Among the many concerns that interested parties have surfaced about a potential ball rollback for elite golfers is the notion that players might be faced with a scenario in which they have to jump between two different ball constructions.
As it looks now, beginning in 2026 at least half the men’s majors — the U.S. Open and Open Championship — will require entrants to use a ball that adheres to new testing protocol that would, in effect, mean players will lose anywhere from eight to 15 yards off their driver distance, and maybe more than that. There’s a better than decent chance that the Masters will also adopt the new local rule, in which case it seems unlikely that the PGA of America would go rogue and make its major — the PGA Championship — the only of the four to permit a hotter ball.
The PGA Tour’s tea leaves are harder to read. Of active Tour pros who so far have publicly voiced their opinions about the forthcoming rule, which the governing bodies announced Tuesday, a hefty majority have clamored against it. PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan and his fellow tribal elders aren’t obligated to bend to their players’ will, but if we have learned anything in the LIV era, the top players now have more juice than ever. If they don’t want to play a slower ball, they might just get their way.
So, yes, the prospect of the world’s best players having to master two differently engineered balls, each with its own unique launch, spin and flight characteristics, isn’t beyond the realm of possibility.
It is unprecedented, though?
Alas, it is not!
In fact, it wasn’t all that long ago that many elite pros not only played two different balls but willingly chose to do so. That’s because for much of the 20th century, the R&A and USGA couldn’t agree on a regulation ball size. Up until 1973, when American golfers hopped over the pond to play in the Open Championship — or when they entered any other international competition for that matter — they had the option to play a ball that was 1.62 inches in diameter, which was .06 inches smaller than balls permitted for play in the United States by the USGA.
That tiny fraction might not sound like a difference-maker, but it was. When playing overseas, most American players leapt at the chance to game the small ball.
Ben Hogan opted to play a 1.62″ Titleist at the 1953 Open Championship at Carnoustie — and won by four. Later that year at the Ryder Cup at Wentworth, in England, U.S. captain Cary Middlecoff made the decision for his whole team to play 1.62” balls. “The smaller ball will help us on the long narrow fairways,” Middlecoff said, according to a report in the New York Times. “But it’s harder for us to handle on the approach. That’s why we’ll be doing lots of work from 150 yards before we tee off against the British Friday.”
The strategy paid off. On Saturday, the Americans beat the Brits, 6.5 to 5.5.
The greatest golfer of all time was also a fan of the smaller balls. Here’s Jack Nicklaus speaking on the eve of the small-ball-approved 1971 World Cup of Golf, which was played at PGA National Golf Club, in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.:
“Any time you have the choice, it’s silly to play the big ball. The small ball is so much easier to play because it goes farther and straighter. The big ball is tougher to play and requires more skill. That’s why the British have been producing better golfers recently.”
By this point, Nicklaus was well attuned to the advantages of playing a smaller ball. In the run-up to the World Cup, Nicklaus had made an Australia tour, where he won twice with the 1.62” ball. His excellent, small-ball aided play continued at PGA National, where he and his partner, Lee Trevino, won the 72-hole stroke-play team event by a whopping eight strokes.
The following season, in 1972, Nicklaus went right back to work with the larger ball, picking up seven PGA Tour titles, including two majors. Oh, and he also finished runner-up at the Open Championship playing with…yep, a smaller ball.
Recalling Nicklaus’ two-ball conquests is not to suggest that should top pros and amateurs have to toggle between two balls come 2026 that there wouldn’t be a learning curve — of course there would be — but if history is any guide perhaps the acclimation wouldn’t be as jarring as some players fear.
Earlier this week Tour winner Michael Kim railed on Twitter against the proposed ball rule, saying, in part, “The pros have to most likely come up with a completely new set of clubs to match that new ball. The companies will also have to do new testing on their current clubs to make sure it’ll all match with their clubs. Just A LOT of R&D coming up for every golf ball company. They aren’t going to just make the 1992 Pro v1.”
Kim is right about that. They’ll make something even better — a ball that will lack the pop of today’s orbs, yes, but have no less feel or workability.
Rest assured, some of the game’s best minds have already been hard at work on producing just such a technology.
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