[PHOTO: Getty Images]

As a piece of information that makes me as uncomfortable as proud, more than half the years of my life has included a week at the PGA Show. The annual industry convention in Orlando, Florida, the last week in January has forever been a hallmark event in the insiders’ golf calendar, and while it has hiccupped a little during the past decade as manufacturers tried to figure out various cost-benefit analyses of why the show works or doesn’t work from a business standpoint, last month’s event seemed as buzzy and busy as it has been in years.

Maybe that was just the fulsome show-floor chit-chat that comes from the industry’s realisation that golf’s pandemic bump has not receded. Rounds played were up again in 2023, and while equipment sales revenue tapered somewhat in 2023, the overall numbers are still well above pre-pandemic levels. Or maybe it was the enthusiasm that reached near fever-pitch for simulator golf. The data isn’t entirely clear but some in that corner of the sport are saying more rounds in the US were played indoors than outdoors for the first time in history. True or not, navigating your way around the booths of Golfzon or Uneekor or Rapsodo or Skytrak or Foresight Sports or TrackMan were reminiscent of the funnel cake stand at a state fair.

Or maybe something else was at work, more electric, more foreboding. With the R&A and USGA making it clear that the golf ball will be rolled back in 2028 for elite golf and in 2030 for all other golf by means of an increase in the golf ball testing speed to 125 miles per hour, manufacturers’ excitement with their new lines seemed oddly mixed with a simmering uncertainty over the future of innovation – and, of course, the monetisation thereof. While the ruling bodies’ position on rollback seems set in stone, equipment companies seem to be standing on a promontory less secure. When I walked up on one old golf ball R&D wizard, he was extolling how long it took to develop what would be this year’s elite tour-played models. “This was a good four-year process,” he said as I nodded and then mouthed what he probably already was immediately thinking. “So, I guess that means you need to be starting on that ball tour players will need for 2028 about now.” His gulp was audible, tinged with what sounded to me like equal parts realisation, resignation and defiance.

That’s right, there is still a sense in the golf industry that the new rule for golf balls is not yet a done deal. Or at least not settled law, to borrow a phrase from jurisprudence, which of course may play some role in the rollback at some future date. You see, for all the enthusiasm the golf industry feels right now, there is always the anxiety that something will come along and knock golf back into 2008, or some other stretch of economic malaise. The rollback is no psychotic episode. This panic attack is real. It was Topic A in a closed-door meeting of manufacturers held the week of the show, where the very valid point was raised that a stipulated shorter golf ball, just like all equipment rules, is not exactly a mandate. Any manufacturer, large or small, can do whatever it wants, even if in the past, non-conforming clubs and balls were a non-starter. When Callaway, the game’s most talked-about brand at the turn of the 21st century, decided to break with the rules and introduce non-conforming drivers (the ERC and ERC II), it proved to be a failure that some argue took the company a decade to dig itself out of.

Will everyone go along with a rollback?

Two decades later, we are in a different time, and golf balls are a different category. As manufacturers met, the opinion was clear that even if all the major ball market leaders chose to make only balls that conform to the new rules, some other manufacturer would decide there would be a very legitimate business opportunity to make non-conforming balls. In other words, once someone continues to push balls that don’t go shorter, all manufacturers are going to have to go there. Those trading publicly seemingly would have a fiduciary responsibility to do so.

Golf Ball Rollback: Reverse Engineering

Lawsuits might be one avenue, of course. But that is messy and the law frankly might not be on the side of equipment companies. Even so, some of the smaller major manufacturers might be just fine with a ball rollback, thinking that it might present an opportunity to reset the marketplace. Those at the very top have seemingly everything to lose and not all that much, if anything, to gain. (Of course, an equal case can be made that the most played balls will still be the most played balls because for all their love of tinkering, uncertainty is generally not a constructive mode of operation for elite players. And why a leader in both sales and technology would feel threatened by any technical recalibration is understandable but, one would think, readily solvable.)

Still, there presents a third alternative beyond acquiescence and litigation, one that some leading manufacturers are pushing privately but stridently.

The R&A and USGA may make a rule, Augusta National may even decide to abide by it, as well, but there is no reason the PGA Tour would have to follow it. Hitting it shorter is hard to market. As one insider said, if the PGA Tour opted to play the rolled-back ball, it would immediately cede the appeal of the long ball to the rival LIV Golf league. Framework agreement or not, that’s not a sustainable choice in a sports/entertainment industry. It would be like if the NBA banned dunking and college basketball didn’t. From the standpoint of manufacturers, who seem rightly chuffed and emboldened by the new normal of successful numbers of the past few years, soliciting the PGA Tour to fight its fight with the ruling bodies seems a shrewder move. Maybe the PGA Tour can blow up the power of the R&A and USGA, or at least recast it. In a world where players and not bureaucrats carry the most power, a world where players are paid by equipment companies, couldn’t the PGA Tour be the biggest voice in the room and shut down a rollback?

Moreover, the PGA Tour could make a different (better?) case than the ruling bodies about where the data of distance is trending. It could point to how distance increases aren’t about the speed of the ball as much as they are the speed of the swings. For example, there are about twice as many players averaging clubhead speeds of more than 118 miles per hour today than a decade ago, and 49 players recorded speeds over 125 miles per hour last year, a six-fold increase from a decade ago. At the same time, given its new partnership with Arccos, the tour could cite much more definitive data than what the R&A and USGA have been reporting on where driving distance is trending for average golfers. (Spoiler alert: it is trending precisely nowhere.)

A pro game in flux has its own problems

Problem is, of course, the PGA Tour has its own messes to solve with the challenges of the framework agreement with PIF and how exactly it navigates the way forward with tournament sponsors, the Official World Golf Ranking and, well, the majors. And yes, the tour could choose to follow the lead of the majors and play the shorter ball. It would be a step towards more legitimacy that LIV would never take, making that tour even more pretend than it already is. But I’m not sure the PGA Tour makes decisions based on integrity anymore. Money has changed everything exponentially. At the same time, the PGA Tour must think about its audience. Not only might they not want to play shorter golf, they likely might not want to watch it all that much either. Conversely, if the tour decides that shorter golf is in the best interest of the game, perhaps they lead and all of golf will follow.

The point is, Jay Monahan, (read: Tiger Woods) is the tone-setter in the rollback debate. For now, the PGA Tour simply has only released a statement that some manufacturers say is a bit tepid – and of course, the ruling bodies would say is a bit soul-less. Instead, manufacturers would like the PGA Tour to throw its considerable weight around, rather than simply saying “we do not support the increase to 125mph, believing a more moderate adjustment is appropriate”.

The ruling bodies seem crystal clear in previous statements that there will not be a more moderate adjustment. (There might even be more severe adjustments in terms of model local rules restricting driver performance characteristics at some point in the future, but that’s a maelstrom for another day.) And of course, it goes without saying that golf doesn’t need another civil war, given the handful it’s already fighting that only seem to be leading to disinterest and oblivion.

Meanwhile, manufacturers, despite all their current enthusiasm, seem caught between what is and what will be. That success was fuelled largely by an event (the pandemic) it had no authority over. Its future success seems amazingly (disconcertingly?) even more outside of its own hands.