Back in May, the USGA and R&A announced that they would launch a website for further study of driving distance, eliciting opinions from pros, amateurs, equipment makers and even the media.
It would be easier just to read our stories from the past decade or so, but whatever.
So, let me sum up the state of driving distance in the men’s professional game for you, ladies and gents of the governing bodies: Ball go far.
That statement, unlike the ball, doesn’t go far enough. The proof is in the Happy Gilmore-like driving numbers in pro golf.
Rory McIlroy leads the PGA Tour with an average of 320.0 yards per drive. With one event left, next week’s Tour Championship, he could become the first player to average 320 for a season.
He’s not alone in such rarefied air. Fourteen players average 310-plus yards, and 61 – 61! – average 300 or more. This stat doesn’t mean much, given that the Kapalua event is played on a mountain and the Mexico event was played at roughly 7,500 feet of altitude, but I’ll throw it out there for effect: There were 95 drives in excess of 400 yards on the PGA Tour.
The Tour’s average as a whole off the tee is 296.0, the highest ever.
Now here’s the really bad news for the USGA and R&A: The distance problem isn’t going away. In fact, it’s certain to get worse. Driving numbers on the Web.com Tour, the Class AAA to the PGA Tour’s major league, are even more Gilmoresque.
That tour averages 304.6 yards as a whole, 8.6 yards longer than the PGA Tour. Cameron Champ leads the Web.com Tour with an average of 342 yards per drive. That’s 342, average. Brandon Matthews is second at 333.7, and six other players are averaging more than 320 – longer than McIlroy, in other words – and 101 average in excess of 300.
And remember, these guys aren’t the best golfers in the world. But they are the longest.
Jack Nicklaus, the late Arnold Palmer and others have ranted about the ball since before this century began. If the governing bodies were listening, they didn’t do anything. But luckily they did react to vital issues ruining the game such as anchored putting strokes (which they allowed for more than 30 years before suddenly banning them in 2016); rangefinders (which nearly every golfer in the world favors); green-reading books; and how long you get to look for a lost ball (three minutes next year instead of the traditional five, even though with distance increases, you might be looking 30 yards farther along the hole than in 2000, making the exact search area harder to locate).
There are enough angles in the distance debate to make for a fascinating game of snooker. There’s more to distance than just the ball. There’s the shaft, lighter and longer and made from new alloys. Launch angles. Titanium. There’s fitness. There’s agronomy.
PGA Tour player Chris Kirk had an enlightened take last month in Boston when he said, “The driver and the ball don’t go any farther than they did eight years ago. Guys are making it go farther. People want to change the rule, change the ball, change the stuff. It doesn’t matter. Guys continue to get better in every professional sport. That’s just the way it goes.”
Kirk is right about the latter point. Professional golfers are bigger athletes and better athletes than ever before. How many guys the size of Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka do you remember from the 1980s? Historically, most of golf’s legends were under 6 feet tall. Not anymore.
The ball does go farther, though. Thank launch monitors that led to revelations about shafts and launch angles and spin that no one suspected. Even well into the 1990s, the better the player, the higher-compression ball he played. You were a player if you used the Titleist Professional 90 compression, a real stick if you used the 100 compression and a total stud if you hit 110.
Now, launch angles and spin rates mean that top-of-the-line golf ball compressions are 70 or below, unthinkable two decades ago. Pull out your favorite mid-to-late-’90s driver and try it with today’s balls. The low compression and lower spin rate of these balls mean that all you can hit is a low line drive.
Apparently, it’s going to take a calm week at a British Open and someone shooting 58 to make the governing bodies realize that their yacht is engulfed in flames and it’s past time to do something. St. Andrews’ Old Course now relies on parts of multiple adjoining properties for tee boxes in order to try to keep up with the pros.
Do something? But what? I see three options, all of them involving bifurcation – separate equipment rules for pros and amateurs – at least regarding the ball. The public is falling out of love with playing golf, despite what a few of the game’s spinmeisters try to tell you, and this is no time to tell recreational golfers that they’ve got to use a ball that goes shorter.
I’ll credit Tom Watson with Option One, and he concedes that he heard it from golf analyst and entertainer David Feherty: make the golf ball bigger. It’s already been done once. Golf in the U.S. used a ball 1.68 inches in diameter versus the ball used by the rest of the world, 1.62 inches. The British Open switched to the bigger ball in 1974, and the United Kingdom’s small ball finally went away in 1990 for recreational golfers.
Watson said that .06 inches may have made a 20-yard driving decrease. What would another .06-inch increase mean, and would that be enough? I’d love to see some research on that.
Option 2 is straight-up bifurcation of all equipment: one set of rules for pros and a separate set for amateurs. While reigning in the ball and creating new limits for drivers and perhaps other clubs, manufacturers could resume making even hotter drivers and longer balls for the golfing public, most of whom seldom break 90. It would be a win-win, de-obsoleting older championship courses while turning out equipment that makes the game easier and more enjoyable for the masses.
Option 3 is finding a different way to rein in the ball for pros, either with more-stringent ball-velocity limits, restrictions on cover material and/or a reduced number of maximum dimples that still would allow each manufacturer to continue to produce its proprietary ball.
Back in 2002, the USGA instituted assorted limitations on drivers and assured us that the explosive increases in driving distance were under control and not sustainable. Since then, they repeatedly have dismissed and, in my opinion, under-reported driving-distance gains.
So here we are. They got it badly wrong in 2002, and they’re still getting it wrong.
But it is awfully decent of them to ask my opinion, now that it’s too late.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle