LONDON (Reuters) - Proposals to limit the distance golf balls travel when struck by elite players have received the surprise backing of four-time major winner Rory McIlroy.
Several players including world number two Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas have criticised the Model Local Rule (MLR) proposal outlined last week by golf's rules makers the R&A and United States Golf Association (USGA).
However, Northern Ireland's McIlroy, one of the longest hitters in the world, said he supports the move.
"For elite level play, I really like it. I really do," Northern Ireland's world number three told the No Laying Up podcast this week.
"I'm glad in this new proposal that they haven't touched the recreational golfer. 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."
Average driving distances are around 300 metres on the PGA Tour but many players are well in excess of that, meaning some courses are in danger of becoming obsolete.
Club technology has long come under the microscope but now the R&A and USGA are turning their attention to balls.
The MLR proposal, which could come into force by 2026, would give competition organisers the option to require players to use only balls tested under modified launch conditions.
To meet maximum-distance criteria, golf balls will have to not exceed the current Overall Distance Standard (ODS) limit of 320 yards when struck by a clubhead with a speed of 127mph under laboratory conditions.
McIlroy has voiced his disapproval in the past at measures to curb distance, branding the R&A and USGA's "Distance Insights Project" aimed at curbing driving distances, as a waste of time and money in 2021.
But he now says the game needs to be protected from technological advances.
"Innovation is a part of every sport, it's a part of every industry," he said. "But whenever that innovation outgrows the footprint of the game, that's when I think we have a problem."
The R&A says that over the last 20 years, average hitting distance has increased by one yard per year.
It says the proposed MLR testing set-up would potentially reduce the distance by 14-15 yards on average for the longest hitters with the highest clubhead speeds.
McIlroy currently leads the PGA driving distance charts with an average 326 yards but says he would be willing to adopt the MLR rule even if the PGA Tour did not.
"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," McIlroy said.
"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 majors."
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Christian Radnedge)