Bryson DeChambeau, Justin Thomas Rail Against Ball Roll Back

The USGA and R&A announced their proposed plans for a golf ball rollback on Tuesday. It didn’t take long for some of the world’s top golfers to weigh in with their opinions on the proposal.

Meeting with the press ahead of this week’s Valspar Championship, world no. 10 Justin Thomas was extremely critical of the announcement, accusing golf’s governing bodies of “trying to create a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist.” He argued that distance gains are simply the result of golfers’ training regimen and evolution.

“I mean, people are running faster,” said Thomas, “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. Like, we’re training to hit the ball further and faster and if you can do it, so good for you. So yeah, as you can tell, I’m clearly against it.”

The proposal would implement a Model Local Rule (MLR) that would allow tournament directors to require the use of golf balls “tested under modified launch conditions to address hitting distance.” The new ball would be expected to reduce driving distance by 13-15 yards. It would only be intended for use in “elite competitions,” and would be available starting in 2026. 

“Hitting distances at the elite level of the game have consistently increased over the past 20, 40 and 60 years,” said USGA CEO Mike Whan in a statement. “It’s been two decades since we last revisited our testing standards for ball distances. Predictable, continued increases will become a significant issue for the next generation if not addressed soon. The [rule] we are proposing is simple to implement, forward-looking and does so without any impact on the recreational game.”

There will be a commentary period to allow golf stakeholders to provide their input on the proposal. Manufacturers, Tours, and others in the game can provide feedback through August 14, 2023.

While players participating on the PGA Tour haven’t seen eye-to-eye with their counterparts in the LIV Golf series, it seems that this proposal has seen them agree on something. Bryson DeChambeau also came out vociferously against the proposed changes.

“I think it’s the most unimaginative, uninspiring, game-cutting thing you could do,” DeChambeau said. “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.”

DeChambeau very publicly chased extra swing speed back in 2020 to try and increase his driving distance. The SMU grad bulked up and wound up leading the Tour in driving distance the next two seasons. He averaged more than 322 yards each season, including a Tour record 323.7-yard average in 2021. DeChambeau also led all players in driving distance on LIV last season with a career-best 327.1-yard average.

DeChambeau’s distance gains helped him to three wins in the 2020 and 2021 seasons, including a major championship when he overpowered Winged Foot en route to the 2020 U.S. Open title.

“I think it’s the most atrocious thing that you could possibly do to the game of golf,” he said. “It’s not about rolling golf balls back; it’s about making golf courses more difficult.”

Not everyone came out in opposition of the proposed MLR. Brandon Matthews is one of the longest hitters on Tour, currently sitting second in driving distance behind Rory McIlroy. He thinks the proposed change could change the game for the better.

“I think it’s gonna create a lot more imagination, a lot more creativity that used to be in the game instead of just, kind of, hit it far and straight.”

Golf Hall of Fame inductee Lanny Wadkins joined Golf Channel’s Damon Hack and Eamon Lynch to discuss why he felt the proposal was a good thing for golf as a whole. 

“As Jack Nicklaus has said repeatedly, I think the golf ball’s the place you’ve gotta start,” said the 21-time PGA Tour winner. “That’s why I think bifurcation works. They can do several things that would roll the distance back on Tour, and essentially keep some of the great golf courses we have in this country…in play.”

Whan joined the No Laying Up podcast shortly after the announcement to discuss the changes and why golf’s governing bodies chose to focus on the ball. Whan said that they had looked at modifying driver regulations, but felt that the waterfall effect those regulations would have on the other clubs throughout the bag would make for a much too drastic change.

He also said he understands why top players would be hesitant to accept the changes.

“At the end of the day, when you’re talking about change,” said Whan, “If you stand up in a room with Tour players and say, ‘Hey, good news. Two years from now you’re all going to have to start working into a new ball. And, by the way, that ball will be, you know, 13 yards, 14 yards shorter.’ That probably isn’t the greatest player meeting you’ve ever had. I get that.”

Whan’s seen a mixed bag of feedback in the messages he received after Tuesday’s announcement. He mentioned going through his e-mails after the announcement and seeing arguments from both sides.

“I’ll bet you I’m pretty close to 50/50 of ‘Thank you, and don’t you stop’. And 50% of ‘I can’t believe you’re this much of an idiot’,” said Whan. “There’s nobody in the middle going, ‘I’m still thinking about this.’”

The proposed MLR will not be required to be in effect at professional events, but Whan and R&A President Martin Slumbers both said that, if passed, the MLR would be adopted at their organizations’ marquee events – the U.S. Open and The Open Championship.

The PGA Tour has not announced whether or not it would adopt the changes in Tour events if the proposal goes through. The Tour and Titelist parent company Acushnet both issued statements after the USGA and R&A announcement.

The PGA Tour’s response states: “We continue to work closely with the USGA and The R&A on a range of initiatives, including the topic of distance. Regarding the Notice to Manufacturers announced today, we will continue our own extensive independent analysis of the topic and will collaborate with the USGA and The R&A, along with our membership and industry partners, to evaluate and provide feedback on this proposal. 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.”

Time will tell if the proposed changes will be implemented at the game’s highest levels. Early returns from golf’s biggest stars aren’t positive, but any implementation of the proposed changes is still more than two years away. If anything has been made clear in golf over the past 18 months, it’s that opinions can change, and quickly.