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Video And Poll: The Variable Distance Ball

In the coming months I'm going to start rolling out "Eye On Design" videos focusing on various design elements in golf that either interest me or need to be reconsidered. While it's not sexy to kick off with the "variable distance" ball topic, we might as well try to wrap our heads around what I anticipate will be a lively debate centered around golf course design.

To set this complicated topic up, here are my thoughts presented in digital video form. I flesh a few more thoughts out to (hopefully) better inform your votes...


For us technophobic, distance RIPer's, things have come a long way over the last decade. Just look at your reaction to the WGC Dell Match Play last week where we saw epic driving distances on fairways playing at a nice, normal firmness.

A consensus of serious golfers see that distance increases for elite players have altered the brilliance and safety of our best-designed courses. This combination of improved technology, blatant outsmarting by manufacturers and a host of other elements like Trackman and instruction, have forced the governing bodies to defend expensive and offensive alterations to works of art.

No other sport pats itself on the back more than golf for upholding its traditions and integrity. Yet no the other sport has sold its soul to protect a relationship between participation and the equipment professionals play. A relationship, which I might add, will continue even after a bifurcation of the rules.

Fast forward 22 years and the amazing synergy of athleticism, fitting, instruction and technology has produced super-human driving distances for decent golfers on up to the best. No other sport on the planet has tolerated such a dramatic change in short time, so should we see 10% taken off the modern driving distance average of an elite golfer--at certain courses and events--the sky will not fall. The players who use such a ball would restore the strategy and intrigue of most golf courses built before 1995. (That was the year, not coincidentally, when things started to change.)

Several solutions that do not fundamentally alter the sport have been offered endlessly. They've also been resisted even as the game has not grown during a technology boom that has seen golfers offered the best made and engineered equipment in the game's history. Solutions such as reducing the size of the driver head for professionals and tournament-specific golf balls have not been welcomed or even tried.

The growing sense that a first step solution is on the way arrived when the USGA’s Mike Davis suggested at the recent Innovation Symposium that a “variable distance” ball could be an alternative for select courses and select social situations.

From Mike Stachura’s Golf World report, quoting Davis:

“We don’t foresee any need to do a mandatory rollback of distance. We just don’t see it. But that’s different than saying if somebody comes to us and says I want an experience that doesn’t take as long or use as much land, can we allow for equipment to do that?”

As we know, the proposed rules of golf re-write emphasizes speeding up the game and everyone knows adding new back tees has never helped on this front. For the first time, elite golfers are suggesting they see the correlation between distance and new tees, but are also tired of walking back to such tees on golf courses where the flow of the round is fundamentally altered. 

Beyond the pace and silliness of it all, all indications suggest the USGA and R&A have also developed ways for the handicap system to address a variable distance ball that could be used in select circumstances.

Perhaps it's a club championship and is employed in lieu of extra rough or greens Stimping 13 feet. Or it's an invitational tournament played from tees other than the back. Or maybe there are golf courses experiencing pace of safety issues that will require golfers use such a ball?

On the social side, I expect the case to be made for golfers of different levels playing the same tees thanks to the variable distance ball,  Since Davis’s remarks, I have been surprised how many golfers have told me this would make their Saturday foursomes a more cohesive affair, with everyone playing the same tees and the short hitters not frightened by getting fewer shots from a scratch golfer using a shorter flying ball.

Most of all, such a ball on certain courses would return certain skills (hitting a long iron approach?) and end decades of pretending golf does not have an integrity problem.

I point all of this out because Davis’s remarks were no accident. Whether anyone likes it or not, this ball is coming. The variable ball will not be forced, just another way to play the game. The British ball did not break the sport and neither will this option. Because that's all it is, an option. Given that The Masters arrives next week featuring long fairway grain mown toward the tee to prevent roll, I believe the variable distance ball will again be on the minds of all watching.

With that in mind, your votes, please!

Question 1:

Is golf ready to add a variable distance ball? free polls

Question 2:

Should The Masters adopt a variable distance ball instead of adding more length to the course? free polls

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Reader Comments (18)

