Distance. It’s the new buzzword that golfers and fans will hear frequently during the next year or so.
Unlike the anchoring discussion, which led to a ban two years ago but didn’t resonate with most golfers who use a traditional putting stroke, the distance debate – and the effect of modern golf equipment – resonates with everyone who picks up a club.
The U.S. Golf Association and the R&A fired the first official volley in the fight to control distance in issuing their 2017 Distance Report. Golf’s governing bodies reported in an accompanying news release an average distance gain of 3 yards since 2016. Data came from driving-distance statistics compiled on the PGA, European, Japan,Web.com, Champions, LPGA and Ladies European tours. Previous annual reports documented a “slow creep” of 0.2 yards per year.
Although the USGA took 24 pages to report essentially what was written in the preceding paragraph, the study never answered a key question: Why did distance jump in 2017?
The research focused almost exclusively on the professional game, leaving weekend recreational golfers with little input.
Only five venues in the United Kingdom were used in collecting data from male and female amateur “club” golfers.
The handicap golfer is the economic engine of the game and has the most to lose in any type of equipment rollback but was poorly represented in the data collection and will be shut out of any discussions among golf’s key stakeholders.
Any proposal for a limited-flight ball or further limits in other equipment would have little or no interest for amateur or professional golfers.
The USGA and the R&A have jointly decided to carry out a comprehensive analysis of increased distance and its effect on the game. The organizations did not outline the process or timing of any study. In fact, neither the USGA nor the R&A would make anyone available to discuss the report or future steps.
“In the upcoming week, we’ll be happy to connect you with the people who are leading the comprehensive analysis/stakeholder engagement process from the USGA’s team, as there are several – from our research, science and innovation team to equipment and others,” a USGA spokesperson wrote in response to a Morning Readinquiry.
The R&A took a similar position, stating, “I’m afraid we don’t have anything to add to what’s in the statement at this stage.”
Concurrently, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan e-mailed Tour members to inform them about the report.
Unlike the USGA, which has little skin in the game because the association neither owns nor runs courses and administers only 15 events annually, the PGA Tour stands out as golf’s 500-pound gorilla. When it decides to flex its muscles, it usually gets what it wants.
And it’s very clear that the Tour does not want to spend much time on this debate.
“Since 2007, when we started monitoring launch conditions each week on TOUR, average club head speed has increased by 1.5 mph,” Monahan said in his e-mail. “There is a strong correlation between club head speed and the total distance gains seen since 2003. We believe this increase in club head speed is mostly attributable to a combination of factors, such as increased player athleticism and fitness, physical build of the player, enhancements in equipment fitting and the proliferation of launch-monitoring capabilities. It is interesting to note that since 2003, the average age of a TOUR member has gone down, and the average height has gone up.”
Monahan, who replaced the retired Tim Finchem in January 2017, put the responsibility on any distance gain not on equipment but on the athleticism of the Tour’s golfers and precision measurement technology.
Further, Monahan says that in reviewing the same data as the USGA, the PGA Tour does not think the trend indicates a significant or abnormal increase in distance since 2003, or from 2016 to 2017.
Clearly, the USGA/R&A and the PGA Tour are diametrically opposed on this debate from the beginning.
Monahan has requested that the USGA attend the next Player Advisory Council meeting, which will be held in early May during the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, N.C., to share its perspective.
Golf’s leaders will meet next month during the Masters at Augusta National, and distance likely will be discussed. One golf figure who will not be represented in those meetings, nor has been involved in any previous discussions, is the typical double-digit-handicap amateur.
Recreational golfers largely were left out of the anchoring discussion, even though they were the most affected by the Jan. 1, 2016, ban on the anchored stroke, which effectively eliminated the long putter from competition.
Now, that same group has little or no voice in this debate, even though those amateurs again will be significantly impacted.
Monahan moved quickly to defend the PGA Tour’s interests, but who will stand up for the amateur golfers, who are the economic driver of the game?
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @AlexMiceli