Men's pro tours see driving-distance averages decline in 2019 (yes, decline)

August 24, 2019

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We interrupt your viewing of the latest 330-yard tee shot, and the constant harping about the ball going too far and tour events being pitch-and-putt contests, with the following public-service announcement: The questions about a possible distance rollback? Not to worry. It’s already happening.

As the seasons on golf’s global professional tours wind down, a quick check of the distance data shows 2019 was a year of declines. All major tours experienced noticeable gains in 2018, even prompting golf’s ruling bodies to embark on a Distance Insights project that’s in its second year of studying the issue from all sides (its full report could be released later this year). But in 2019, the PGA Tour driving-distance average actually dropped. The 293.8-yard average heading into the Tour Championship represents a 2.3-yard drop, what would be the largest one-year decrease since Ronald Reagan’s first term in office.

On the Korn Ferry Tour, driving distance currently is at 302.2 yards. That’s a 2.7-yard drop from last year, the biggest one-year decline since 2006. It’s been an even greater power outage on the PGA Tour Champions, where the distance average is down 8.8 yards. There hasn’t been a drop like that since the statistic first was tracked in 1988. Moreover, the current average of 268.8 yards is shorter than it was 15 years ago.

On the European Tour, driving distance is about a yard shorter than it was in 2018.

Now, statistical anomalies are hard to explain as they’re happening, and there is certainly clear evidence that professional golfers in general are longer than they’ve been (hence 535-yard par 4s, like the 14th hole for the Tour Championship this week at East Lake). There’s no clear data this year on whether PGA Tour players are hitting more 3-woods off tees, although a trend in the USGA’s 2018 Distance Report showed driver usage dropped from 95.4 percent on measured driving holes in 2015 to 94 percent in 2018.

Weather is also a factor that cannot be overlooked. The 12 months from July 2018 to June 2019 were the wettest July to June period in the U.S. by far dating back to 1895. Turns out plugged tee shots don’t roll very far.

Confounding the distance numbers from this year is how the average swing speed on the PGA Tour is now more than 114 miles per hour, the fastest it has ever been. Even more telling: Average carry distance for drives is nearly 280 yards, a number that would have led the PGA Tour in total distance every year up to 2003.

Of course, not all precincts are stuck in reverse. The LPGA average currently is on pace for a seven-yard gain this year compared to last year.

So maybe there is one tour where the ball needs to be rolled back.