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Rules Throwback: One Size Didn't Always Fit All May 10, 2017 By Jamie Wallace, USGA

The golf balls Jack Nicklaus used in The Open Championship in the early 1970's were smaller than the ones he would have used in the U.S. (USGA Archives)

1952 was a historic year for the game of golf, and specifically for the Rules of Golf. This was when the USGA and The R&A first came together to release a joint code of the Rules of Golf to govern the game worldwide. This cooperation stemmed from 1951 meetings in St. Andrews and London between the two organizations, plus representatives from the Australian Golf Union and the Royal Canadian Golf Association. USGA Executive Director Joseph C. Dey Jr. summed up the meetings very succinctly, saying: “There were no axes to grind, no ultra-nationalistic views. They were just golf-lovers, and they worked together in complete harmony.”

However, there was still one significant difference between the USGA and The R&A Rules coming out of the 1952 code: the size of the golf ball. Over the years, various sizes and weights of golf balls were used around the world. Eventually two variations were standardized: the smaller British ball could not be less than 1.62 inches in diameter and could not weigh more than 1.62 ounces, while the larger American ball could not be less than 1.68 inches in diameter and could not weigh more than 1.62 ounces. That difference in size sounds negligible, but actually had a significant impact on the flight of the ball, with the smaller version flying farther and straighter than the larger version. As proof of this, American players who played in The R&A’s Open Championship during this period typically switched to the smaller British ball during the competition.

In an effort to end this ongoing difference in golf ball size, the USGA and The R&A put forward a proposal in September 1970 for the worldwide adoption of a 1.66-inch diameter golf ball. Following three years of debate across the golf community, including among the professional tours and golf ball manufacturers, the proposal was withdrawn in August 1973.

In 1974, The R&A took a significant step toward uniformity when they made the larger 1.68-inch ball mandatory in their Open Championship. However, it was not until Jan. 1, 1990, just 27 years ago, that The R&A officially outlawed the smaller golf ball.

Jamie Wallace is the manager of Rules Education and Digital Content. Email him at jwallace@usga.org.

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