If indignant PGA Tour players are to be believed — bear with me — Mike Whan and Martin Slumbers are unaccountable despots bent on ruining golf, in which case they’re due thanks for momentarily distracting us from the unaccountable despot who is actually decimating the game, though MBS won’t ever be criticized for such by players under his writ.
The chief executives of the USGA and R&A have proposed an optional rule that, if adopted by tournaments or tours after January 1, 2026, would force golfers to use a modified ball that pauses rampant distance gains at the elite level. Like everything else these days, reactions have been polarized. Dewy-eyed romantics say it doesn’t sufficiently return us to a bygone era of balata brilliance, while Tour pros sing the sponsor standards, from “Grow the game!” to “Grow the rough!” — views invariably offered while sporting the logos of companies with a commercial interest in seeing no action taken on distance.
Sam Burns went so far as to suggest that players could one day present themselves at a major championship and insist on using regular balls, daring organizers to turn them away. The first opportunity to make such a stand is likely to be April 9, 2026. In Augusta, Georgia. Private Burns would find few in his imaginary army willing to go over the top with him.
There is clearly no widespread support among PGA Tour players for a rule limiting golf balls, but nor is support nonexistent. Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods are among those who have called for distance to be mitigated, and more prominent voices may be added to their chorus in the coming days. While it seems awfully improbable now that the PGA Tour and its members would choose to adopt a new rule, changing circumstances can change minds.
Whan and Slumbers made clear that both Opens will implement the rule if it’s an option in 2026. Those attuned to Augusta National’s hymnal can anticipate Chairman Fred Ridley’s preferred coda: the Masters will join the governing bodies in adopting a modified ball. That creates a dilemma for the PGA of America, which prides itself on not vexing players, either in course set-up or rules disputes. The PGA Championship is already regarded as last among equals. If the other majors go with a modified ball, will the PGA of America really balk and further cleave itself from the club in the minds of fans? If opponents of the proposed rule are hoping for support at the pinnacle of the sport, Frisco could prove a pretty flimsy firewall.
A similarly unappetizing predicament looms for the PGA Tour. The majors already exist above the weekly fray, much to the Tour’s chagrin. To what extent would the Tour be willing to see that perception grow? Choosing to emphasize an entertainment product — players smashing the long ball, which I’m told chicks dig — risks diminishing the Tour’s competitive image, at least when measured against major championships.
It would be ‘golf, but longer,’ in the parlance of dud marketing.
There will be talk of engagement and compromise in the five-month comment period set by the governing bodies, but there have already been numerous feedback opportunities during this lengthy process. The Tour’s argument has been presented but not heeded. The USGA and R&A have ensured that no constituency can claim to have been ignored, but they are unmoved by opposition to action. Their proposal feels less an invitation to negotiation than an issuing of notice.
As surely as the political considerations of various entities will shift in the three years before the rule takes effect, so too will the outlook of many players. Relationships with equipment manufacturers might influence attitudes now, but enormous increases in prize money and bonuses will soon dwarf off-course deals for elite stars. Golf’s existing endorsement model will increasingly be seen by top players as a time drain rather than essential to business. With sponsors less of a factor, players who don’t want to switch balls for legacy-defining majors might decide that playing a modified ball year-round isn’t too bad of an alternative.
Speculative? Sure, but not implausible. The context in which both individuals and organizations will ultimately make their decisions is not the context that prevails in this blowback phase of the proceedings. Whan and Slumbers may have calculated that they can ride out the rage and wait for the cavalry. All they need is a simple nod of assent from the real power in this game. Mr. Chairman, the floor is yours.