The Golf Ball

There is no question that golf courses have gotten longer and tougher, with narrower fairways and faster greens.

Profile picture of SiriusXM Editor
SiriusXM Editor
March 8, 2018

By SiriusXM PGA TOUR Radio host Jim McLean

There is no question that golf courses have gotten longer and tougher, with narrower fairways and faster greens. Every course that has been renovated in the last 20 years has been lengthened. The reason for this has been distance. While it is true that equipment is better, training is better, fairways are faster, clubfitting is better, the one thing that would easily curtail distance is the ball.

If the ball was slowed down, would this result in faster rounds of golf? For sure it would be a huge factor. Why do we care about pace of play? Slow play kills golf as much as anything. The other main factor is cost. Does a longer course cost more?

A large footprint for golf costs a lot of money. Lengthening existing courses has placed tee boxes far back of original design and usually means walking back to tees and slowing down the game. Think about other sports. Basketball, football, hockey, tennis, etc. take 2 1/2 hours. These games have also been able to play on the same dimensions. But not golf, we have extended our playing fields and the game takes considerably longer than it did 30 years ago. Those other major sports have also taken action to keep up the pace, while PGA tour events take 5+ hours.

What does slowing the ball down mean for the average golfer? Will the average golfer hit the ball shorter than now? Actually the average golfer according to recent data hits the ball just over 200 yards. That means their driver speed is quite slow at about 82 mph. Could a ball be made with the correct spin and the correct parameters to have the 82 mph golfer lose zero yardage and still cut 10/15/20% off the young golfer swinging at 120 mph? What if the answer to that was yes?

If that could happen, and I think the answer is yes then golf would easily be played on shorter golf courses. Golf ranges would not take up huge areas. Understand that there are many thousands of young golfers hitting the golf ball over 300 yards. Any healthy male golfer with just a little coordination can smack the occasional drive over 300. A scary thing is the golfer with high swing speed and no control of where it’s going.

The Titleist ProV1 really changed the game. It was an amazing step ahead by the great engineers at Titleist. Long hitters woke up one day and they had gained 20 yards overnight. But that was not true for Mr. 82 mph. I don’t think the slow swing golfer got more than 20 inches longer. The reason for this is so important. The modern golf ball gets exponentially longer as a golfer climbs the swing speed chart. That means as a golfer swings the driver faster the ball goes further. So the faster you swing the more you get in yardage. The real explosion occurs at 105 mph and higher. This is when you get the effect of “trampoline” with the modern driver.
So, for sure lighter shafts, improved club heads, and stronger athletes can propel the club faster, but it’s the modern ball that spins less and curves less that encourages golfers, especially younger golfers to swing harder.

You could say the golf ball was designed the opposite way for the good of the game because it helped the better player much more than the average golfer. It led to golf courses being outdated.

Just remember that the older ball could still be hit super long by Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods and many others. But the average tour player wasn’t super long and because the ball spun more the talent was to keep that ball on the fairway, and that was paramount.

Ranges are now too short. Par 4’s are over 500 yards long. The average golfer is playing a more difficult game. The rich clubs in America are actually doing great in this modern era because they can afford the land costs and the additional costs of keeping greens at 11 on the stimpmeter. The USGA put out a report that 1 in 4 golf clubs are losing money. Golf courses are not being built. More courses are closing each year (10 straight years). Land costs keep going up. Most people understand that conservation and water usage are critical. How much land can golf courses take up and how much does this all cost.

The technology in the ball is incredible. Architects have always been aware that the ball going too far could be a serious problem and ruin the strategy of their design. It wasn’t just Jack Nicklaus. No, it was far back to the days of great architects like Alister McKenzie, Donald Ross, Pete Dye and others who warned about the ball going too far. You can look that up. We have known about this issue for decades.

The game of golf is a great game. But we face huge challenges going into the future. Think time, money, conservation. This is why the USGA is concerned, some may say too little, too late.