Geoff Shackelford, the H.L Mencken of golf bloggers and long the champion of those lamenting the distance creep in golf that has been an undercurrent since at least the days of Horace Hutchinson, raises a concern that the
The picture of this data is a snapshot, and it is not necessarily definitive even if it were viewed as a clear indication of how lopsided distance might be or might not be in the game right now. Which is more important, for example, a less than one percent increase in driving distance average or a 20 percent increase in the number of players averaging 290-yards off the tee. (Moreover, if every player in the field can seriously attempt to drive a 298-yard par-four is that necessarily bad?)
Still, it is clear that driving distance average is going to break a barrier of sorts this year, eclipsing the 290-yard mark for the first time ever. The 291.1-yard average would be an unusually high 3.8 yard increase over 2010's number. It is also worth noting that driving distance is on pace to be nearly 12 yards farther than it was at the end of 2002. That was the year the U.S. Golf Association and Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews issued a Joint Statement of Principles, which included the following language:
"The governing bodies believe that golf balls, when hit by highly skilled golfers, should not of themselves fly significantly further than they do today. In the current circumstances, the R&A and the USGA are not advocating that the Rules relating to golf ball specifications be changed other than to modernize test methods.
"The R&A and the USGA believe, however, that any further significant increases in hitting distances at the highest level are undesirable. Whether these increases in distance emanate from advancing equipment technology, greater athleticism of players, improved player coaching, golf course conditioning or a combination of these or other factors, they will have the impact of seriously reducing the challenge of the game. The consequential lengthening or toughening of courses would be costly or impossible and would have a negative effect on increasingly important environmental and ecological issues. Pace of play would be slowed and playing costs would increase.
"The R&A and the USGA will consider all of these factors contributing to distance on a regular basis. Should such a situation of meaningful increases in distances arise, the R&A and the USGA would feel it immediately necessary to seek ways of protecting the game."
Statistics are never a complete picture. Neither is anecdotal evidence about Dustin Johnson's or Bubba Watson's latest fairway-bunker-clearing tee ball or a selection of data from one hole at one tournament. It is difficult to say whether the USGA and R&A view 12 yards as a "further significant increase," but it is true that the driving distance average in 2001, the year before the Joint Statement of Principles was announced, was about 12 yards farther than the driving distance average in 1997. Those who remember 1997 might recall that it was the last year persimmon drivers were still being used by a couple of last holdouts on the PGA Tour.