Despite the chorus of naysayers, golf’s ruling bodies released their annual report on driving distance and just as last year’s first report suggested, driving distance remains relatively steady since 2003.
The report is based on driving distance statistics from the seven major professional tours (PGA Tour, Web.com Tour, European Tour, Japan PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Ladies European Tour and PGA Tour Champions). It includes data from 2003 through 2016. (2003 is chosen as the starting year because that comes after the USGA and R&A released their Joint Statement of Principles on distance in May 2002.) It is the second distance report issued by the ruling bodies. The first was released last June.
Generally, the report finds much the same sort of “slow creep” in driving distance on the professional tours since 2003. Among the key findings:
—Distance on five of seven pro tours has increased 0.2 yards per year since 2003, an overall average gain of 1.2 percent. The two others (Japan PGA Tour and LET) are down 1.5 percent. Specifically, the average driving distance on the PGA Tour in 2003 was 285.9 and last year it ended up at 290.0.
—The average PGA Tour launch conditions (head speed, launch angle, ball speed, spin) were characterized as "relatively stable since '07." Specifically, average clubhead speed (swing speed) has increased from 112.4 in 2007 to 112.9 miles per hour in 2016, while average ball speed (the speed of the ball as it leaves the clubface) has increased from 165.7 to 167.7. Given the comparatively smaller change in clubhead speed vs. ball speed and the fact that rules have limited the spring-like effect on the clubface since 1998, that increase in ball speed would suggest either players are now more adept at making contact with the center of the face (so they get more spring like effect and thus faster ball speed) or drivers are somewhat better designed in increasing the size of the area of the face that produces the highest ball speeds. Or perhaps a combination of both.
—The report also notes that driver use in 2016 on the PGA and European tours on the measured driving holes 95 and 96 percent, respectively, equal or greater than preceding four-year averages. The report includes this statement, meant to thwart those who suggest that driving distance figures are not an accurate reflection of how far players hit the ball because players are often not using drivers on measured driving holes: “These very high values indicate that the average drive distances presented by the tours are a good indicator of the average distance achieved by the players when using driver.”
—The report also chronicles the changes in scoring average, noting “The R&A and the USGA are also aware that this subject has attracted wide-ranging comment and a number of conflicting views, even though 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.”
What has changed somewhat dramatically, according to the report’s data, is the percentage of drives over 300 yards on measured holes, specifically on the PGA Tour. The number of 300-plus-yard drives only grew from 26 percent to 28 percent from 2003 to 2016 on the European Tour. But on the PGA Tour, that percentage grew from 26.6 percent in 2003 to 31.1 percent in 2016. The 2016 figure is not the highest however. The all-time high figure was 32.6 percent in 2011.
It is worth remembering the key wording regarding distance gains in the ruling bodies' Joint Statement of Principles from 2002:
*"The R&A and the USGA believe ... that any further significant increases in hitting distances at the highest level are undesirable. Whether these increases in distance emanate from advancing equipment technology, greater athleticism of players, improved player coaching, golf course conditioning or a combination of these or other factors, they will have the impact of seriously reducing the challenge of the game. The consequential lengthening or toughening of courses would be costly or impossible and would have a negative effect on increasingly important environmental and ecological issues. Pace of play would be slowed and playing costs would increase.
"The R&A and the USGA will consider all of these factors contributing to distance on a regular basis. Should such a situation of meaningful increases in distances arise, the R&A and the USGA would feel it immediately necessary to seek ways of protecting the game."*
Like last year's report, the 2017 version makes no specific mention of what kind of data would amount to "any further significant increases in hitting distances."
The entire 2017 distance report can be read here:
For the first time, the distance report also includes data for average golfers. Based on player testing conducted in the U.K. by the R&A since 1996. According to that data, the average driving distance for a male golfer has increased 13 yards over that time from 200 to 213 yards. The high mark for average male golfer distance over that time was 217 yards in 2005. Low single-digit handicappers have increased their average distance from 234 to 246 yards in that time, while handicaps of 21 and above have gone from 165 to 182 yards. Those in the 13-20 handicap range have gone from 186 to 200 yards, while those in the 6-12 handicap group went from 213 to 225.
There is less R&A data on women golfers, but the report shows the current average driving distance for the average woman golfer is 146 yards, while the average for low single-digit handicap women was 195 yards.
The ruling bodies did not release any definitive statements about how this report will guide their decisions in the future.
USGA Executive Director/CEO Mike Davis: “We appreciate the collaboration we have received, industry-wide, to access and review this data to benefit the entire golf community, which can be used to both educate golfers and advance the game.”
R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers: “In the interests of good governance and transparency it is important that we continue to provide reliable data and facts about driving distance in golf. Driving distance remains a topic of discussion within the game and the review provides accurate data to help inform the debate.”