Last week, the USGA and R&A proposed a Model Local Rule (MLR) that gives competition organizers the option to require the use of golf balls that are tested under modified launch conditions to address the impacts of hitting distance in golf.
In simplified terms: a rolled-back golf ball for elite competitions.
The reaction from professional golfers was almost universally negative. They didn't like the idea of bifurcation. They didn’t want to see long hitters reigned in. They didn’t want to lose the connection with the amateur game. In dozens of interviews around the world, they expressed frustration, disappointment, even confusion.
Rory McIlroy, however, was not among them.
The reason? He is in favor of the proposal. All of it.
In an exclusive interview with No Laying Up on Tuesday, McIlroy said he thinks the potential changes, which are proposed to take effect in 2026, would be good for the overall health of the sport and potentially reintroduce skills into the professional game that have been diminished over the past few decades. McIlroy said he was not in favor of a full rollback that included amateurs, but a rollback at the elite level is a workable compromise.
“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. You guys [at No Laying Up] use the term ‘golf has been dumbed down a little bit at the elite level,’ and I completely agree. 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.”
The proposal — which would limit the distance a ball can fly to 320 yards when struck with a 127 mph swing speed during testing — would likely result in driver distances decreasing by 15 to 20 yards for elite players. It would also, in theory, make players like McIlroy hit more mid-irons and fewer wedges and short irons. McIlroy believes that would be good for the sport. It might also separate the best players from the pack more often.
“Selfishly, I think it helps me,” McIlroy said. “I think this is only gonna help the better player. You know, it might help the longer player too, in some ways. But I think it's going to help the overall professional game. I think making guys hit some long irons again, and some mid irons, and being able to hit every club in your bag in a round of golf. … I can't remember the last time when I've had to do that. I don't know if this change in the ball will make us do that, but it certainly is a step closer to that.”
McIlroy conceded that, over time, his views on the issue have evolved. When the USGA released its long-awaited Distance Insights Report in 2021, he famously called it “a huge waste of time and a huge waste of money.” But when the governing bodies chose to limit their proposal to elite competitions and elite players, he felt he could support it. The sustainability aspect is an important part of his reasoning as well.
“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.”
It was actually tennis that planted some seeds in McIlroy’s brain to help him change his mind.
“I had a really good chat with the chairman of the All England Lawn and Tennis Club when I was at Wimbledon a few years ago,” McIlroy said. “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.”
Instead of fighting tooth and nail against the changes, arguing that the big servers were losing their biggest weapon, tennis mostly embraced them. And the sport thrived.
“They didn't make a big deal of it,” McIlroy said. “They didn't have to go through all the things that the R&A and the USGA have to, but it's another example of another sport slowing the ball down and making some changes that I think has certainly benefited that sport. People can talk about, in this country, about going from an aluminum baseball bat in college to going to a wooden bat in the pros. This isn't unique to golf, this happens in other sports as well.”
McIlroy said he realizes he’s likely going to be among a minority of PGA Tour players who are in favor of the changes.
“I think my opinion differs from my peers, and probably the PGA Tour as a whole,” McIlroy said. “And obviously, look, this is just my opinion and I'm only one voice. But honestly, if I'm taking my PGA Tour hat off here, the major championships are already such a big deal in the game of golf, and 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. Which, if anything, the PGA Tour is trying to make up some sort of market share, or trying to get a little closer to the major championships in terms of the interest that we create within our tournaments.”
If the PGA Tour doesn’t adopt the Model Local Rule, McIlroy said he may still play the rolled back ball in PGA Tour events.
“Honestly, 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,” McIlroy said. “And again, this is personal preference and personal opinion at this stage of my career. 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 that 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.”
Chris Solomon is the co-founder of No Laying Up and head of podcast content.
Kevin Van Valkenburg is the Editorial Director of No Laying Up.