MARANA, Ariz. — Elite golfers, who have increasingly used head-turning distances on their drives to conquer courses, should be forced to start using new balls within three years, the sport’s top regulators said Tuesday, inflaming a debate that has gathered force in recent decades.
The U.S. Golf Association and the R&A, which together write golf’s rule book, estimated that their technical proposal could trim top golfers’ tee shots by an average of about 15 yards. Although golf’s rules usually apply broadly, the governing bodies are pursuing the change in a way that makes it improbable that it will affect recreational golfers, whose talent and power are usually well outpaced by many collegiate and top amateur players.
But the measure, which would generally ban balls that travel more than 317 yards when struck at 127 miles per hour, among other testing conditions, could have far-reaching consequences for a men’s professional game filled with figures who believe that gaudy statistics and remarkable displays of athleticism are central to its appeal. Dozens of balls that are currently used could become illegal on circuits such as the PGA Tour and the DP World Tour, as the European Tour is now marketed, if they ultimately embrace the proposed change.
That outcome is not guaranteed — on Tuesday, the PGA Tour stopped well short of formally endorsing the proposal — but the forces behind the recommendation insisted that the golf industry needed to act.
“I believe very strongly that doing nothing is not an option,” Martin Slumbers, the R&A’s chief executive, said in a video interview. “We want the game to be more athletic. We want it to be more of an elite sport. I think it’s terrific that top players are stronger, better trained, more physically capable, so doing nothing is something that to me would be, if I was really honest, completely irresponsible for the future of the game.”
The U.S.G.A.’s chief executive, Mike Whan, sounded a similar note in a statement: “Predictable, continued increases will become a significant issue for the next generation if not addressed soon.”
Some players attach far less urgency to the matter and fear that public interest in the professional game will fade if long-hitting stars are made to appear at least somewhat more ordinary.
“With the creation of the Golf Channel, the 24-hour news cycle of golf, I think we forget that we’re entertainers,” Bubba Watson, a two-time Masters Tournament victor, said in an interview in Arizona, where he is expected to play in a LIV Golf event this week. “If we’re going to start dialing back, we lose that entertainment value. We want to see people go for it, and just because you can hit it a long way doesn’t mean it goes straight.”
Watson, who owns a driving range in Florida and was once among the PGA Tour’s most powerful hitters, added: “Let us be athletic. Let us try to come up with new ways to hit the ball better, straighter, farther.”
Helped by equipment and an intensifying focus on physical fitness, players have certainly been finding some of those methods.
In the 2003 season, PGA Tour players recorded an average driving distance of about 286 yards, with nine golfers typically hitting at least 300 yards off the tee. In the current season, drives are averaging 297.2 yards, and 83 players’ averages exceed 300 yards. The typical club head speed — how fast the club is traveling when it connects with the ball — for Rory McIlroy, the tour’s current driving distance leader at almost 327 yards, has been about 122.5 m.p.h., about 7 m.p.h. above this season’s tour average. Some of his counterparts, though, have logged speeds of at least 130 m.p.h.
At the sport’s most recent major tournament, the British Open last July, every player who made the cut had an average driving distance of at least 299.8 yards on the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland. When the Open, an R&A-administered tournament, had last been staged at St. Andrews, in 2015, only 29 of the 80 men who played on the weekend met that threshold.
The yearslong escalation has unnerved some of the sport’s executives and course architects, who have found themselves redesigning holes while also sometimes fretting over the game’s potential environmental consequences.
When the Masters is contested at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia next month, for instance, the par-5 13th hole will be 35 yards longer than it was last year. The hole, lined with azaleas and historically the course’s easiest, will now measure 545 yards.
Rule makers considered targeting club design but concluded that a reworked standard would cause too many ripples, with multiple clubs potentially requiring changes. Instead, after years of study and debate, the U.S.G.A. and R&A settled on trying to change the ball standard that has been in place since 2004.
The proposal announced Tuesday is not final, and its authors will gather feedback about it into the summer. Although some members of the game’s old guard have complained about modern equipment and the governing bodies’ response to it — the nine-time major champion Gary Player fumed last year that “our leaders have allowed the ball to go too far” — some more recent stars immediately voiced skepticism about the potential change.
“We have spoken to a lot of players, and as you can imagine, half of the world doesn’t want to do anything and half of the world thinks we need to do more,” Slumbers said.
It was not just members of the insurgent LIV league expressing misgivings on Tuesday. Most notably, the PGA Tour refrained from immediately supporting the proposal. The tour said in a statement it would “continue our own extensive independent analysis of the topic” and that it was “committed to ensuring any future solutions identified benefit the game as a whole, without negatively impacting the tour, its fans or our fans’ enjoyment of our sport.”
The debate may be more muted in some quarters than others, but the surges in distance have not been exclusive to the PGA Tour. Between 2003 and 2022, the R&A and the U.S.G.A. said Tuesday, there was a 4 percent increase in hitting distances across seven professional tours. Only two of the scrutinized circuits, the Japan Golf Tour and the L.P.G.A. Tour, posted year-over-year declines in driving distance in 2022.
If the rule is adopted, the governing bodies could impose the policy at two major tournaments, the British Open and the U.S. Open, as soon as 2026. The P.G.A. of America, which administers the P.G.A. Championship, and Augusta National would choose whether to enforce a new standard at their major tournaments.