EquipmentMarch 8, 2016

Is driving distance on the rise, and does it even matter?

Numbers show 2016 could set new PGA Tour record
LAHAINA, HI - JANUARY 08:  Bubba Watson plays his shot from the fifth tee during round two of the Hyundai Tournament of Champions at the Plantation Course at Kapalua Golf Club on January 8, 2016 in Lahaina, Hawaii.  (Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)
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LAHAINA, HI - JANUARY 08: Bubba Watson plays his shot from the fifth tee during round two of the Hyundai Tournament of Champions at the Plantation Course at Kapalua Golf Club on January 8, 2016 in Lahaina, Hawaii. (Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)

When 92 percent of the field at a PGA Tour event goes for the green on a 300-plus-yard par 4, you might think that driving distance is on the rise again.

And you might be right. But that might not be that big a deal. Depends whether you’re worried that the ball is going too far, or you’re in charge of one of golf’s ruling bodies. And in the latter case, you might not be worried at all.

Sixty of the 65 players in the field at the WGC-Cadillac Championship tried to reach the par-4 16th green with their tee shots on Sunday, which was listed at 341 yards, but actually played at 305 yards. Several even hit less than driver.

Those aggressive statistics bear out over the last three years since Gil Hanse redesigned the Blue Monster (including making the 16th hole a more appealing, drivable par 4). In fact, they’ve been on the rise. In 2015, 87.6 percent went for the green at 16 during Sunday’s final round. In 2014, 68.7 percent of the players in the field went for the green on Sunday with their tee shots. Before the redesign, just 12 of 65 players (18.5 percent) tried to drive the green. For the week, nearly two-thirds of the players went for the green with their tee shots. That’s a shift from just two years ago when less than half the field felt confident enough they could reach the green from the tee.

So is it becoming more common because players are hitting it so much farther today than they were just three years ago? Not likely. But statistically, there is evidence that driving distance is ticking up.

Through the WGC-Cadillac Championship, the average drive on the PGA Tour is 290.3 yards. That’s the longest it has ever been at this point in the season, and if it holds up, it would be the highest driving-distance average in history. It’s 1.6 yards longer than last year at this point, and it’s 2.3 yards longer than it was at this point in 2014. Currently, 35 tour players average more than 300 yards per measured tee shot. That’s 10 more than a year ago at this time, six more than two years ago, and considerably more than any other year at this point in the season.

The all-time highest driving-distance average on the PGA Tour came in 2011 at 290.9 yards, but statistical modeling suggests this year is on pace to surpass that number by about a yard.

For those wondering about the positions the governing bodies have taken on driving distance, they have remained fairly steadfast that distance is not accelerating at an unusual pace, although they continue to preface that opinion with the sentiment that they continue to study the issue. Their most definitive assessment of the distance debate came in the Joint Statement of Principles:

“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.”

That statement was issued in 2002 when the driving distance average was just shy of 277 yards. The rate of increase since the Joint Statement is about a yard per year, or about half what it was in the decade leading up to the Joint Statement. It’s worth noting, as well, that the rate of increase for the last decade is actually about three inches per year. (It was 288.9 in 2006 and increased to 289.7 in 2015.) That's less than the distance of two golf balls placed side by side.

But the possibility exists that the driving-distance average at the end of this year on the PGA Tour will be 16 yards higher than it was the year the Joint Statement was announced. Whether that constitutes an undesirable amount isn’t clear. All we have to go on for the moment is the latest comments from golf’s ruling bodies, which do not seem to be signaling any alarm bells.

"What we are seeing at the moment is a fairly consistent percentage of some tremendous athletes who are hitting the ball farther," said R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers at the HSBC Golf Business Forum in November. "The percentage of them is unchanged. The average is a lot less than what the media talk about. The average has only moved 3 to 4 yards in the last 10 years. There's no burning desire on our part to make any changes."

But then that was before an entire field was comfortable driving the green on a 300-yard par 4. Or 1 in 6 players on the PGA Tour was averaging 300 yards off the tee. We might want to check in later on those burning desires.