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U.S. Open 2022: 8 questions to ponder as the USGA explores how to address golf's distance issue

June 16, 2022

Players and fans are seen in the practiceArea during a practice round at the 2022 U.S. Open.

Jeff Haynes

On Wednesday at The Country Club in his first U.S. Open press conference as USGA CEO, Mike Whan was clear about one thing in regards to distance, the golf's long-standing murkiest debate (as opposed to its most recent one): The game’s governing bodies on equipment rules, the USGA and R&A, are being “deliberate” in their review of ways to curb how far the longest players hit the ball. These are still early days regarding any possible changes to the rules or creation of a local model rule for testing golf balls or making drivers less springy/forgiving for elite male tour players; if this was a 62-step process, they're at approximately at step 9.

But was he technically, scientifically correct in the way he described how the USGA might attack the problem? It may not be as simple as he suggested. And it raised some questions. To wit:

One of the areas being looked into is the Overall Distance Standard for golf balls. What is that and what does a change in it mean?

The Overall Distance Standard is a process where balls are tested at a tour-like swing speed (currently 120 miles per hour) and any balls going over a specific distance (currently 320 yards) are deemed illegal.

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USGA CEO Mike Whan addressed where things stand for the USGA in the early days of exploring the distance issue.

Rob Carr

The latest thinking is to study the impact of increasing the speed to least 125 miles per hour, and perhaps as high as 127. Whan referenced “updating that testing method to really replicate the speeds of today's game.”

Is that an accurate portrayal of “tour-like” swing speed?

Not really. While some players achieve those higher speeds, the current PGA Tour average is 114.6 mph, and it’s increased about 0.15 miles per hour per year over the last decade. At the same rate, the PGA Tour average would reach 125 mph in the 2090-91 season. It was telling, though, that Whan spoke about being a group that “thinks about 30 years from now.” Clearly there is a concern that athleticism will continue to increase and everyone in the future will be swinging like Bryson DeChambeau.

What would be the impact if this change is adopted?

Changing the test speed to 125 mph or 127 mph, which would apply to all golf balls, would very likely mean the balls currently played on tour would be non-conforming. The kick in the keister for everyday players is that those balls are among the most purchased and used by everyday players, too. So even everyday players with slower swings will lose yards, although theoretically fewer yards.

Any other ball test changes that would impact everyday players?

Whan also talked about possibly eliminating the Initial Velocity test. “If we removed that, there's a potential—not a guarantee, but a potential it'll free up innovation space for the manufacturers to create a ball that would actually be better for low club speeds,” he said.

So everyday players would get back whatever yards they lose from the Overall Distance Standard?

Not so fast. This isn’t an area manufacturers have explored so it’s not certain whether average swing speeds might be helped (technically less hurt) or only very slow swingers. Still, manufacturers have been trying to get rid of the IV test for a while because they believe it unnecessarily penalizes weaker players’ potential distance from a softer golf ball.

Interestingly, the possibility also exists that a ball that works better at slower swing speeds might fly farther when tour players hit them with their irons. According to TrackMan data on PGA Tour players, the average tour player swings a 6-iron at 92 mph, the same speed a bogey golfer swings his driver. Help the bogey golfer with a ball that goes farther with his driver by removing the restrictions of the IV test, and maybe tour players hit their drivers shorter but grab some yardage back with their irons.

Are everyday golfers getting anything in this?

Whan also talked about another idea to help average golfers, namely removing the restrictions for average golfers on a driver’s moment of inertia. MOI is a measure of the stability of the head on off-center hits. The higher the number, the less a mishit is penalized. However, that amount diminishes the higher the MOI. The limit currently is 5,900 grams/centimeters but few drivers are much higher than 5,200 because even at a dramatically higher MOI, the worst hits for the worst golfers might go only a yard farther … maybe. If you’re confused by this, an example I like to use is that a mailbox would have a super high MOI, but it would be impossible to swing.

What’s the most dramatic proposal?

Those involve restrictions being considered for drivers played on tour. As Whan said, they would like to see “greater reward for center hits and greater disincentive, quite frankly, for missing the center of the club.” The idea the ruling bodies are floating would reduce spring-like effect to less than most game-improvement irons today, and less than the first titanium drivers of the mid-1990s. In terms of MOI, the reduction in off-center stability could take tour drivers down to the forgiveness of a muscleback blade iron.

Almost sounds like everyday golfers might hit the ball as far as tour pros then, no?

Fact is if those restrictions were to be put in place on both the tour level, and similar restrictions loosened for recreational golfers, it is likely some average golfers—and certainly some LPGA players to whom the changes likely would not apply—would be hitting the ball farther than tour players. Whether such a scenario makes men’s professional golf as entertaining is an entirely different question, of course. Whan said that’s not the focus of the ruling bodies.

“We're not wide awake at night worrying about [how far] someone hit a drive yesterday, what happened two weeks ago,” he said. “We are not a group that's worried about PGA Tour scoring. It's not something that keeps us awake.

“We don't try to fix the game for tomorrow or next week or in two years. We try to make sure the slope of this game and the sanctity of this game in the next 50 years is in better shape than it would be had we not made those adjustments.”

What shape that fix takes, or whether it needs to be made at all, will be the discussion Whan will lead for some time to come.

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