How will the golf ball rollback affect you?

With the R&A and USGA having announced a universal golf ball rollback, we're taking a look at how it will affect the average golfer.

Johnny Percival's picture
Wed, 6 Dec 2023
Golf Ball

After years of deliberation and debate, the two major governing bodies in golf have introduced a comprehensive golf ball rollback.

If you're not familiar with what the golf ball rollback is, it's a rule that has been introduced by the USGA and R&A that will limit how far golfers can hit the ball.

That sounds like an annoying rule, right? Yes, we would have to agree.

However, the intention of this new rule does make a lot of sense in some respects. With modern technology and sports science improving year on year, a number of golf courses around the world are being rendered obsolete by the sheer power of players like Rory McIlroy and Bryson DeChambeau

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So, in order to make the game of golf more sustainable and prevent golf courses from continuously having to lengthen holes, the powers that be have decided instead to reign in the equipment.

Now, in an ideal world, 'bifurcation' would have been a less disruptive solution. What is bifurcation? It's when two levels of a sport use different equipment, e.g. McIlroy, and anyone competing on a professional Tour uses a rolled-back ball, while the masses are allowed to continue using the current golf ball for recreational and competitive rounds. 

Sadly, for the millions of golfers around the world who struggle to hit it further than 220 yards off the tee, the idea of bifurcation has been canned due to apparent pushback from ball manufacturers. 

This has left us in the compelling position of a universal rollback that will be applied to every golf ball. 

When will the golf ball rollback start?

Existing balls approved for conformance in 2027 may continue to be used by recreational golfers until January 2030.

A significant portion of golf ball models that are currently in the market – and more than 30% of all golf ball models submitted for conformance across the game – are expected to remain conforming after these changes are applied.

Will you still be able to play with non-conforming golf balls?

While only your friends will be able to stop you from playing with old golf balls for recreational purposes, it will become illegal to use non-conforming balls in any form of competition once the new rule has been instated. 

How far will the new balls go?

According to the recent statement published by the R&A and USGA, amateur golfers will lose roughly five yards of distance on their drives. Now, we don't claim to be smarter than either of those governing bodies, but we have taken a look at a fascinating distance report published by Arccos, and we think that number might be a touch on the low side (we will come back to this shortly).

According to the new proposed rule, balls will be tested by a robot at a swing speed of 125 mph, and they must not exceed 317 yards in total distance in order to conform. 

This distance equates to a 13-15-yard loss for the longest hitters in the game, which works out at roughly 5%.

Looking at the aforementioned Arccos distance report, which is based on 20 million driver shots hit by players around the world with ranging ages and handicaps, the average male golfer hits his driver 225.9 yards. If we were to apply that same 5% loss to that figure, the actual loss in distance for amateur male golfers is 11.25 yards.

If we apply the same 5% loss to female golfers, their average driving distance would drop from 177 yards to 168 yards, which is a loss of 8.85 yards

That would suggest that the loss in distance might be slightly more significant than expected. 

If the loss is going to be roughly 11.25 yards for men and almost nine for women, it's looking like everyone will need to hit at least one extra club on their second shot. 

Or at least that's what we first thought. In fact if you extrapolate out the loss across your first and second shot, golfers will realistically have to take an extra two clubs.

If men lose 11 yards with their driver, they will be a club further back, but the ball is still going to go potentially 3 or 4 yards shorter (dependent on the club) on their second shot, too, so they will likely find their approaches being lengthened by roughly two clubs depending on their gapping. 

What does this mean for the average golfer?

While McIlroy claimed earlier in the week that the new rollback will only affect those at the top end of the game, we've taken a look at some additional data provided by Arccos Golf, which has recorded more than 800m shots over 17m rounds in 162 countries worldwide, and we would beg to differ with the wise words of the four-time major champion. 

While we all know the loss in driving distance is going to be frustrating and potentially more severe than expected, hitting fairways with a rolled-back ball will be no different in terms of difficulty, as the ball will travel less far, not less straight. 

However, where the rollback could really affect everyday golfers is when it comes to hitting second shots.

For the sake of argument, we are going to focus on golfers with a handicap of 10. As things stand, according to Arccos, when approaching a green from a range of 150-174 yards, a 10-handicap golfer will leave their approach shot on average 79 feet from the hole. 

Now, that is quite a long way. Once the ball is rolled back, you can likely add 15 yards to that total when the loss from drive and approach is taken into consideration (based upon a 5% loss in distance). That means golfers will be left with an approach shot from between 165-189 yards.

The average proximity to the hole for an approach shot hit from almost that exact distance range jumps a staggering 23 feet to 102 feet from the pin. 

To take it one step further, approach shots hit from 200+ yards on average finish 182 feet from the hole.

This particular case study is related to a 10-handicap golfer. Take that handicap up to 20, and the results are considerably more dramatic. 

So, when you consider all of these incremental distance losses that will come into play with a rolled-back ball, it will inevitably lead to a lot more missed greens, higher scoring, and slower play for average golfers.

Call us cynical, but we think that's a surefire way of putting people off the game of golf.