[PHOTO: Andrew Redington]

There was a tinge of resignation in Fred Ridley’s voice at Augusta National Golf Club. The chairman of the Masters was conducting his usual pre-tournament Wednesday press conference, and the subject was the upcoming rollback of the golf ball, set to be instituted for professionals in 2028.

For years, Augusta National, legitimately concerned that its famed golf course could become competitively obsolete, has urged golf’s governing bodies to do something to limit the length the golf balls flies. That action finally came when the R&A and USGA announced in December 2023 that changes in testing golf balls might lead to the longest hitters in the game driving the ball 13-15 yards shorter, while average tour players might see a nine to 11-yard reduction.

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In his opening remarks overnight, Australian time, Ridley offered his support of the governing bodies’ efforts, but most of his other comments on the subject seemed to note his concern about where the game is headed on distance.

“As I understand, and I don’t think it’s across the board, but if you use 5 percent as an approximate number, a player hitting it 320 yards is going to lose 16 yards,” Ridley said. “So that’s not insignificant. What we found, though, over the years is that we lengthen the golf course, everybody says it’s really long, and then two or three years later it’s not so really long.

“So, my guess is that even when this change is implemented that maybe other aspects of technology that are within the rules and the physicality and ability, technical ability of the players will catch up. I don’t believe that we will start building new tees closer to the greens. It’s a possibility, I suppose, but I doubt it. Particularly since this is not going to be implemented for quite some time.”

Translation: Ridley clearly sees that whatever changes to the ball can be significantly made up for in equipment and training, and that may put golf back in the same distance conundrum it faces now.

As Ridley noted, the Masters was played for nearly 70 years at a yardage of 6,900 yards (6,300 metres). Then Tiger Woods came along, and he influenced the next generation to be fitter and swing harder, along with manufacturers continuing to up their own games. The result: this year’s Masters, with the addition of 10 yards added to the second tee, will be tipped out at 7,600 yards (6,950 metres).

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“We have some more room, but we don’t have a lot,” Ridley said. “So I’m holding to that 8,000-yard (7,315-metre) red line, and I just hope we never get there.”

Ridley did have one rather pointed comment in regards to the other organisations that staged pro golf tournaments. “Assuming that these regulations are adopted by the PGA Tour and the other tours – and I certainly hope they will be – I think were they not adopted it would cause a great deal of stress in the game, which it doesn’t need right now.”

In the aftermath of the rollback announcement, the PGA Tour and PGA of America expressed concern, and neither has confirmed its full support of the rollback.

“We believe the proposed increase in test clubhead speed to 125mph is disproportional to the rate of increase we see when analysing PGA Tour radar data,” the tour said in a statement in December. In conjunction with guidance from the Player Advisory Council, player directors and Policy Board, we will continue to share our feedback with the USGA and the R&A.”

The PGA of America said: “We remain opposed to any change that may potentially lessen the enjoyment of the game for recreational golfers or diminish the unprecedented momentum the game is enjoying. It appears recreational golfers will see a greater reduction in distance than we would advise. While this decrease has been lessened, we continue to recommend being more moderate on the swing speed change for the golf ball conformance test.”

In other highlights from Ridley’s address:

• In a two-phase project, Augusta National plans to build an underground carpark for players that will open next year, along with a future three-level state-of-the-art facility “designed to anticipate every need for players, their families, and support teams”. More details on that are expected next April.

• The club, working with the city of Augusta and First Tee, has committed to a complete renovation of the Augusta Municipal Golf Course – locally known as “The Patch” – that will include a design by architects Tom Fazio and Beau Welling. “I think it has almost unlimited potential,” Ridley said of the project.

• It doesn’t seem that Augusta National will host any other events on the golf calendar anytime soon. In addressing a question about possibly hosting professional women, Ridley noted the creation of the 10-year-old Drive, Chip & Putt and five-year-old Augusta National Women’s Amateur, while also pointing out the short window the club is open, from October to May – the northern autumn to spring.

“So we really have a limited period of time we could play any additional event,” Ridley said. “We close in the third week of May. Then you add the element of something that was brought up… we need to make sure that we really respect the mystique and the magic of the Masters. So we would have to think long and hard to have another golf tournament.”