It should not only be introduced but implemented on the PGA,, European, Canadian, and Asian Tours. That only. Amateurs can use them if they wish, in amateur competition or leisure. The Masters would be a great start, followed by other majors, then WGCs, then everything. The guy who is kicking butt on the Mackenzie Tour using a non-regulated ball will have to change balls if he wishes to step up in tour class.
03.29.2017 | Unregistered CommenterMatt
It is indeed high time to change for a variable golf ball for pros who play golf and practice as true professionals. Course design is a true art and the emphasis on distance annihilates all its subtleties. In addition, the pros who know how to truly work the ball will be again rewarded.
03.30.2017 | Unregistered CommenterKristel
If Augusta National initiates the 90% ball, pretty soon it will be the norm everywhere. And I will move up to the ladies tees if I have to. I'm ok with that.
03.30.2017 | Unregistered CommenterHardy Greaves
Most of my guys..need a ball with more distance. Having others hit as short as not going to make anyone feel
03.30.2017 | Unregistered Commentermarmooskapaul
I say we roll it way back. Why not stop rolling greens and cutting fairways so short? Bring back featheries and Persimmon. With many of the greatest courses now being close to or over the century mark in age aren't we offending the designers by not playing the courses the way the game was being played when they designed it? Also, get rid of Trackman, make everyone wear plus fours and smoke a pipe while playing. The argument seems logical.

The other option is to suggest that the equipment as it sits to day is now the upper limit of what is allowed and impose design limitations from now and forever moving forward. If we ultimately feel that rolling the ball back to 90% then lets do that.

Once it's done, however, can we all stop complaining about how change is ruining the game. Change is inevitable. Technological advancement will always occur. The governing bodies should impose the limits today and be done with it. We don't need to roll back to 1995.
03.30.2017 | Unregistered CommenterJason Williams
For now, ANGC holds the cards for any chance to employ a reduced distance ball. A club where being connected is the first order of business, substantial wealth a given but not necessarily a prerequisite as in Condoleezza Rice. I'd love to be a fly in the room where names are floated by sponsors for membership invitations. I'll bet skivvies are thoroughly inspected for the potential of unknown skid marks from the past. The burning questions:

Will one manufacturer be awarded the contract or will several be allowed to produce it as long as it meets the Masters distance specification? I can't imagine allowing a brand on the ball other than a Masters logo. There might not be as much of a scrum as you'd expect among ball producers if prevented from advertising. Maybe they rotate suppliers to keep the peace. How will the Ball Committee address player preference; high/low trajectory, spin, durometer, etc.? Will several models be offered or will a have-at-it with the ball we give you apply?
03.30.2017 | Unregistered CommenterD. maculata
Seems like driving distance has an overwhelming advantage over other areas of the game. If you're above average in driving distance of the ball but below average in driving accuracy and strokes gained approach to the green you're higher ranked in fedex cup/money list, etc. than someone who is below average in driving distance but above average in driving accuracy and strokes gained approach to the green. Shouldn't all areas of the game have somewhat equal weighting? If so then there should be a variable distance ball and max driver head size of 300cc.
03.30.2017 | Unregistered CommenterJack
@Hardy how much will it cost Augusta to produce this elusive 90% ball? $50 million? More?
03.30.2017 | Unregistered CommenterFools Gold
Doesn't the USGA and the R&A have to be involved in the "roll back" of the golf ball? Or, if a club / event / golf association decides to employ a restricted distance ball they 1.) are allowing the play of non-conforming golf balls ; 2.) has relented to bifurcation of the rules..????

Not sure ANGC would risk all the going against the Rules of Golf. ???
03.30.2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoe Ezar
Get the Dodger bobblheads outta there. Buncha bums! They have no place in a golf video :)
03.30.2017 | Unregistered CommenterGabe
Rolling driver cc's back to 200 or under would be good. Make more of a penalty for mishits. Also, kill off these TPC garbage courses. Bomb it to where you have to hit under a tree? Not very penal...The bigger issue is we pay millions to watch people play a leisurely game. Was that ever the game's intent? Watching Ian Poulter kick his bag over and yell at his caddy to fetch while in Puerto Rico makes me think perhaps we invest our leisure capital in the wrong priorities. We created demand for many of these privileged athletes. Maybe we should rollback more than the ball...
03.30.2017 | Unregistered CommenterMJR
@Geoff: A rolled back ball was in fact tried out on the Cdn Tour a few years back. Not sure if they published the results and scores and other such data from that one-day test event. Just saying'.

But still no major pro tour has had the rocks to try out a slower ball and move the tees up.
03.30.2017 | Unregistered Commenterjohnnnycz
Baseball figured it oit with with choosing wood over metal. They also lowered ball compression. Courses chose to ban metal cleats (pga doesnt) and reduced maintenance costs. Courses owners not the usga,pga,orra control access and local rules.
03.30.2017 | Unregistered Commenterpanco
smaller clubheads. club length restriction.

a rollback of ball distance does not answer to the "gear effect" or anything along those lines that encourages harder swings with less penalty of offline/spin. theyw ould stil be swinging hard, it would just be a bit shorter.
03.30.2017 | Unregistered CommenterConfused

How much is it going to cost ANGC to buy Augusta Country Club's 10th hole? $50 million?

