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Tee to Green, Steve Scott: Six thoughts on the R&A and USGA’s finally reining in the golf ball

Shotmakers like Jordan Spieth should still thrive with the MLR ball.
Shotmakers like Jordan Spieth should still thrive with the MLR ball.

So it’s as we thought, all this time. A tournament ball, by way of a local rule. Bifurcation between the elite game and the recreational game.

It took 20-odd years to finally arrive at something many realised at the start of this protracted process. But it’s never too late to make the right decision.

As regular readers will know, I’ve long believed the ball should be reined in.

I’d probably be happier if it was everyone. But that might happen anyway.

It did when we switched from the small ball to the bigger ‘American’ ball over a period of years from 1974. It simply trickled down from the elite game to the rest of us. I suspect the Model Local Rule ball will too.

And from 2026, you know it’s going to be in play at The Open, the Masters and the US Open, at the very least. The premier events in the game will be playing the MLR ball.

I’ve always felt once that was established, the rest of the game would eventually fall into line.

In any case, here’s some musings about some of the arguments and counter-arguments…

All the alternatives come back to the same issue

It’s not the ball, or the equipment, that are the problem, we’re told. It’s simply more athletic players, better manicured courses, and perfect weather environments.

Absolutely, these are all significant influences on the length the ball goes. But they don’t detract from the fact that the ball’s going too far.

You obviously can’t stop people going to the gym. The simplest way to take action is altering the ball. Jack Nicklaus, who knows a bit about golf you’d think, has advocated this for 30 years. Finally, the R&A and USGA agree.

We could always grow more rough and put in more trees of course, as suggested by some simple souls. The first and 18th fairways at St Andrews are going to look terrific.

A more challenging game will be entertaining

I saw one pro-length advocate on Twitter suggesting that this was a choice between ‘entertainment’ and ‘testing the player’.

The two are definitely not mutually exclusive. Do crowds at events tend to crowd the tee or the green? Is the long ball so much the premier attraction of golf that people are going to abandon the game in droves if it’s restricted?

Of course not. The extent of long hitting now makes the game more boring, much less skilful and far less strategically interesting.

If that’s ‘living in the past’, then so be it. But modern players have all the skills too, and you know the shotmakers will be the one who rise to the challenge. Which is as it should be.

The ‘Brands’

I entirely get that the golf equipment industry is an outlier in terms of sports, in influence and in economic terms.

But still, why has one specific stakeholder out of so many in the sport gained so much self-importance? You don’t get adidas or Puma dictating strategy to football or athletics. Wilson or Yonex doesn’t have nearly the clout in tennis that they’ve apparently accrued in golf.

Even in golf, you don’t get course builders or designers or resorts – significant stakeholder industries all – demanding we play the way that maximises their profits.

We’ve allowed the manufacturers to influence how we play the game almost with impunity. While at the same time assuming a threat from them that prevents any corrective action.

Finally the governing bodies have stood up to them. It took five years of consultation which resulted in some manufacturers, like Acushnet (makers of Titleist balls) budging not an inch.

I get that the R&A and USGA had to do that, but they’d as well not have bothered. Just push on and hell mend them.

Titleist has 19 different types of ball available on their website already, A 20th is certainly not beyond them.

The Environment

Okay, I can feel the rolling eyes and mutterings of ‘tree-hugger’ already. Perhaps you’re even one of those with your head stuck so far in the dredged sand of a bunker that you think it’s all a lefty hoax.

But seriously, golfers should be avid environmentalists. No landward sport – other than possibly orienteering – is as close and intertwined to nature as ours is.

How did we let it become so unnatural, manufactured, manicured? To the degree that Augusta pipes in birdsong and makes surfaces look like they’re actually indoors?

Bigger hitting means longer courses and a far greater strain on land use, both accumulating and maintaining it.

Golf already is far too intrusive on the space it uses, and the economic return doesn’t really justify it.

The sport’s own agronomists and forward-thinking greens staff have made great strides with modern techniques. But whether the sport likes it or not, environmental concerns are going to press on golf far more in the near future.

The game has to reduce its footprint.

Speed of play

To be entirely honest, I’m still not sure what might get today’s leading pros – including the current World No 1 – to get their backsides in gear and play at a reasonable speed.

But the MLR ball can’t do anything but help. Less waiting for greens to clear at par fives and par fours that are no longer driveable, less faffing about looking for balls sent into the stratosphere.

The bottom line for me is…

Do I care what Justin Thomas – with his Titleist hat prominent in a spectacular show of lack of self-awareness – or Bryson DeChambeau, or Webb Simpson think about this?

Or do I want the Old Course, Royal Lytham and other precious treasures of the game properly protected as venues for the best competitive action for however long we keep playing this game?

It’s not even a contest.