If you think the pros are hitting the ball too far, the USGA has an 18-page report it would like you to read. The short answer from golf’s rulemakers? We don’t see it.
In a year where driving distance on the PGA Tour has been at a record-setting pace, the timing of today’s USGA-R&A Joint Distance Study seems intriguing. In early March, average drives on the PGA Tour were 290.3 yards, the highest that number had been in the first few months of any previous season and a 2.6-yard increase since 2014. It was well on pace to break the all-time end-of-year number of 290.9 yards, but in the last month that pace has slowed.
Golf’s ruling bodies want to make it clear that their study of the distance issue has not been a recent phenomenon. Hence, today's report.
“There’s a million statistics that you can look at, but I would say that none of them give us pause,” John Spitzer, the USGA’s managing director of equipment standards, told Golf Digest. “It’s mainly a matter of making sure we’re on the right track.”
The study lays out a picture of relatively consistent but also unremarkable progress of driving distance on the seven major professional tours since the USGA and R&A released a Joint Statement of Principles in 2002. At that time, the rule makers decreed “that any further significant increases in hitting distances at the highest level are undesirable.”
In today’s study of data from the PGA Tour, Web.com Tour, European PGA Tour and PGA Tour Champions, driving distance since 2003 increased approximately 1 percent, while on the LPGA Tour, Ladies European Tour, and Japan PGA Tour, it decreased by about the same amount.
Spitzer termed the latest Joint Study “a factual paper.”
“We’re not drawing conclusions or giving opinions as much as we’re trying to say, ‘Look, here’s the data. It’s coming from a bunch of different sources, we’ve looked at it in a statistically robust way, what you see is what you get.’
“I don’t see this report as trying to refute or push for any position. It’s just fact.”
And right now, as Spitzer and others in golf’s leading organizations have said many times over, almost nothing emerges from the driving-distance statistics that causes concern.
The report (which can be seen in full here) cites data on driving distance on the professional tours, as well as comparisons of the longest hitters versus the shortest and the annual percentage of drives that are more than 320 yards. In all cases, the numbers were shown to be relatively static. It also notes that scoring averages across all tours are moving downward slightly by approximately .04 strokes per year.
The lone exception to the trend Spitzer mentioned was Web.com data. The PGA Tour’s developmental tour saw 61 players average more than 300 yards off the tee last year. But Spitzer notes that the numbers are off on the Web.com Tour this year (just 17 are exceeding the 300-yard mark through the end of May). Spitzer also expects there to be an uptick in the PGA Tour driving stats for 2016 because of the influx of longer players from the Web.com Tour Tour joining the PGA Tour this past year.
Spitzer cautions against overreacting to single-year fluctuations. A steady strain, however, of what he calls “slow creep” can be a concern. The Joint Distance Study notes an average increase of 0.2 yards per year on the PGA Tour, European Tour, PGA Tour Champions and Web.com Tour since 2003.
“If we gain a foot a year over 20 years, we’re talking 7 yards and sooner or later that adds up and that could potentially be detrimental,” Spitzer said. “So you have to look at it from both rapid changes like we saw when the Pro V1 and Pro V1x became so popular to incremental creep like we’ve seen for many many years. It’s just a matter of keeping an eye on it.”
Despite the pace of distance on the PGA Tour this year, Spitzer said the the release of the report is more the result of what happened in a 2011 meeting in Canada between equipment manufacturers and the ruling bodies. At that meeting, the USGA and R&A pledged more open communication.
“We promised we were going to publish more research data, and we hadn’t done that since then,” Spitzer said. “To be perfectly frank, there’s nothing nefarious or serious about it. It’s just something that in hindsight we should have done a couple of years ago.”
The report chronicles the relatively static progress in several distance statistics, and it tellingly notes the vast majority of players on the PGA Tour (94 percent) and European Tour (97 percent) use driver on the holes used for measuring driving distance. It also makes the case that the differences in driving distance between the longest hitters and the shortest hitters has remained consistent in terms of percentage.
“The longest 10 players tend to be around 7 percent longer than the tour average while the shortest 10 players are generally around 6 percent shorter than the tour average,” the report reads. In addition, the percentage of drives longer than 320 yards on both the European Tour and PGA Tour was relatively similar in 2015 to what it was in 2003.
Even if you dig deeper into PGA Tour statistics, the numbers do not show a distance explosion. A Golf Digest study of PGA Tour driving distance data shows that the 602 drives of 350 yards or more this year is in line with the average over the last dozen seasons. While it’s 50 percent greater than the number recorded for a similar number of events in 2003, it’s much less than the number produced in 2012, 2009, 2007, 2006 and 2004.
As detailed as it might be, whether the report satisfies critics is an open question. In 2010, a group of golf-course architects presented an open letter to the R&A in the Telegraph of London decrying distance and calling for a rollback. “The increased distance the modern golf ball travels has created major issues for golf in relation to the environment, safety and cost,” the letter read.
Traditionalists and hardliners have maintained for more than a decade that the distance elite players hit the ball is a detriment to the game and makes older, classic courses obsolete. At this year’s Masters, Jack Nicklaus offered this familiar response to the distance debate.
“Change the frigging golf ball,” he said, going on to say that “Augusta National is about the only place, the only golf course in the world that financially can afford to make the changes that they have to make to keep up with the golf ball.”
Spitzer thinks the debate, perhaps becoming more vocal this year because of the early record-setting pace, can be misleading.
“If you are looking to tell a story, you can cherry pick data and tell whatever story you want, and some of that has happened,” he said. “We just want to make sure that everyone knows that we are looking at this and we’re looking at it in a statistically significant and a statistically robust way.”
The report does not include any data on elite amateur players or even average golfers. Nor does it detail any of the results of USGA and R&A testing of shorter-distance golf balls. The ruling bodies requested these balls from manufacturers in 2005 as part of their research on distance and conducted a series of player tests over the last decade.
Spitzer said both of those areas may be part of future reports, and he indicated the plan is to release an update on distance research on an annual basis.
“We’ve hesitated to publish that data [on shorter golf balls] because we weren’t sure that we were going to continue to do some additional research and we didn’t want to muddy the waters by giving the results of what we found so far,” he said. “Given that we don’t really have any active research on that going on right now, it might be very well a good time to think about publishing.”
As it is, the report presents data that shows no evidence that distance is out of control. It is, Spitzer said, an attempt to frame the distance discussion beyond anecdote and Golf Central highlights.
“The recreational golfer, the casual golf viewer thinks that players hit the ball much farther than they do,” he said. “I don’t have a crystal ball if there’s anything dire in the future, but I know that we don’t have the view that it’s going too far that every hole is a driver and a wedge.”