USGA chief touts benefits of a rolled-back ball

March 8, 2017

In the long run, golf may embrace a shorter-flying ball.

That was the word this week from USGA executive director Mike Davis, who floated the idea of “variable distance” golf balls as a possible solution to several pressing issues in the game.

In an address at the 2017 North American Golf Innovation Symposium in Vancouver, Davis said variable distance balls could help protect the integrity of classic courses while reducing maintenance costs and increasing enjoyment of the game for players of all levels.

“If you think about it, we already bifurcate distance,” Davis said. “We bifurcate distance because we play from different teeing grounds. But what happens if all of a sudden I want to play with Dustin Johnson and say Dustin, here’s an 80 percent golf ball, I’m going to use a 100 percent golf ball and we’re going to play the same tees. It sounds radical, but it might not (be).”

It’s often said that everybody digs the long ball.

But not everyone believes it has been unwaveringly good for golf.

In his remarks, Davis echoed concerns long voiced by such prominent figures as Jack Nicklaus, who has openly lamented the strains placed on the game by the modern ball. Far-flying balls have led to longer courses, which have larger environmental footprints, are more expensive to maintain, and are harder and more time-consuming for most golfers to play.

Nicklaus has said that the answer is to design balls to suit courses, rather than the other way around.

The idea seems to appeal to Davis.

“Think about any other sport,” Davis said. “Have other sports allowed their equipment to dictate their playing field the way golf has? I don’t think that you can find another sport to dictate how playing fields get changed.”

Davis’ comments come as the USGA prepares to stage the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills in Wisconsin, a course that maxes out at more than 8,000 yards. While stretching layouts to such lengths may be a necessary defense against today’s best players, it also underscores the challenges brought on by technology that has made some classic courses all but obsolete for tournament play.

Davis alluded to Myopia Hunt Club in Massachusetts, a four-time host of the U.S. Open that hasn’t staged the national championship since 1908, in part because it measures less than 6,600 yards. Davis asked his audience to imagine a future in which variable distance balls would allow a track like Myopia to contain a bomber like DJ.

“Throw Dustin an 80 percent golf ball and say, ‘Let’s go play the back tees,’ and guess what, it would be a great experience for him,” Davis said. He’d be able to play this wonderful, historic golf course that, by and large, he can’t play anymore.”