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Distance must be stopped, say golf’s ruling bodies. PGA Tour distance, clearly. Your distance, maybe. But the moment seems very much upon us. Where all of golf is, however, is a tangled mess.
Distance has been equally celebrated and feared with each passing decade since the rubber-core Haskell ball appeared at the turn of the 20th century. Now, every group—from golf’s governing bodies to its most prominent professional tours and its players to course designers and equipment manufacturers to the most fervent weekend hackers—is choosing sides on whether distance is an untenable threat or inspiring allure. The United States Golf Association and Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, who together govern the game worldwide, seem certain.
“We want the cycle of distance increases to stop,” says USGA chief executive Mike Davis. “We think distance is relative, and it’s always been relative. This concept of every generation having to hit it farther than the previous generation, we just don’t think … that is good for the game.”
Davis’ declaration accompanied the release of the USGA and R&A’s Distance Insights Project. The report’s introductory statement is a succinct 16 pages, but it’s supported by a “Conclusions” position paper that runs another 102 pages. That paper is informed by what is rightly called a “library” of 57 supporting research reports.
One report surveyed more than 68,000 golf “stakeholders” (such as fans, architects, tour players, equipment manufacturers, tournament organizers, etc.) and concluded: “Much of the opinion around distance is very divided, with each stakeholder group’s opinion motivated by their own unique standpoint.”
That conclusion is reflected in a Golf Digest survey of its readers. Of more than 4,000 respondents, a third favor a rollback for the men’s professional game, but just 13 percent support a universal rollback. More than half (54 percent) say nothing should be done.
A lot more than nothing seems inevitable. Within a year, the USGA and R&A will announce areas they’ll be targeting for change, including the possibility of revising equipment standards or expanding the idea of a Local Rule that would allow any event to restrict equipment performance—such as the use of a shorter ball. Proposals might be announced, but those are merely suggestions to be debated through a lengthy “notice and comment” period and an even lengthier implementation timeline.
It’s hard to imagine any rollback without the support of PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan, who has been open but skeptical. In a recent statement, the PGA Tour said that it supports solutions that “benefit the game as a whole without negatively impacting the tour, its players or our fans’ enjoyment.”
The equipment manufacturers have been largely silent, but one said what others surely must be thinking.
“The conclusions drawn in this report undervalue the skill and athleticism of the game’s best players and focus far too much on the top of the men’s professional game and project this on golf and golfers as a whole,” says David Maher, the president and CEO of Acushnet, the parent company of Titleist, which sells nearly half the golf balls on the market in the United States. “We believe that existing equipment regulations effectively govern the prospects of any significant increases in hitting distance by the game’s longest hitters.”
An untenable threat to the game or an inspiring allure?
But the USGA and R&A—citing costs, environmental concerns and water demands—are looking to protect the game’s playing fields from a scenario that might see average driving distance at the elite level spike in the next decade like it did with the introduction of titanium drivers and solid-core, multilayer golf balls a generation ago.
But even there, the evidence is mixed. PGA Tour driving distance is up nearly 40 yards since 1980, but it has increased only eight yards since 2003. Since 2012, driving distance has risen at a rate similar to where professional golf was in the 1980s and ’90s, but that’s one-fourth the rate of the late 1990s and early 2000s when the ruling bodies put the industry on notice with its Joint Statement of Principles. Distance has declined in six of the past 13 seasons on the PGA Tour, but the number of 320-yard drives or longer has gone from one in 20 to one in 10. This year, it’s more like one in six.
RELATED: 11 stats from the USGA/R&A Distance Insights Project that show just how split people are on distance
A study of recreational golfers by the USGA and R&A shows a distance increase of 16 yards since 1996 to 216 yards, but it hasn’t increased at all from where it was in 2005. Not included in the Distance Insights report is average-golfer data collected by the Arccos Caddie GPS-based stat-tracking app. Based on 26 million drives, the data shows driving distance has decreased three yards since 2017. The decline was true across every age group and handicap level.
It’s all tantalizing fodder for a debate that Davis says must be “collaborative,” though he believes the game still should be governed by a single set of rules. “This is a long-term play because this has been a long-term build-up of a problem. … We realize this is a big undertaking. We don’t see this as something where we’re just going to mandate something. Clearly, we might not agree on everything, but I think everybody cares about the future of this game.”
That future will be about this push and pull between maintaining a connection to golf’s past and embracing the realities of its future participants. The questions we need to ask now are: Would 400-yard drives at a tour event be a tragedy? Would this signal that golf’s connection with its historic championship venues had been severed? Will the cartoonish swing speeds of today’s long-drive competitors become the standard for tomorrow’s PGA Tour players? Would the bond between golf’s elite players and its paying customers be broken or heightened by extraordinary driving distances?
The answers might not be found in the research, of course. Perhaps they’ll shake out during Davis’ “collaborative” discussions with the various stakeholders over what likely will be years. Presumably, there’s a number everyone will agree is too far. Whether golf as a collective is there yet seems as much of an open question as whether we’ll ever get there.
This article appeared in 2020/Issue 4 of Golf Digest.