Distance Is Officially on Notice

By | March 9, 2018

Annual Distance Report Reveals Sizable Jump Across Major Tours | via USGA.org

As noted in previous annual reports, variability in driving distance of 4 or more yards from season to season on any one tour is not uncommon. However, this level of increase across so many tours in a single season is unusual and concerning, and requires closer inspection and monitoring to fully understand the causes and effects…

Increases in distance can contribute to demands for longer, tougher and more resource-intensive golf courses at all levels of the game. These trends can impact the costs to operate golf courses and put additional pressures on golf courses in their local environmental landscape. The effect of increasing distance on the balance between skill and technology is also a key consideration. Maintaining this balance is paramount to preserving the integrity of golf.

I wanted to take a few days to digest the news that there is now unavoidable proof that distance is growing at an unusual rate on the major tours. You can read the entire report for yourself, but, here are a few things that stood out to me while looking at the numbers.

USGA Figure 1

Graphic via USGA.org

The one-year spikes are obvious. Perhaps something has slipped past the regulators and players are seeing big gains. But a single year isn’t that big of a problem. Regulators should easily be able to find where the gains are coming from, a particular ball design or driver concept, and pull it back in as non-conforming. I hope these gains are a result of equipment at least. Might we see these numbers come back down now that the PGA Tour has implemented their revised anti-doping policy? Let’s give everyone the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s just a hot ball and/or driver.

So, how much distance have the major tours roughly gained since 2000?

Gains

It looks huge but even those numbers can be misleading. The chart at the top explains the yardage growth over the years. First, it was the metal driver coming online, then the multi-layer ball. They then claim that distance stabilized from 2004 through 2016 due to regulation. The two questions are thus:

  1. Why has it taken so long for the ruling bodies to react to the steady growth in distance?
  2. What caused the spike last year?

Why has it taken this long?

Increasing distance on the major tours isn’t news really. We’ve watched players dominate courses with the long ball going back over two decades to the Tiger Revolution. “Tiger Proofing” golf courses became a thing. Other players realized that they needed to increase their distance off of the tee or have no chance of competing. Those that found the length, or grew up developing it from the beginning, are now among the top players in the world. It’s likely a combination of improved technology and improved athletes playing the game. So, why have the ruling bodies been so slow to rein in this growth? Part of it has to be the money.

New and improved works on us as consumers. We want to believe that this year’s driver is the longest and straightest ever. Why else would we pay $500 for it? And, sure, that ball from Titleist worked great for us last year, but Taylormade says their ball is even longer. I want to hit it even longer. I better buy a dozen and try them out. But, we’re also not fools. If the new driver isn’t really hotter, if that ball doesn’t really help me gain 5 more yards, I’m going to be upset. And, with the technology revolution, we have several ways of measuring our results down to the yard. It can’t just “feel” like a better piece of equipment. We’re going to measure the results for ourselves. If that manufacturer doesn’t deliver? Bye Felicia.

Incremental growth in average distance is good for the health of the companies that support the game and makes the folks that play golf happy. No one want’s to buy a club from a manufacturer that has to admit, “Well, due to regulations, it looks different but will perform about the same as any driver you’ve purchased since 2012.” I don’t see this sort of distance creep ending anytime soon.

What happened in 2017?

This is what has the various bodies the most nervous and why we’re finally hearing that they are going to be looking into this as a real problem.

Building on the extensive research we have undertaken in recent years, we will conduct a thoughtful conversation about the effects of distance prior to making any specific proposals. We remain open-minded and our absolute priority is to ensure that all key stakeholders are involved in an open and inclusive process, and that we move forward together in the best interests of golf at all levels. There is no fixed timetable, but we will commence this process immediately and endeavor to reach a conclusion as promptly as possible.

My takeaway is that, while they officially acknowledge that things are getting a bit out of control, they aren’t entirely sure why or what can be done about it. There are simply too many parties that could be negatively impacted by a significant change at this point.

What about us?

If you read deeper into the distance report you’ll find some interesting stats involving amateur players. There are pages of statistics and charts but the simple takeaway is this: We’re seeing gains but not at the same rate as the pros.

It can be seen that while there are year-to-year fluctuations, overall, the average driving distance has increased from 200 yards in 1996 to 208 yards in 2017

That’s only a 4% increase. Golf is still a hard game to play and there is more to gaining distance off of the tee than buying the right equipment. The best of the best are getting longer at a faster rate than we are.

And there is the real conflict. Golf manufacturers live off of our dollars. With all of their research and innovation over the last twenty years, they’ve only managed to find us 8-yards. If the ruling bodies crack down on innovation, to slow it down, or even as some have proposed, rolling that technology back 20%, the lifeblood of golf, the average amateur player, is going to be very ill-served.

If helping 99.99% of golfers enjoy their time on the course more means that the top players in the world are going to continue to be able to render classic courses obsolete, so be it. Professional golf is not bigger than the game itself.