Even for someone with a reputation as a maverick, this, from Rory McIlroy, qualifies as bold.
“Honestly, for me, the major championships are the biggest deal,” he said. “So if the PGA Tour doesn’t implement it, I might still play the Model Local Rule ball, because I know that that’ll give me the best chance and the best preparation leading into the major championships.”
The comments come from McIlroy’s interview with our friends at No Laying Up, in which the World No. 3 discussed proposed changes to the golf ball aimed at limiting distance gains across the pro game. In his first public comments on the matter, McIlroy defended the proposed changes and even went as far as to say that he would consider playing the new ball on the PGA Tour even if the Tour didn’t implement the USGA and R&A’s proposed equipment changes.
“Again, this is personal preference and personal opinion at this stage of my career,” McIlroy said. “I know that I’m gonna be defined by the amount of major championships that I hopefully will win from now until the end of my career. And that’s the most important thing for me. If [playing at a competitive disadvantage on the PGA Tour] gives me the best chance to succeed at the major championships and feel as prepared as I possibly can be, then that’s what I would do.”
Golf’s stakeholders have teased an equipment rollback for some time now, particularly as advances in club and ball technology have led to unheralded distance and performance gains across the highest levels of the sport. The USGA and R&A underwent a five-year “distance insights project” to better understand the issue leading to the conclusion outlined in last week’s meeting: it was time to roll back the golf ball.
In broad strokes, the two governing bodies proposed a new “Model Local Rule” that, if enacted, would require pros to utilize a ball that traveled shorter distances. The proposal keeps intact modern technology for “regular golfers,” while rolling back an unspecific amount of the distance gains seen in the pro game.
McIlroy represents by far the highest-profile player to support the rollback campaign, which has drawn the ire of pro golfers and equipment manufacturers since the changes were first outlined last week. The PGA Tour, Augusta National and the PGA of America — stewards of golf’s largest pro tour and other two majors — have taken what amounts to a “wait and see” approach to the changes, not tipping their hand to whether they’ll choose to implement the new rule when it is scheduled to be enacted in 2026.
But the USGA and R&A’s involvement in the changes means it’s likely that at least half of golf’s major championships will be played with the new golf ball soon enough, and it stands to reason that if the USGA and R&A move forth, Augusta National and the PGA of America will follow suit.
That leaves just the PGA Tour, which as a member organization would have to vote in support of the changes. Some have suggested that Tour membership could strike down the rule, forcing the hand of the governing bodies behind golf’s majors. But that leaves open the possibility that the majors could go forth with the rollback anyway, leaving golfers to compete in the sport’s biggest events with different equipment than in its regular season. That’s a solution no golfer would be happy with — but one McIlroy says might be necessary for the future of the sport at the highest levels.
“I’ve been pretty adamant that I don’t really want the governing bodies to touch the recreational golfer because we need to make this game as not intimidating and as much fun as possible, just to try to keep the participation levels at an all-time high,” McIlroy said. “So, I’m glad in this new proposal that they haven’t touched the recreational golfer. But for elite-level play, I really like it. I really do. I know that’s a really unpopular opinion amongst my peers, but I think it’s going to help identify who the best players are a bit easier. Especially in this era of parity that we’ve been living in these past couple of decades. I think you’re gonna see people with more well-rounded games succeed easier than what the game has become, which is a bit bomb and gouge over these last few years.”
It’s been a busy few months for McIlroy’s Zoom calendar. After stewarding the famed tarmac players meeting and leading the charge on the Tour’s announcement of its latest round of structural changes, McIlroy admitted at the Players Championship that he was looking forward to putting down his ambassador cap and “being a golfer again.”
Evidently, that will have to wait at least another week.
“It has evolved, yeah,” McIlroy said. “I was once of the opinion that, you know, they don’t try to make Formula One cars go slower. Innovation is a part of every sport. It’s a part of every industry. But whenever that innovation outgrows the footprint of the game, that’s when I think we have a problem.”
Here’s hoping, for McIlroy’s sake, golf’s stakeholders keep a low profile through the beginning of the spring. His next shot at the Masters is only two weeks away.