News & Opinion

Distance data come up short against reality

The eyeball test is valid. That’s why it was amusing early this year when the U.S. Golf Association and the R&A issued a report that effectively patted themselves on the back for getting golf’s distance crisis under control (http://bit.ly/2lP03ih).

I hope those ladies and gents watched golf this year. Under control? Excuse me, but what I’ve seen is that golf is well into Happy Gilmore territory. 

Never mind how many PGA Tour players hit their 3-woods at least 300 yards. Even if those are really 2-woods (hey, remember those?), let that number sink in. Three hundred yards with a 3-wood. That’s where we are … or wish we were, in the case of us amateur hacks.

This could be one factor in why the USGA’s numbers don’t pass the eyeball test. Why hit driver when a 3-wood offers better accuracy and still goes 300 yards? More players opting for that club on some distance-measuring holes skew the driving-distance numbers lower. That’s why you’ve got to use your eyes.

All you had to do was watch the U.S. Open at Erin Hills, where wide fairways flanked by penal fescue rough invited driver use. Winner Brooks Koepka is a big-hitter cut from the mold of 2016 champion Dustin Johnson. Koepka averaged 322.1 yards per drive at Erin Hills, which ranked only seventh for the week. Nine players averaged more than 320 yards, and two topped 330. Cameron Champ, at 337.3, was the distance king. The fact that not-so-big-hitter Brian Harman challenged Koepka for the Open just tells you how good Harman truly played that week.

You also could check out the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow, where Jason Kokrak busted a 376-yard drive Sunday at the 16th hole and Tony Finau led the field in driving distance with an average of 328.7.

Back to that report: It was considered positive because PGA Tour players picked up on average about 5 yards off the tee since 2003, or about 1 yard every three years. That’s turning down the faucet following a torrent of gains in preceding years, but it’s not turning off the faucet.

Here are more numbers: Players who averaged 300 or more yards per drive on the PGA Tour tripled from nine in ’03 to 27 last year to 42 this season. That doesn’t sound so horrible? Well, 48 players averaged 300-plus yards on the Web.com Tour in ’16, and 89 are blasting it that far this season. 

You can’t blame the power gains solely on equipment. Players are stronger and fitter. Tiger Woods started that trend. Although there seem to be more big players than ever before, that apparently doesn’t matter. Johnson, the new No. 1 player in the world, is 6 feet 4 inches. Jordan Spieth, Henrik Stenson and Jon Rahm are the only other golfers in the top 10 taller than 6 feet. But you don’t have to be big to hit it long these days. Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas are 5-10, and they’re among the tour’s biggest bombers. 

Even PGA Tour Champions players aren’t getting older; they’re getting longer. Thirteen seniors hit it 280 or more in ’03. Twenty-seven topped 280 last season.

Memo to USGA: Remember, these slow and steady gains have happened despite your drawing lines in the sand on clubhead size, COR (coefficient of restitution) and MOI (moment of inertia). What’s left for you to rein in to regain control?

Gee, maybe the ball? 

I rank not addressing the modern golf ball, as Jack Nicklaus and the late Arnold Palmer and many others urged for years, as the USGA’s second-biggest blunder of all time. The first was permitting metal woods – um, what part of wood did you not understand? 

Putting some kind of restriction on the ball – for professional players only, not amateurs – is the modern game’s only remaining defense before tournament courses have to upgrade to 8,000 yards, if any of them can.

I don’t know why the USGA hasn’t reined in the ball, but I can guess. One, the USGA presumably was afraid of a potential legal battle with Titleist, the king of the ball-makers, which has an understandable interest in defending its market advantage. The USGA’s pockets didn’t used to be as deep as Titleist’s. Now, the USGA has $1 billion of Fox Sports’ money and is rich enough to act without fear. Plus, suing the USGA on this matter would be bad publicity for any manufacturer.

Two, the USGA surely thought it didn’t dare limit the ball in a time when the public’s interest in golf is in marked decline. The game is too hard, takes too long and costs too much. Limiting a ball’s distance would undercut interest for amateurs.

One potential solution would be bifurcation – one set of equipment rules for professionals and one for amateurs, like in baseball where the pros use wooden bats while amateurs use “hotter” aluminum bats. Bifurcation could be a good thing for golf. The rulesmakers could rein in the ball slightly, put a greater emphasis on shotmaking and skill for tour players and keep older courses relevant instead of consistently moving tees back.

Meanwhile, limits could be lifted for amateurs, allowing equipment-makers to go back to innovating better, easier-to-hit, longer clubs. That would be a win-win.

I have had more than one USGA official adamantly maintain that bifurcation can’t be done. Well, it already has been done. The smaller ball was used in the British Open until 1974 and in the United Kingdom until 1990. We’ve played golf with two sets of rules – bifurcation – for much longer than we’ve played with one set. We also had that brief flap when the Callaway ERC driver was legal in the rest of the world for a while but not in the U.S.

The USGA and R&A have distance under control? I guess it’s just a coincidence that all of golf’s lowest major-championship scores have been posted in the past six years. The most obvious example was last year’s British Open at Royal Troon, as Stenson posted a 20-under winning total while mostly hitting 3-woods off the tee.

No major is in greater danger of becoming obsolete by distance than the British Open. This year, Royal Birkdale’s fairways were narrowed substantially, forcing many golfers to holster their drivers. Yet Branden Grace posted the first 62 in a major. The week’s experience caused Martin Slumbers, the R&A’s chief executive, to note some modest concern.

“Technology and skill – are they in balance, and is it good for the recreational game?” Slumbers said. “Is it the same for the elite game? Those are two issues we are looking at. If you look at the data over the last 18 months, we are seeing movements. . . . We will take a full look at the end of the year and make sure we analyze and think about it very carefully.”

Take your time, gents. Happy Gilmore is – tap, tap, tap-a-roonie – not going away.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle