News & Opinion

There's no turning back on driving distance

Bryson DeChambeau 2020 PGA Championship
Bryson DeChambeau and his corps of bombers are pushing the driving-distance stats on the PGA Tour into new territory.

With 300-yard drives becoming the norm on major pro tours, golf shows no signs of capping its distance gains. Yet, recreational golfers love their added pop and equipment makers happily sell the high-powered gear, leaving the governing bodies in a bind

The long ball in golf never has been this long.

Drives exceeding 350 yards and approaching 400 once were the stuff of “Happy Gilmore,” the silly Adam Sandler golf flick.

Maybe Sandler knew something we didn’t. Gary McCord knew, too. He predicted golf’s current power surge about eight years ago, when I was researching a story on Jamie Sadlowski, a World Long Drive champ whom he had befriended and dubbed “Crankenstein.”

“Maybe in the next five years, one of these long-drive guys is going to get good at golf,” said McCord, a former PGA Tour pro who was fired last year as a CBS golf analyst. “He’s going to drive it 400 yards and straight, and he’s going to make PGA Tour courses look like executive golf.”

That’s not an exact quote, just the gist as I remember it. McCord thought that Sadlowski might be that guy. Though the wiry Canadian with a 100-mph hockey slapshot still can hit it 400 yards all day at age 32, his pursuit of a career in tournament golf has stalled.

No matter. We’ve got Bryson DeChambeau, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Cameron Champ and Tony Finau, to name just a few, who are frequent fliers in the 350-Plus Club. DeChambeau, The Incredible Bulk, was the first PGA Tour winner to average more than 350 on his drives when he won the Rocket Mortgage Classic in July. Yes, it’s been a hot, dry summer, and golf balls are rolling long distances. But 350 is still 350. Pro golf inarguably has been transGilmorized.

Golf’s governing bodies talked earlier this year about finally taking on golf’s distance problem. It’s an issue that has been discussed for decades, especially since the driver and ball revolutions at the start of the 21st century. The recent USGA-R&A announcement that any action on distance will be delayed until next year should be given a pass. We’re in a global pandemic. There other priorities, if you haven’t noticed.

The forces in golf aren’t universally in agreement that anything should be done. And if something is to be done, they definitely disagree on what that should be.

Golfers have gained distance because athletes are bigger and stronger; driver heads are bigger and better; shafts are better than ever and frequency matched for optimum performance; instruction is better thanks to super slo-mo video and other technologies; and the game now draws from a global pool of players.

The average PGA Tour driving distance this season is 295.8, with 71 players averaging 300 or better and 29 topping 305. On the Korn Ferry Tour, where courses often are less lush and there’s more roll, the average driving distance is 307.0 yards.

Jack Nicklaus has been crying “wolf!” for decades on the ball and said during his recent Memorial Tournament, “The USGA and the R&A can’t just keep burying their heads on this.”

Nicklaus is right, but what’s missing from golf is a realistic, workable resolution.

Any plan almost certainly would have to include bifurcation, that is, different sets of rules for amateurs and pros. Recreational golf, despite the recent surge of play during COVID-19, struggles to find new players to replace the baby-boomer generation, the last of the golf addicts. Making amateur hacks give up distance with reduced-flight balls or drivers isn’t just a tough sell; it’s a non-starter.

The golf ball isn’t the only culprit in today’s power game, but it is a leading one. Fixing that isn’t so easy.

One option is to make the ball slightly larger. The laws of friction will reduce its flight. That’s been done before. The British “small ball” was used in the United Kingdom until late in the 20th century, and it went farther than the slightly larger American model. Another bump on ball size could do the trick, although amateurs would protest vehemently.

Another option would be to limit ball dimples and their shapes, in hopes of taking another percentage point or two off ball flight and by giving golf balls more curve than today’s forgiving models. We’re in a golden age of golf-ball technology. The old balls, when mis-hit, curved way off-line. Not anymore. More spin would bring more skill back.

A third option would be to turn back the clock and make wound balata golf balls again. Golf.com recently used a swing robot to test-hit 1990-era liquid-center balata balls, and results showed an approximate 22-32-yard decrease in driving distance. Not bad.

Balata is a fascinating concept, but you couldn’t give those things away to a golfing public raised on semi-indestructible four-piece balls that fly significantly farther. Balata-ball covers were so soft that one bad swing caused a “smile” in the cover. Because balata balls were the priciest, most average golfers purchased balls with sturdier covers. Shorter and even more expensive balls? Amateur hacks would say, Forget it, or worse, Forget golf.

The main obstacles in the distance problem are the equipment companies. Titleist has had a dominant share of the ball market, bordering on a monopoly. Any changes that level the playing field even slightly, and thus reduce the company’s dominance, would be seen as bad for Titleist and, in its view, bad for golf.

Every equipment maker is necessarily in a me-first position. They’re not here for the good of the game; they’re here for the good of their business.

A standardized ball has been suggested. We could require a certain brand of reduced-flight ball to be used, or possibly each company could produce its own model based on standardized specs.

That won’t happen, either, for the same reason that bifurcation won’t happen. The equipment makers would have to re-tool to make balls for pro players while continuing to produce balls for the public. It would be a large expense to make a limited number of balls for the pros, especially when there is zero chance of selling those shorter-flying balls to the public.

Any attempt to change the status quo will be resisted by the equipment makers because every option interrupts their business model.

The equipment makers use professional golf as their advertising-delivery method. Touring pros are paid to use a company’s driver or irons or putter or wedges or its ball, and they proudly carry its logo on their hats and bags.

Under bifurcation – a concept opposed by the USGA and R&A, by the way – touring pros would use clubs and balls that don’t go as far as what amateurs can use. That kills the equipment makers’ advertising. Bridgestone sells the exact model ball that Tiger Woods uses to the public. If the public won’t buy that ball because it doesn’t fly as far, Bridgestone has little reason to pay Woods endorsement money. Worse, it has to figure out a whole new way to persuade the general public to buy its gear based on some reason other than it’s what PGA Tour players use.

Add it up and see who opposes bifurcation or reigning in the ball in pro golf, and the answer is, Just about everyone in the golf business: equipment companies, players, agents and the pro tours. With so many dollars at stake, huge lawsuits are inevitable.

Who’s really strongly in favor of reigning in the pros? The governing bodies, who are watching skill erode from golf at the pro level and the world’s courses turning into pitch-and-putt tracks. And maybe, only maybe, some of the viewing public.

Even though I agree with the governing bodies on this issue, I don’t see how they win this fight.

So, opting for another delay might be preferable to getting knocked out … like Happy Gilmore was by game-show host Bob Barker.

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