit the golf ball too far pretty much my entire life. Being born around the turn of the century, almost all of my early memories watching golf, as you might guess, involve Tiger Woods. I was six years old in 2005 when he and John Daly met in a playoff at the then WGC American Express, hosted at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco. The 18th at Harding is an iconic hole, doglegging left along the bank of Lake Merced. 

Tiger Woods and John Daly 2005 driver

As you can see, both of those drives cut off a large part of the corner. For perspective, the carry over the right side of those trees is about 280 yards, getting longer the further left a player hits it. A hole that sits at 468 yards long on the scorecard, was turned into a sand wedge approach; neither player had more than 120 yards left for their second shot. In 2005, this was fascinating, because it was a skill not everyone on Tour was able to have. In fact, you could argue nobody else besides Woods and Daly resided in this category in the year 2005.

In 2023, that could not be further from the case. Last year, the average carry distance on the PGA Tour with driver was 283 yards. This means that roughly 108 guys on Tour would have been able to fly the corner of the dogleg, leaving them a small wedge into the green. That makes it not only less impressive, but also takes away driving distance as an asset, while turning it into a requirement.

Nowadays, courses have to contain Par 4’s measuring upwards of 500 yards in length just for the games best players to hit more than a short iron for their approach shot. Long iron play being an elite skill to possess is not nearly the advantage it used to be, as players will only ever hit them into greens of Par 5’s as a second shot, or Par 3’s longer than 230 yards (the latter of which are not always well-received by Tour pros on a week to week basis). If we, as golf fans, would like to see a course test every part of their games, rollback is the only choice.


What exactly is Rollback?


The definition of rollback, simply, is to make the golf ball fly shorter. The USGA and R&A announced that they are going to change the way golf balls are tested for conformity, and that the modifications would decrease the distance Tour pros hit is by about a club (roughly 10 yards). The details of these new numbers and testing result in about a 5% decrease of total flight.

By the time this goes into effect in the year 2028, golf ball technology will probably increase flight at least another 5% from what it is now. This is based off of the logic that the ball was going approximately 1.2% longer off the driver face from professionals each year dating back to 1970. There was a minor stabilization of these gains throughout the early and mid 2000’s, but has undergone an even steeper incline in the past decade. That means that in the long run, this “rollback” is closer to a simple pausing of the distance gains, rather than actually decreasing them and truly yielding in shorter average distances from Tour players.

Because of these yearly gains, rolling back the golf ball 5% is not enough to decrease distance, and the games governing bodies are essentially just putting a long term pause on distance gains. Based on these calculations of distance gains per year via the average driving distance stat, the golf ball will travel about as far for Tour pros in the year 2028 as it did in the year 2023. If golf’s governing bodies were intent on changing the set of skills tested in their championships and restoring play style to more of a well-rounded test (increased number of mid to long irons, 3 shot par 5’s, importance of driving accuracy), the golf ball would likely need to be rolled back over 10%. At 5%, there will be minor changes, but I don’t think we will see the style of golf that succeeds now go away.


Why is rollback a necessity?


For me, the biggest reason for need of a rollback surrounds the idea of increasing the number of venues the worlds best players can be tested on. A lot of the best courses in the world, specifically America, were built during what is referred to as the “Golden Age” of golf architecture during the 1910’s, 20’s, and 30’s. Some of these courses are able to keep up with the technological distance gains and remain options to host the PGA Tour and major championships year after year; Pebble Beach (1919), Augusta National (1932), Winged Foot West (1923). All Golden Age courses were designed by some of the best golf architects to ever do it, names like Alister MacKenzie, George Thomas, A.W Tillinghast, and a host of others. Many of these courses are unable to host the worlds best players because of how large of a footprint is required to put on a PGA Tour event every week. The professional golfers of todays game hit the ball so far, some of the best parts of golf architecture, like holes that force a certain shot shape one way or another, are no longer satisfactory tests of golf skill.

Top five ranked golfer in the world Rory Mcilroy made this point after the 2023 Travelers Championship on a soft, sub-7,000 yard golf course that yielded so many birdies to these Tour pros it looked like a game of darts. During an interview for, he said “I don’t particularly like when a tournament is like this. Unfortunately, technology has passed this course by, right? It sort of has made it obsolete, especially as soft as it has been with a little bit of rain that we had.” He continued to say “The conversations going back to, you know, limiting the golf ball and stuff like that, when we come to courses like this they just don’t present the challenge that they used to.” There are a handful of golf courses in the PGA Tour schedule this holds true on; places like Colonial, Waialae, and Harbour Town. That being said, these are still some of the better designed, more intriguing courses on the calendar every year both for pros to play in and fans to watch… these classic designs would be even more engaging for both sides if flight of the golf ball was limited.

At this point, almost every course on Tour has some sort of limitation that is taken advantage of by the same asset almost all Tour professionals possess -increased distance. Even Augusta National has inserted new tee boxes year after year in an attempt to preserve the rich history of strategy, decision making, and execution required win the Masters. One year it was the 5th hole, then it was the 15th hole, next it was the 13th hole. (Augusta doesn’t always publicize the changes they make year to year, but as a personal observation, it seems like the chutes of pine trees off the 11th and 18th tees are deeper than they once were.)


New back tee on the 13th of Augusta National in 2023. Photo by BVM Sports


Pivoting back to my point about how rollback, if done properly, could open the door for the games biggest events to be held on the worlds best courses; we may have some hope going forward. In 2021, the USGA announced it would be taking the 2030 edition (as well as 2040 and 2050) of the US Open to one of the most famous Golden Age courses in America; the East Course at Merion Golf Club, which sits just outside Philadelphia. Last time it was held there in 2013, par was defended by a narrowing of fairways, combined with letting the rough get long and nasty after a wet Spring. That week, the winning score was posted at +1, which, as we go into 2024, remains tied for the highest winning US Open score since 2007. If Merion stood the test of time then, imagine what it could play like if the golf ball went slightly shorter to further preserve the integrity of the architecture.

Inserting Merion back into the fabric of the US Open is fantastic, but the USGA shouldn’t stop there. As previously stated, they still take it to places that are capable of hosting the modern flight golf ball: Pebble Beach, Oakmont, and Shinnecock Hills are spectacles each time they host. What a treat it would be for fans, and players, to bring the event to other Golden Age establishments throughout the country.

Yes, this rollback is progress towards restoring the integrity of the professional game. But taking the process a couple steps further, and potentially continue to limit the flight of the golf ball for professionals beyond this initial 5%, would enhance the product both sides of the spectrum. It would be a better test of skill for the professionals… more justly rewarded for adequate execution, and properly penalized for mistakes. There would be an ability of separation for the top players on a given week that does not currently exist in course setups. For fans, this would result in more appreciation for the skill these players attain, because the lack of technology would truly implement a set of variables that was not present before.

Comments & Upvotes