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Where is distance on the PGA Tour going?

March 06, 2012

For those who haven't been paying attention, the distance trend continues on the PGA Tour. After last year's driving distance average broke the 290-yard barrier for the first time, all eyes (or at least my eyes) are on an event-by-event comparison to see where distance is headed this year.

Mind you, I'm not in a lather about it being a bad thing or a good thing. I'm just interested in whether last year was an insignificant recorrection from flat numbers or the relentless approach of armageddon. On the side of the former is the fact that viewed on the scale of the increase since 2003, driving distance is only up about half a yard a year, or close to what it was in the period from the 1980s to the mid-1990s. On the side of the former, though, is viewing last year in the context of one-year gains. Last year's  been the the largest one-year since 2003. If the trend is continuing this year, are we likely to see another three-to-four-yard boost?

Hard to say, but the pace is in that direction. Through the Honda, the driving distance average is about three yards ahead of last year's pace. (288.5 for 2012, 285.8 for 2011).

One area of statistics that might offer an explanation: launch conditions. The PGA Tour has been cataloging Trackman launch monitor data among the statistics it supplies to players and the media since 2007. A quick look at those numbers show PGA Tour players are launching it higher with less spin and an extra mile per hour of ballspeed this year compared to 2007. Admittedly, the results are limited to just this year's 10 events, but still it makes you wonder.

For fun, we put those numbers in Foresight Sports shot simulation software on the GC2 launch monitor. According to those calculations, the difference between current launch conditions and 2007 launch conditions could be more than six yards. The driving distance average in 2007 was 288.6. So one way to scare those afraid of the ball going too far would be to suggest that by adding six yards to 288.6 you'd get the driving distance average for 2012.

But it's way too early to even suggest that. Way too early. Instead, I prefer the wisdom of our Hot List Technical Panel, a team of Ph.D.'s who can spot faulty logic a mile away. Their review of recent driving distance average trends suggests that the average for the end of this year seems like it should be within a range of 288.3 to 291.9. In other words, to butcher Ebby Calvin LaLoosh, it could go up, it could go down, or it could stay the same.

--Mike StachuraFollow me on Twitter @MikeStachura