Bobby Jones Wanted to Roll Back the Golf Ball and Bifurcate the Rules

Golfer Bobby Jones, who wanted to roll back golf ball distance
Some things never change. For example, complaining about the pernicious effects of new equipment on golf and, specifically, golf courses.

Even Bobby Jones complained. The sainted Jones once proposed that the Haskell ball be rolled back and replaced with ... gutties! But only among elite, tournament golfers — he also proposed bifurcating the rules, allowing everyday golfers to continue using the wonderful, rubber-cored Haskells, while elite golfers went back to the shorter-flying gutties.

Dateline August 13, 1927. Jones has just returned from Great Britain with dozens of gutta-percha balls in tow (gutties went out of fashion when the Haskell ball was invented in 1898; Haskells — wound-rubber balls that were essentially in use for another 90 years — flew significantly farther than gutties).

Pittsburgh Press reporter Jimmy Powers quoted Bobby Jones saying this, as he deplaned with his gutties:

"Modern golf is ruining every golf course in America. There has been a constant stretching of courses to cope with increased distances. That makes up a vicious circle. Championship caliber links once were 6,000 yards; then 6,500 yards; now they are close to 7,000 yards and, if it keeps up, may have to go to 7,500."

Well, Jones was certainly right about that. Jones continued:

"The premium is now on strength; it should be on skill! Golf has deteriorated to a drive-and-pitch proposition. ...

"The most skillful clubs in the bag are rusty with the too lively ball. My two favored shots are a long iron to the green and a spoon. How many times do I get a chance to use either in the course of a round? Not many. And what a kick there is in playing a long iron or a spoon up to within a few feet of the hole!

"What we lose in distance with the 'gutty' ball we will make up in control."

One day after the Pittsburgh Press story, an article in the Aug. 13, 1927 Miami News explained that Jones' comments followed on the ideas of USGA president William Fownes, who was "looking for aid in his single-handed campaign to keep golf courses shorter by restricting the flight of the present-day golf ball."

"For years Mr. Fownes has been insisting that the present ... ball is entirely too lively; that it is ruining golf courses and taking from the game much of the skill that was formerly required with balls of the 'gutty' type. ..."

The article explained that Jones had just returned from Scotland with a bunch of gutties, which "in the event they play as well as he thinks they will, he will endorse whole-heartedly as the ball to be used in future championships."

Jones suggested bifurcating the rules, requiring pros and highly skilled amateurs to use the gutties, while the rest of the golf world kept playing Haskells:

"Let the majority of golfers keep their fun and their electric balls: I merely suggest that a saner brand be selected for the small-handicap players and stars in championships. And after all, what difference does it make whether you go around a course in 65 strokes with the present ball or 80 strokes with something restoring the balance between strength and skill?"

OK, I guess some things change: Jones' contention that it doesn't matter whether the field is shooting 65 or shooting 80 would get him kicked out of PGA Tour lockerrooms today. Today, the pros have to shoot low or they just can't handle the embarrassment. Witness the whining every year at the U.S. Open.

What became of Jones' testing of those gutties he brought back from Scotland? I've not yet found an article that addresses that. But we all know what really happened: Nothing. There was no golf-ball rollback in 1927 or any other year, not even when Bobby Jones himself was urging one.

Today, luminaries such as Jack Nicklaus favor of a rollback of golf ball technology, and the USGA has done some testing of possible "tournament balls." But the next time a golf ball rollback happens will be the first time it happens.

Addendum: Well, that first time finally happened. In 2023, the USGA and R&A announced a rollback of the golf ball. It takes effect for pros and highly skilled amateurs in 2028 and for recreational golfers in 2030.

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