Two years after branding research into golf equipment changes “a waste of money”, Rory McIlroy has given enthusiastic support for proposals to limit golf ball distances for top players.
“For elite level play, I really like it. I really do,” said Northern Ireland’s world number three.
McIlroy has also made the extraordinary suggestion that he might play a new shorter ball in PGA Tour events, even if the US circuit refuses to adopt the proposals announced last week.
Golf’s rules makers, the R&A and United States Golf Association, revealed plans to put extra limits on how far the ball will fly in top events. If adopted, the “Model Local Rule” (MLR) would be available in 2026.
So far, the proposals have been heavily criticised by a number of players including American Ryder Cup stars Justin Thomas and Bryson DeChambeau.
And Acushnet, who make the best-selling Titleist balls, said the move was “a solution in search of a problem”. The company sees the plans, which would leave recreational golf unchanged, as an unnecessary bifurcation.
Speaking to the No Laying Up podcast this week, McIlroy said: “I’m glad in this new proposal that they haven’t touched the recreational golfer.
“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.”
In February 2021, McIlroy branded the R&A and USGA’s “Distance Insights Project”, aimed at curbing driving distances, as a waste of time and resources.
“The money that it’s cost to do this report could have been way better distributed to getting people into the game, introducing young kids to the game, introducing minorities to the game,” he told reporters.
But the four-time major winner has admitted his view “has evolved” since being “once of the opinion that they don’t try to make Formula 1 cars go slower”.
“Innovation is a part of every sport, it’s a part of every industry,” he said. “But whenever that innovation outgrows the footprint of the game, that’s when I think we have a problem.”
McIlroy thought the recreational game should not be affected by any legislation. However, he now accepts the rule makers’ assessment that he and fellow top professionals hit the ball too far.
Courses have been lengthened to cope with massive driving distances and Augusta’s par-five 13th at next month’s Masters will be 35 yards longer to protect the integrity of this iconic hole, which had become too easy for the big hitters.
McIlroy recalled a conversation he had with the chairman of the All England Lawn Tennis Club at Wimbledon a few years ago.
“We were just talking about a few things and he said, ‘Rory, back in the early 2000s, when men’s tennis was predominantly serve and volley, it wasn’t very good for the entertainment aspect of the game’.
“‘Rallies wouldn’t last more than three shots. We can’t make the court any bigger. So what we did do is we slowed the ball down and we changed the grass on the court to make it a little stickier.’
“And then you fast forward from that change three years later and you’ve got Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal playing, probably one of the best finals of Wimbledon ever. This isn’t unique to golf, this happens in other sports as well.”
Having revealed their plans, the authorities are waiting for feedback over the next six months. They have indicated they intend to impose the MLR at events such as The Open and US Open, as well as amateur championships.
But implementation for elite events, both in the professional and unpaid ranks, will be voluntary. It is conceivable the PGA and DP World Tours could refuse to adopt the MLR, which should result in driving distances contracting by 15-20 yards on average.
Leading figures in the game will be closely watching the reaction of the Augusta National Golf Club when chairman Fred Ridley gives his pre-Masters news conference on 5 April.
The organisers of the year’s first major are among golf’s most influential voices.
“I think my opinion differs from my peers, and probably the PGA Tour as a whole,” McIlroy said.
“If the major championships somehow adopt this ball change, and the PGA Tour doesn’t, I think it widens that gap between PGA Tour golf and major championship golf.”
The 33-year-old added: “For me, the major championships are the biggest deal, 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.”
Golf balls manufactured to comply with the proposed MLR can only fly a maximum 320 yards when struck at 127 mph, under specific laboratory conditions. Average tour swing speeds are around 114 mph.