You’re going to hear a lot more about golf’s distance debate in the coming weeks, so to help you prepare, we wanted to launch our first installment of Fansplaining, where we try to bring you up to speed on what people are fighting about and why it matters.
This isn’t meant to advocate for one position or another, but simply to help give an overview of what’s being discussed.
(In case you’re curious where the above screenshot came from, here’s how the Golf Channel debate on this topic looks right now.)
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Sum up the debate in the simplest terms.
It’s complicated, but the shortest way to sum it up is to say that many people feel the golf ball is simply going too far for the professional game to keep up. The extension of this is that many of golf’s classic venues are being rendered obsolete from a pro golf perspective. More distance means longer courses, which means more resources required to maintain them. As this trickles into the amateur game, this cost gets passed on in some way to the paying player, either through increased greens fees, member dues, or assessments.
Bro, your website is called No Laying Up. Isn’t distance exciting?
Of course it is. But there is more fallout from increased distance than just hitting more par 5’s in two. Look at Merion, where things had to be unpopularly tricked up to protect some semblance of architectural intent at the U.S. Open.
Or St. Andrews. Not only are tee boxes being stretched into other courses, but in 2015 the greens had to be kept so fast that balls wouldn’t sit still when the wind started to blow. There is a major butterfly effect that distance sets into motion that can affect architecture, agronomy, pace of play and much more, which is why people are discussing the topic.
Why is everyone talking about this now?
Because the USGA just released its annual distance report, which showed that the average driving distance across the world’s seven main professional tours was up more than 3 yards from 2016 to 2017. For comparison, prior to 2017, driving distance was slowly creeping up at around 0.2 yards per year. The biggest difference is that players on the Web.com Tour are now more than 10 yards longer than they were in 2003, the year after which the USGA and R&A released their Joint Statement of Principles, which recognized that “distance impacts many aspects of golf and that any further significant increases in hitting distances at the highest level are undesirable.” It’s unclear how to define those “significant increases,” but even if we’re there, the problem of implementing any kind of change or solution is incredibly complex.
Why is it complex?
First of all: Money. Telling the leading golf manufacturers that they have to intentionally make their product less effective obviously comes with a host of problems (and potential lawsuits). The market leaders obviously and understandably want to protect the market share they’ve spent decades building and it’s unclear how any rollback legislation from the USGA and R&A would affect those companies. With those interests varying widely from company to company – and with industry advertising affecting much of the conversation around golf – it can be very difficult to have an unbiased conversation around this topic.
This conversation gets muddied even further when people get stuck arguing about things like par and what a true test of golf looks like. Look no further than people freaking out about the low scores at the longest U.S. Open ever this past year.
So what are people saying?
In response to the distance report and the immediate reaction within the industry, the PGA of America issued a statement saying they are against any kind of ball rollback (no such thing has been officially proposed as of yet). They are currently polling their PGA members to gather more insight on how distance affects the average player.
Similarly, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan sent an email to players saying the organization believes the trends “do not indicate a significant or abnormal increase in distance.” Monahan’s email points to improved athleticism and club head speed as potential influences on distance.
Titleist, which controls the largest golf ball marketshare, issued similar comments, saying, “There were several contributing variables in 2017, including course selection and set-up, agronomical conditions and weather, which need to be considered when assessing the data.” You can read more about their comments here.
Many journalists and golf purists on the other side are using the distance report as further proof that the ball needs to be reigned in, which has been a consistent talking point from players like Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Tom Watson over the years as well. In their scenario, golf would roll things back to a ball that went approximately 80-90 percent as long as today’s ball.
I’m getting bored. How does this affect me?
The main problem in many of these above conversations is that the two groups don’t seem to be starting from the same position, which is dictated by one word: Bifurcation.
Many (but not all) of the people calling for a rollback of the ball are also calling for golf to embrace bifurcation, meaning adopting a different set of rules for professionals and amateurs. The easiest example to point to is baseball and the aluminum/wood bat divide. If golf was to bifurcate its rules and strictly rollback the professional ball, then nothing about your golf game would change. You’d continue to play the same golf balls, manufacturers would continue to innovate and professional golf would theoretically be able to return to (and keep returning to) golden age venues that it appeared to have outgrown. Existing Tour courses would also play more similarly to how they were originally designed.
That sounds like an easy enough solution, right?
Like all of the above, it’s complicated. Part of golf’s charm (in many people’s eyes) is that pros and amateurs use the same equipment, thus competing on an even playing field. Golf is basically the only sport where you can pay your money to walk the same grounds and hit the same shots as the pros and it’s understandable why people would think that doing so with a “juiced up” ball would cheapen that experience.
Policing this could also be a mess, not necessarily at the PGA Tour level, but in qualifiers, minitour events, different stages of U.S. Open qualifying, Q-School, you name it. These are events where many amateurs and juniors are playing alongside pros and a strict set of rules and enforcement would have to be in place. It’s easy to see that turning into a bit of a mess with bifurcated rules.
OK, so let’s say they roll back the ball and DON’T bifurcate. Are my friends and I going to lose a bunch of distance?
That’s hard to say and depends on a few things – namely swing speed and how well you compress the ball. The amateur portion of the USGA distance report was perhaps the most interesting part. The USGA has been measuring driving distance in amateurs since 1998 and even in the best players (6 handicap and better), numbers have fluctuated and only increased from 233 yards in ‘98 to 235 yards in 2017. For whatever reason, this group actually peaked at 250 yards back in 2003, according to the study.
The average golfer (all handicaps) follows a similar trend line, but has improved from 200 yards in 1998 to just under 208 yards in 2017. Compare this 4 percent growth to the more than 12 percent growth seen on the PGA Tour over the same time frame.
Many people think that the vast majority of the public is an almost irrelevant part of this conversation simply because they don’t compress the ball well enough for advancements in technology to impact them in a significant way. In other words, a rollback wouldn’t be taking distance away from them because they probably haven’t gained much to begin with.
So what should I think about all of this?
To be honest, there are way too many factors here to issue a blanket statement about what the correct answer is. There are so many differing historical and financial interests at play that your stance on this issue needs to be a personal one. (Undoubtedly, there are 400 other things to consider that we either didn’t have space for or aren’t aware of yet.)
But the main takeaway is that this issue is not going away any time soon and it’s a fascinating topic to follow in the game. Hopefully this makes it a bit easier to do so.