They can lead on this one and in 10 years we will all say, "Well done!" And if it works out, it will be great for their "brand".
03.30.2017 | Unregistered CommenterHardy Greaves
Bob Sheppard-PGA Pro-Author
The Golf Ball
The golf ball is the heart of the game of golf. Without the golf ball, we would all just be checking for ticks after a long walk. Ever since man’s first attempt to hit a ball towards a hole in a distant green, the governing bodies have been concerned about how far the ball could travel. Especially when the distance advantages were being enjoyed mostly by the golfing elite. When the PGA Championship was played at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin, they accommodated the excessive length of the Pro’s by having half the holes longer than 500 yards in length. Still there were scoring records broken.
Through the years as the game progressed there were various changes and improvements made to the ball. These changes were scrutinized and analyzed, and once deemed fair they were allowed to be used by the players. Then along with those changes there came a need to test and examine the performance of the golf ball when used in conjunction with the newly developed club called a “metal wood.”  
The Metal Wood
In the mid 1990s’ when metal headed drivers became the rage driving distances among the longest hitters skyrocketed. During those years the driving distance averages of those long ball hitters increased from around 290 yards to well over 300 yards. So now there is a golf ball that is flying farther than ever, and new metal headed golf clubs that were contributing to the ball’s excessive distances.     
The Baseball
This technology was also available for use in other sports but most statistically driven games such as baseball were more cautious with the equipment they would allow to be used in their sport. 
From baseballs earliest day’s the game’s governing bodies have closely monitored the distance that the baseball could travel. Should they have allowed the construction of the baseball to change lets say to the same composition and aerodynamics that have evolved with the golf ball then their baseballs would have been flying distances that would have rendered their stadiums obsolete just like what has happened to our golf courses. They instead elected to protect their sport, and did not allow that to happen. 
The Metal Bats
When the metal baseball bats became the rage they were found to be much more effective because they are hollow, and lighter, and could be swung faster allowing the players to hit the baseball much farther. They were consequently not allowed to become part of this sport, and instead they were barred from use. Even though they would not hit the baseball as far wooden bats have remained the bat of choice by all baseball leagues. Again, they protected their sport.

When a golf course is referred to as obsolete it means that the course can no longer accommodate the modern ball and equipment when used by today’s golfing elite. The same obsolescence would have occurred to the baseball’s great stadiums if the baseball had been allowed to fly another few hundred feet.
When these “obsolete” courses are chosen to host today’s championships they must first be redesigned, and lengthened. Then after the event is played they are returned to the intended original layout where they can again be enjoyed by the everyday golfer.  
Through the years these on going course alterations have unfortunately left golf’s statistics, and record keeping in ruins. Still they talk about new scoring records. 
Unfortunately, that classy part of the game is gone. 
03.30.2017 | Unregistered Commenterbob Sheppard
@Hardy, that's a bullshit non-answer. You have no clue how much it would cost Augusta to institute a "90% ball" but you sure don't have a problem spending other people's money. As for your ridiculous all-in "well done" assertion, that's just stupid, 99.9% of all golfers don't give a flying flatulation about a "90% ball". It's just you and and maybe 23 other people deluding yourselves, sad.
03.30.2017 | Unregistered CommenterFools Gold
Soon we may be asked to vote that "Golf should only be played on the computer" because we are, it seems seeking to make the game easier not for the pleasure of the game but for the lower score it can return to those so called would be golfers.

Can there be real contentment or enjoyment in using equipment that offers to make the game easier? - This is mirrored in course design and of late, golf course maintenance - - that is, its over designed and over prepared, more so for the Majors,- why, have the top players decided that Golf is too hard for them, that they need help at every turn, including balls, equipment and the quality of the course and more so their Greens.

Is it that important that we walk - no, sorry I meant ride around all the real issues, ignoring them because we may offend a player or worst still a manufacturer. We need to address the issues not subdivide the game further away from its original principles - Then I suppose in today’s world what do principles matter if you achieve a lower score, not from your own efforts but from the mixture of outside aid available to today's players.

Yet Players and Golfers seem to believe that they are a match for our past Champions, how can they be when they need toys to decide even the simplest of choices i.e. what club to use for the next shot.

I vote we get back to playing golf, outlaw aids, control technology, and use one size ball, but that would take balls, real balls and the R&A have never shown they have any. They went when they stopped the floating ball some 80 years of so.
04.2.2017 | Unregistered CommenterTom Morris

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