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The case for a reduced-flight ball at the majors, and the case against it

November 30, 2017

We have some relationship with our golf balls, don’t we? The way we talk to them and about them? (Maybe we should be nicer.) The expense we incur to buy them and the effort we make to find them? The delusional feeling of promise we get from using the same ball they use?

You will never hear the balls used in soccer or basketball or tennis discussed with anything like the emotion that we golfers bring to our ball-talk. You might be tempted to include football on that list, but then you remember how Tom Brady’s Deflategate hijacked the national conversation for a while, back in the early months of 2015. What a quaint controversy.

No contretemps in golf is ever going to approach anything that happens in the pastime. (Yes, diminished ratings and all, football remains the pastime. Quick: Who played in the 2017 World Series?) But golfheads are engaged (once again) in a war-of-words on the subject of the ball. This time, it could escalate into something more, you might say, meaningful. 

In recent weeks, Tiger Woods, Mike Davis of the USGA and Wally Uihlein of Titleist have all been taking public stands about the ball and debating the rudimentary question of whether it goes too far, at least when Dustin Johnson hits it. (To distill the views down to a word: for Woods and Davis, yes; for Uihlein, no.) Based just on the clicking done on this website alone, the invisible engineering behind a ball is, astoundingly, one of the game’s hot-button issues. That surely tells you something about the mind of the golfer. Any debate over golf-ball performance masks other questions that rattle deep within us. Among them:

– Should there be different ball requirements for elite players and ordinary golfers?

– Is longer better?

– Is the primary function of the PGA Tour to entertain?

– Does it matter if some of the game’s iconic courses become obsolete for Tour play?

– How accepting or resistant are you to change?

I am not learned on the subject of ball performance, or steeped in its nuance. But that hasn’t stopped me from having an opinion on it! (Welcome to these United States, late in the first quarter of the 21st century.) My view is that there’s nothing wrong with having a different ball for recreational play and for elite tournament play, and there is likely some good that would come from it.

I don’t view the weekly play on the Tour as “entertainment” but as a series of athletic competitions that, cumulatively, help us to identify who are the best players in the game. In the 1970s, when most Tour golfers used balata balls and most recreational players used rock-hard, long-flying Top-Flites or something like them, there were (effectively) two different games. In terms of competition, and shot-making, I believe the game played by Trevino, Watson, Nicklaus and Co. was superior to today’s smash-and-gauge game, but that is of course a subject on which reasonable people will differ. Age is a factor, too.

For millions of us, the most interesting events of the golf year are the four major professional championships. (The Ryder Cup is a separate category.) What makes these weeks so special is what playing in them, let alone contending or winning, means to the players, and the demanding, interesting and often time-honored courses on which they are played.

It is a wonderful thing for golf that these four events have special status in the game. It is a shame that a course like Merion, all stretched out to nearly 7,000 yards, had to be manipulated almost to the point of being unrecognizable in an effort to provide a challenge to the modern player when the U.S. Open was held there in 2013. It is a shame that Augusta National will likely again lengthen its iconic par-5 13th hole, which now plays like a shortish par-4 for the game’s longest players. It is a shame that this year’s venue for the U.S. Open, Erin Hills, had a series of long, uphill hikes from green to tee, turning the walking experience into a tedious slog. It is a shame that an iconic hole like the par-4 Road Hole at St. Andrews, with a mere breeze in your face, no longer requires an elite player to hit a driver in play and to try to hold that heinous green with a three-iron.

The point here is that shorter courses, with shorter walks between green and tee, would be better for the game, and that competitions that required a greater range of shot-making would be better for the game, too. We could stop the madness of longer courses and slower rounds, and actually reverse the trend. The appeal of shorter, simpler courses would works trickle down to the game as we play it, too.

Green speeds would not have to get any faster than they are now. (Slower would be fine.) Rough would not have to get higher and fairways would not have to become narrower. (Lower and wider would be fine.) The traditional concept of the par-4 would remain meaningful, three-shot par-5s could be returned to the game and breaking 70 in a major championship would retain all the cache it has had in the 80 years since Sam Snead played in his first major championship.

The single easiest way to achieve all this is by (and I have typed these words before) having a special ball for the majors. The Major Ball.

Each manufacturer could make its own model. I wouldn’t pretend to know what you would have to do to create a ball that does not go so far, but the basic starting point would be this: The Dustin Johnson-Justin Thomas-Jon Rahm drive in still conditions that now goes about 360 yards would max out at about 310. Those monsters would keep all the relative advantage they have earned. Length, after all, is an important component of the game. But the 480-yard par-4 would no longer be a hybrid-wedge. The majors would be more interesting and more demanding. They would only be elevated. Maybe the U.S. Open could return to Merion without pulling at every body part.

If Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Mike Davis, Fred Ridley of Augusta National and others would get behind this idea, it would have a chance. But if the ball manufacturers — particularly the biggest of them, Titleist — are not, it will never have a chance.

By email, I asked Wally Uihlein, the longtime chairman of the company that makes Titleist balls, what he thought of my Major Ball idea. (In his reply, Uihlein also had thoughts about the causes of the power surge in golf; you can read those here.) His response:

“PGA Tour driver club head speeds range from 100-130 mph (approximate range).

PGA Tour ball speed with driver ranges from 150-190 mph (approximate).

PGA Tour launch conditions with driver range from 8 degrees to 13 degrees (approximate).

And USPGA Tour spin rates, with a driver range, from 2000 rpm to 2500 rpm (approximate).

You want Dustin Johnson or Jason Kokrak to play the same spec ball as Brian Gay?

And why? To make the majors more special? Huh?

When you land on the specification, let us know. Because one type player will be favored and one type player will be harmed.

And the ghost of Leonard Decof will have a field day.”

Decof was the late Providence, R.I., trial lawyer who represented Ping — by all accounts, with extreme skill — in its 1990s lawsuit against the USGA over the legal use of U-shaped grooves. The Tour was a party to the suit. With great angst and at considerable expense, the case was settled.

If you’re so inclined, wish the Major Ball idea good luck. It’ll need it.

Michael Bamberger may be reached at mbamberger0224@aol.com