When Jay Monahan let slip a memo assuring PGA Tour players he would be informing the USGA and R&A that the tour would not endorse a golf ball rollback proposal, don’t think for a minute that he was simply updating his constituents.

No. At its most grotesque it was a kind of message pitch to the ruling bodies, while at the same time it served as an effort—perhaps a highly suspect one—to regain some lost trust in the PGA Tour body politic who essentially decide whether Monahan still should be their front man.

In reality, the leaked memorandum started a high-stakes game of chicken involving the tour, the ruling bodies, the major championships and perhaps most squarely Augusta National over whether someone really is willing to go to the mattresses on distance.

Monahan’s position seems clear: The ball rollback is a non-starter. The USGA and R&A announced in March a proposal that would change the balls played on tour so that driving distance might be reduced by 15-20 yards at the elite level. From a marketing perspective, the tour either believes increased driving distance is attractive to its audience or that reducing driving distance makes its product less exciting and creates unnecessary adjustments and hardship for its players. (Whether there is any evidence to support such a position, it has yet to be presented.)

That position immediately puts the USGA and R&A on notice that the main target of their rollback plan isn’t willing to abide by it. Of course, the USGA and R&A are already on record that they were planning to implement the rule for their top events, including the US Open and the Open Championship. The PGA of America has been less enthusiastic about endorsing the idea of a ball rollback for the PGA Championship, while Augusta National, in the voice of chairman Fred Ridley, has been strongly supportive of stopping the increase in distance. He said on the eve of last April’s Masters, “We have been consistent in our support of the governing bodies, and we re-state our desire to see distance addressed.”

So who blinks now? Well, the process of adopting this rule change is nearing the end of a Notice and Comment period where the ruling bodies gather opinion from all interested parties. That includes the tours, of course, as well as manufacturers, golf course architects and others with skin in the game, perhaps even everyday golfers. The USGA and R&A then may announce a formal rule and a scheduled implementation date (right now it’s set for 2026). Or they could decide upon further review, the best course of action is to do nothing. (That is not likely.) Or they could decide to create a rule and not make it part of their plans, merely offer it as an option for anybody to implement it for their tours or events.

And that’s where Augusta National comes in.


David Cannon

The club has added some 600 yards to its course’s total length over the last 25 years to combat increased driving distance and keep the Masters as relevant and as challenging for today’s players as it was for the preceding half century. It is not interested in continuing this trend, and the club’s leaders have thought about adopting its own tournament ball for most of this century. If the ruling bodies go forward with their proposed rollback, but institute it as they have planned, in the form of what’s called a Model Local Rule, then the rollback only exists in theory. It doesn’t become practice unless or until some organisation or event adopts it. That organisation is not going to be the Pepsi Tour and that event is not going to be the Argentine Open. But it could be the Masters.

It is not beyond reason to believe Augusta National would adopt the new rollback guideline for the Masters, and it is further not beyond reason to believe every player eligible would play with whatever restrictions the Masters decrees. They already observe all its arcane do’s and don’t’s, and many would likely play all four days with a wiffle ball just for the chance to wear a green jacket in perpetuity.

And while the ruling bodies have been quite sure of themselves about the necessity of this rollback, it is one thing to talk tough but another to strike out alone with all of professional golf, the game’s biggest marketing resource, turning its back on you. That makes for a very short road to irrelevance.

However, the Masters is more powerful than any tour and probably more front and center in the public eye than the USGA or R&A will ever be. If Augusta National became the test case for a rolled-back ball, and moreover if a Masters played with a rolled-back ball turned out to be, well, not the hardship or inconvenience that some (Monahan and the PGA Tour) would have you believe, isn’t it possible that professional golf across all tours and all events adopts the rolled back ball as its own?

The best case scenario for a rolled-back ball is Rory McIlroy carving a 5-iron uphill into the wind on the 18th hole, leading to a winning birdie and the career Grand Slam. Maybe then even average golfers would see the merits. Then again, if Adam Schenk is prevailing in a slog over Sepp Straka, the broadcast may be relegated to ESPN8: The Ocho.”

Contacted Thursday, a Masters spokesman had no further comment on the distance issue and Monahan’s position. Nearly six months ago, Ridley acknowledged the “Masters ball” idea first posited by then chairman Hootie Johnson, and quickly dismissed it: “I think Hootie was trying to make a point; that that’s something that, if we decided we wanted to do it, we could do it. But I don’t think it’s a practical solution.”

But that was before Monahan’s fighting words this week. While Ridley and team seem content with the current timeline’s process, maybe in some quiet corner discussions are underway, waiting until the ball, as it were, is in their court.