Looking Back: The 'American Ball' and 'British Ball'

Once upon a time, the USGA and the R&A, the two governing bodies of golf, had different rules concerning the sizes of golf balls. The USGA's mandated minimum size was ever-so-slightly larger than the R&A's mandated minimum size. So the USGA's ball was sometimes called the big ball, and the R&A's the small ball. More often, they were simply referred to as the American ball and the British ball.

Beginnings of the Big Ball and Small Ball

Since the early 1900s, the two bodies had agreed that golf balls had to weigh at least 1.62 ounces. But the R&A's rule was that golf balls had to have a diameter of at least 1.62 inches, while in the United States, the USGA ruled in the early 1930s that balls required a minimum diameter of 1.68 inches.

So, in effect, there were two different golf ball sizes around the world: the slightly larger American ball in places governed by the USGA, and the slightly smaller British ball in places govered by the R&A.

The two governing bodies came together in the early 1950s to create a single, standardized version of the Rules of Golf. And they did, with one notable exception: they still disagreed about golf ball size. So the American ball continued to be slightly larger than the British ball.

Did that tiny difference in ball size matter? After all, we're talking about a 0.06-inch difference — about 1.5 millimeters.

Difference Performances in American, British Balls

It certainly did matter: The smaller British ball flew a bit farther and a bit straighter than the larger American ball. The British ball was illegal under the USGA's rules, but the American ball was legal under R&A rules: The British ball was smaller than the USGA's minimum size, but the American ball was larger than the R&A's minimum.

That meant that when American golfers traveled to an R&A territory for competition — for the British Open, for example — Americans (and everyone else) had a choice of which ball to use. And most American golfers in the British Open chose to foresake the American ball and play with the small ball. Of course, British golfers had that choice all along, and with very few exceptions chose to play the small ball.

The End of the British Ball

This difference in the rules was one of the last points of contention between the R&A and USGA, and it lasted a lot longer than you would probably guess. In the early 1970s, the two organizations decided to split the difference and agree on a minimum golf ball diameter of 1.66 inches. But that proposal, it turned out, didn't make anyone on either side of the pond happy, and it was withdrawn in 1973.

A year later, beginning in 1974, the R&A began a very slow retreat on the topic of ball size when it barred the use of the British ball in the British Open. From that point, only the American ball was "legal" in the British Open — but the small ball remained an option for all other golfers under R&A rules.

Finally, on Jan. 1, 1990, the rules regarding golf ball size became uniform across the entire golf world when the R&A adopted the 1.68-inch minimum standard. It was only then that the terms small ball, British ball and American ball became obsolete. Ever since, we have only had golf balls.

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