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There's drama brewing in the golf world over a new ball for the professionals

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

There's drama brewing in the golf world over a new golf ball for professional male golfers. Why a new golf ball? Well, the pros are driving balls way farther than they did in the past, in part due to better golf equipment. And that is changing the character of some of the sport's classic courses. NPR's Gus Contreras reports on the history of the game and where it could be headed next.

GUS CONTRERAS, BYLINE: Golf equipment has evolved a lot through the years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: And that's where he's headed - just a little bit wide. But this ball appears to be hammered.

CONTRERAS: Clubs used to be made with wood, and the original ball was made out of leather stuffed with goose feathers, a far cry from the modern tech that utilizes titanium drivers and highly engineered golf balls.

JONATHAN WALL: If you go all the way back to when Tiger Woods first entered the professional golf scene in the late '90s, you know, that was, in my opinion, when equipment had this massive spike in technology.

CONTRERAS: That's Jonathan Wall, managing editor for equipment at golf.com.

WALL: And I think that's when the governing body started to take a closer look and say, all right, the balls may be going too far now. So what are we going to do to help rein back in distance?

CONTRERAS: The solution back then was to stretch out classic golf courses to their maximum distances, in theory to make it more challenging for the long hitters. But now the sustainability of that model is being questioned. Longer courses need more attention, land and water. So the new proposed solution is to create two separate golf balls, one for professionals and one for the everyday player. They don't want the pro ball to go as far as it currently does. A typical drive would be 20 yards shorter. The best example is like in baseball. There's a wooden bat used in major leagues and a metal bat used in college and recreational play. The wooden bats require that extra bit of skill to pound the ball 300-plus feet.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "NO LAYING UP")

BILLY HORSCHEL: There is many factors that go into this, and I don't believe the golf ball should have been singled out.

CONTRERAS: Professional golfer Billy Horschel was speaking on the "No Laying Up" podcast. He's won many tournaments.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "NO LAYING UP")

HORSCHEL: Yes, distance has increased on the PGA Tour. There's no doubt about that. We are making a change for 0.1% of the golfers in the world.

CONTRERAS: Horschel disagrees with the proposed rule change. He doesn't think there is a problem with distance or the ball. But at the local level, where the majority of recreational golfers play, there's a trickle-down effect, says Will Smith. He's co-founder of National Links Trust, the nonprofit organization that manages the three public golf courses in Washington, D.C., including East Potomac Golf Links. Smith points out that this course is almost outdated now.

WILL SMITH: Eighteen full holes opened in 1923. So here we are 100 years later, and we're trying to build a golf course that can then challenge and be interesting to golfers who hit the ball probably on average 30, 40, 60 yards further.

CONTRERAS: Smith and his organization plan to renovate the D.C. courses, including making some holes longer, to stay relevant with modern equipment.

SMITH: Because when people make their decisions about where they want to play golf, one of the things they look at is yardage and - rightly or wrongly. Someone who's really good at golf might think that that's not a worthy test.

CONTRERAS: Golf equipment companies are in the business of helping people hit the ball further and argue the new pro ball will take the fun out of the game. Again, Jonathan Wall.

WALL: Everybody's been playing the same golf ball for eons. So to now tell them that there's going to be a pro ball and an amateur ball, it's just something that doesn't compute with a sport that's steeped in history.

CONTRERAS: Golf's ruling bodies hope to finalize a new ball by 2026 but are making it clear this change won't stop long drives or affect the weekend golfer for now. Gus Contreras, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIG PUN SONG, "STILL NOT A PLAYER (FEATURING JOE)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.