When officials with the USGA and R&A released their annual distance report last year, they expressed serious concern about the unusual uptick in average driving distances across all professional tours and announced a multi-year Distance Insights research project. This year’s installment of the distance report, released on Tuesday, reflects a continued, but slightly slowed increase. However, there’s no indication of how concerned the ruling bodies might be this time. For now, it’s just the numbers.
According to the report, the average increase in driving distance across all professional tours in 2018 was 1.7 yards over 2017. While that number is significantly higher than the trend from 2006-2016, it is more than 40 percent less than the gain seen in average driving distance from 2016 to 2017.
The Distance Insights research project that that gain launched, which includes study on several fronts and surveys of average golfers on the impact of distance on the game, is expected to produce an update in March, and a full report come the second half of 2019.
“At this point it’s just another data point for us where we can look and see what it means, which is what we’re doing as part of Distance Insights,” said John Spitzer, the USGA’s senior manager of equipment standards, of the 2018 numbers. “Other than being another data point, I don’t think it provides anything glaring one way or the other. More data is always a good thing. But there is nothing that jumped out to me that made me jump out of my chair. We’ll fold it in there and see what it all means.”
Spitzer said Distance Insights is to be more of a compilation of several different streams of distance research covering more than a century of the game’s history. But that’s all it will be: Research, no agenda, no new guidelines on distance.
“I don’t know that we’ve decided in our research so far what is the benchmark,” he said. “We’re just looking at the whole thing and seeing what’s happening. I think when we finish doing our research with Distance Insights, we’ll have a better idea about that.
“This is a ‘Here’s all the stuff that we found out and what does it all mean’ kind of thing. There’s no solutions at all being discussed. The idea of ‘This is what we’re going to do now’ is not even close to being correct.”
That is the extent of the overt alarm bells in this year’s report. A deeper dive, however, reveals the tours showing significant gains are those with elite male players: the PGA Tour, European Tour and Web.com Tour. Those three tours showed an average gain of 2.8 yards. Tours with slower swing speeds (LPGA, Ladies European Tour, Japan PGA Tour and PGA Tour Champions) showed an average gain of 0.8 yards, with the majority of that coming from the PGA Tour Champions (up 2.2 yards in 2018 vs. 2017).
According to the report, “the average driving distance on the men’s tours has increased by approximately 2.9 percent since 2003 until the end of the 2018 season with a more modest average increase of 0.9 percent being observed on the women’s tours.”
The year 2003 is cited as the beginning of the ruling bodies’ official monitoring of driving distance. It came after they issues the Joint Statement of Principles, which stated that “any further significant increases in hitting distances at the highest level are undesirable.” From 2003 to 2018, driving distance on the PGA Tour has increased 10.2 yards. By comparison, in the 15 years leading up to the adoption of the Joint Statement of Principles, average driving distance on the PGA Tour increased more than twice as much (23 yards) from 262.9 in 1988 to 285.9 in 2003.
In terms of raw numbers, average driving distance on each of the men’s tours in 2018 was longer than at the end of any previous season for the second year in a row.
The report again also highlights the increase in drives longer than 300 yards on the PGA Tour and European Tour. In 2003, around one in four drives on both tours were longer than 300 yards. In 2018, it was two of every five.
As it has in the past, the Distance Report also referenced an annual study of driving distance among average male golfers in the U.K. That study showed a seven-yard increase in 2018 compared to 2017, to 215 yards. That number fluctuates more than other numbers, however. The 2018 figure is just two yards longer than the number recorded in 2016, and is shorter than figures recorded in 2013, 2011 and 2005 when the high was set at 217 yards.
Spitzer acknowledged that testing of new drivers over the last decade has shown an increase in the size of the area of the face that produces the highest spring-like effect. It’s why a few years ago, the ruling bodies adjusted the parameters of the spring-like effect, or Characteristic Time (CT) test, to restrict the CT limit to a wider area of the face (about the size of a golf ball). It also might be one indication why driving distance has increased: Slight mishits that might have lost distance in the past are now blasting off the face very much like center hits.
“Well it certainly has changed as opposed to being a small pea with a wooden club. It’s now much, much bigger,” Spitzer said. “The manufacturers have done a really good job of getting a more uniform CT across the impact area.
“It’s a contributor [to the increases]. If you look at it as a bell curve, the peak of the bell curve wouldn’t change very much, but it would be much broader so you would have many more shots up toward the high end.”
The PGA Tour’s developmental Web.com Tour again produced the longest driving distance average on any tour with a tour average of 304.9 yards in 2018, up two full yards over 2017.
Not detailed in the report is what happens to Web.com Tour players who graduate to the PGA Tour. Of the 36 Web.com Tour players who moved up to play the PGA Tour full time in 2018, not one increased his driving distance after moving to the PGA Tour. The average driving distance of those players, while collectively slightly higher than the PGA Tour average, dropped by 7.3 yards after moving from the developmental tour to the PGA Tour. Nearly a third of those players (11) saw their driving distance average decrease by at least 10 yards when moving to the more demanding course conditions on the PGA Tour.
This year’s report also again indicated that on both the PGA Tour and European Tour, the driving-distance statistic reflects widespread driver use. On holes where driving distance was measured, 92 percent of the players on the European Tour and 94 percent of the players on the PGA Tour were using driver. Its study of launch conditions on the PGA Tour shows that since 2007, clubhead speed (+1.3 miles per hour), ballspeed (+3.8 miles per hour) and launch angle (+0.2 degrees) are up, while spin rate is down (-173 RPM). According to a ball-flight simulation model, those changes in launch conditions alone would yield a 9.2-yard increase. However, PGA Tour driving distance has increased only 7.5 yards since 2007.
The report also notes that “changes in scoring average have been steady, characterized by a slow ‘creep’ downward over this period of around 0.04 strokes per year across all of the tours.” By comparison, the actual scoring average on the PGA Tour has dropped an average of .02 strokes per year for the last decade, going from 71.06 in 2009 to 70.89 in 2018. That’s an improvement of 0.2 percent. From 1986 to 1995, actual scoring average improved by 0.8 percent, dropping more than half a stroke from 72.18 to 71.63.
Unlike a year ago, this year’s report did not spark new alarm bells, and as yet, several manufacturers who were contacted about the report declined to comment. That’s a more measured response than the tone a year ago when golf’s ruling bodies seemed to be indicating interest in putting their collective foot down on distance.
For now, it’s all about the research.
“We’ve already embarked on the project,” Spitzer said, “and this will feed right into it.”