Imagine this scenario: On a 510-yard par-4, Jordan Spieth tees off with a high-launching, low-spinning golf ball. For his approach shot he replaces the ball with a lower-launching, higher-spinning golf ball more likely to land soft near the pin.
The USGA Rules of Golf prohibit such switching in the middle of a hole, of course. Rule 15-1 clearly states that a player must hole out with the ball used from the teeing ground.
The logic behind the rule is clear. Changing balls mid-hole would harm the integrity of the game, eliminating the ability to play the ball as it lies. Attempting to recreate lies in the rough or, say a bunker, could slow the game to a snail’s pace and in some cases require supervision or advice from a playing competitor.
The PGA Tour, like most organizations that run tournaments for skilled amateurs or professionals, takes the rule a step further by enacting the “One Ball Condition” -- which states players must use the same brand and type of golf ball throughout the round.
But for the sake of discussion, let’s assume the governing bodies tweaked the rules. Would allowing Tour pros to switch balls in the middle of a hole automatically lead to lower scores? And if so, how many strokes lower would they shoot?
The consensus from industry experts is most pros would try it. All players are looking for a competitive edge within reason. But those who play, teach and build equipment for those at the highest level also agree that eventually all would return to playing the same golf ball for all shots.
“There’s not enough difference in the golf balls for it to make any difference,” said Paul Dickens, PGA professional at Raleigh (North Carolina) Country Club.
Dickens played college golf at N.C. State with Carl Pettersson and Tim Clark, who have enjoyed successful PGA Tour careers. During those college days in the 1990s, the answer may have been different.
CBS sports announcer Gary McCord played the PGA Tour in the 1970s before the one-ball condition was in effect. According to a source, McCord kept a Pinnacle, Top Flite or similar hardcover golf ball in his bag in case it was needed to reach the green on a long par 3. At the time, a Tour player with average swing speed hit a hardcover ball 15-20 yards farther.
But when the Titleist Pro VI hit the PGA Tour at the Invensys Classic in Las Vegas in October 2000, it changed golf-ball technology forever.
It was the first solid core golf ball to receive widespread use on the Tour. Most pros hit it 10-20 yards farther than whatever wound core ball they were playing without sacrificing the soft feel. After 100 Titleist pros tested the ball, 47 put it in play in Las Vegas and shortly thereafter the rest followed suit. Not only did the ball fly farther with the driver and irons, it spun slightly less on wedge shots, giving the Tour players supreme control rather than violent backspin.
Billy Andrade used the ball to shoot 28-under par and win the Invensys Classic. According to PGATour.com, six of the top 11 finishers played the ball the first week.
Pretty soon, every golf ball manufacturer had a product similar to the Pro VI. The gap between all golf balls on the market has narrowed significantly in the last 15 years as technology has grown.
Data backs up Dickens’ assessment.
Gene Parente is the president of Golf Laboratories, an equipment testing company in San Diego, and is also a member of the Golf Digest Technical Advisory committee. His robot has hit thousands of shots with every club and ball manufactured since 1989.
“Based upon testing data my opinion is the overall scoring would not change, there are too many negatives that would mitigate any potential negatives,” Parente said.
Besides, pro golfers have to trust their golf ball. They choose a brand and type based on how it performs from the green backward and are unwilling to sacrifice performance on approach shots or around the greens. Also, once they make the choice they use that specific ball at home with friends, on the range at Tour events, everywhere.
Gaining similar confidence with a new golf ball would be difficult, especially if the reward is only 5 to 7 yards off the tee (for a golfer with a 120 mph swing speed) and accuracy is sacrificed.
The many variables in golf would also deter pros from wanting different balls for different portions of their game, one PGA Tour equipment representative said. What if a player put a high-spinning ball into play and then three inches of rain softened the greens overnight. Or the wind direction changed unexpectedly? Tour players and their caddies chart distances and details in meticulous fashion. Throwing even more variables into the mix would complicate matters and lead to six-hour rounds.
Todd Anderson, the director of golf at Sea Island, works with a number of Tour professionals. He sees little room for improvement with the modern ball and minimal difference from brand to brand.
"I could see where maybe if you could have a ball for each club, where it was designed for that club's loft, spin and launch conditions it might get a little bit better," he said. "But the ball we have now is unbelievably good."