If you’ve been alarmed by the trend of increased driving distance on the PGA Tour this year -- seven of the 10 events played in 2016 have had longer driving-distance averages than they did last year -- the man whose task it is to monitor this trend has a word of advice:
John Spitzer, the USGA’s managing director of equipment standards, thinks driving distance on tour tends to hit a spike at this stage of the year but then settles down. As we reported last week, the trend is pointing toward a record-setting year for driving distance. It’s not that Spitzer hasn’t noticed, because, well, paying attention to this sort of thing is his job.
And the trend is continuing. For the second week in a row, there is evidence that the 2016 PGA Tour season is showing an unusual increase in driving distance. The average drive on tour this season stands at 290.2 yards. That’s a drop from last week’s 290.3 average, but compared to a year ago at this point it shows a 2.4-yard increase. A week ago the advantage from this year to last year was only 1.6 yards.
Spitzer, who’s been at the USGA since 1997 and has been part of the USGA’s technical team that oversaw the research behind rules changes affecting the spring-like effect, the overall distance standard and grooves, sees the small picture, but the big one, as well. “While 1.6 is large compared to what we generally see through the Cadillac, it’s not one that’s keeping us up at night,” Spitzer told me last week. “It’s just saying, ‘Hey, let’s make sure we put on our glasses and they’re nice and clean and we follow this a little bit more closely through this year.’”
Spitzer points out that when the USGA and R&A’s Joint Statement of Principles was released in 2002 and the PGA Tour signed on to that statement in the summer of 2003, distance increases have averaged out to be about a foot a year up through the end of 2015. From 2003, driving distance on tour has increased less than five yards. That rate of increase essentially mirrors the rate of increase seen from 1980 through 1995. Distance on the PGA Tour grew 20 yards from 1996 to 2003, a rate of increase that was basically four to five times that of any similar stretch of time over the last three-plus decades.
Spitzer equated looking at distance on a yearly basis to understanding whether an illness is chronic or acute. He says if the current numbers are the tip of an iceberg that sees another 6 or 7 yards by the end of the year, “that’s something I can honestly say would raise some eyebrows.”
But Spitzer sees no sign of that right now. He stressed that mid-year fluctuations are not as useful as full-year numbers, that PGA Tour driving distance tends to spike at this point in the year before leveling off. Still, nine of the previous 10 years, the average at the end of the year was slightly greater than it was in March.
Even a significant distance increase would require understanding what might be causing it. A one-year statistical surge might simply be caused by more younger, faster-swinging players moving up from the Web.com Tour to the PGA Tour, and vice versa. Spitzer says when the current record for driving distance was set at 290.9 yards in 2011 -- a 3.6-yard jump from the previous year’s average -- that’s exactly what happened.
For now, Spitzer says it may be the case that because of adjustable drivers and launch monitors more players today are closer to optimal launch conditions than they were before. (He doesn’t see any pressing need to legislate against adjustable drivers.)
It is curious that even though golf-ball performance and driver spring-like effect have been limited, ball speed and driver spin have improved since the PGA Tour began measuring launch conditions in 2007. Average ball speed is up 2 miles per hour to 167.38, while average spin is down this year to 2,529 rpm, almost 300 rpm less than it was at the end of 2007.
More ball speed and less spin are crucial contributing elements to distance. Based on ballflight trajectory models, a 300-rpm reduction in spin and a 2-mile-per-hour increase in ballspeed at tour launch conditions might result in 10 yards more distance. If those numbers held, that would mean the driving-distance average would soar to 298 yards at the end of this year. That seems unlikely, but that kind of yearly increase would be beyond the kind of increase that inspired the Joint Statement of Principles.
Certainly, these trends could have more to do with face design (improving the way the face flexes on slight off-center hits) and center-of-gravity location. More drivers played on tour today are emphasizing lower centers of gravity, which aim to produce less spin. Neither of those qualities immediately seem to be a characteristic that could be limited or regulated.
“There’s nothing that jumps out right away that leads us to say ‘Aha! Here’s the culprit,’ ” he said. “At this point in time, it’s safe to say that our threat level is no different than it was in 2003 when the PGA Tour came on board. It’s not keeping people up at night, but it’s always a discussion point.”
Spitzer notes that he hasn’t seen unusual distance gains at other elite levels of the game, including the European Tour and the LPGA Tour. It is at least a little interesting that the number of LPGA players averaging 250 yards or more off the tee was a third less at the end of last year than it was a decade earlier.
What’s interesting is that the Joint Statement of Principles never had a specific number in mind. The language simply cautions that “any further significant increases [would be] undesirable.” Should a meaningful increase happen, the Joint Statement does not equivocate: “the R&A and the USGA would feel it immediately necessary to seek ways of protecting the game.”
A foot a year doesn’t seem like much in the short term, but it surely at some point could reach the stage of “significant” if it continues. If the trend holds, it would mean the PGA Tour driving-distance average could be 300 yards or more given enough time. And while the percentage of 320-plus yards this year (8.76 percent) is nearly the highest it’s ever been for this point in the year, it still trails the all-time high of 9.13 percent. And that was set 10 years ago.
“We’re trying to understand it,” Spitzer said. “But it’s not the kind of thing where we all of a sudden have our hand on a red button getting ready to launch out salvos.”