Your eyes might be seeing one thing, but USGA brass say gains in driving distance aren't concerning (yet)
Sean M. Haffey
With golf’s ruling bodies releasing their latest annual Distance Report and again asserting that distance increases across all tours amount to a “slow creep” over the last 13 years, we wondered just when the pace of slow creep becomes significant.
No one is more aware of this slow creep than John Spitzer, the USGA’s managing director of equipment standards. His continually is a voice of calm during this early part of the golf year when distance numbers can get skewed decidedly in the direction of a problem without a solution. Particularly when it comes to 300-yard drives, of which there are currently 38 players averaging that distance already this year, or about one of every six players.
“It used to be John Daly and one other person, and now it might be 20 or more people,” Spitzer told GolfDigest.com. “That is something that’s raised some eyebrows and we’re looking at.”
While comparing early year numbers to year-end numbers is not an apples-to-apples comparison, it is educational to study whether the current year is trending in a particular direction.
On measured driving holes, the USGA/R&A report suggests that distance has increased an average of 0.2 yards annually since 2003 on five of the major professional tours, but has decreased on two of the tours (Japan PGA Tour, Ladies European Tour). The largest single-year increase on the PGA Tour came in 2011 when driving distance jumped 4.5 yards from the previous year, but in five of the last 10 years, driving distance actually decreased from the previous year.
For the current 2016-’17 wraparound season on the PGA Tour, driving distance is 291.1 yards. That’s 0.6 yards ahead of last year’s number at the same point in the season, or trending at three times the average rate of increase the report cites.
Of course, let’s be clear that the USGA’s report on distance is not merely about the facts it recites. It’s a public declaration that despite the cries of the distance truthers, golf’s ruling bodies are in fact paying attention to distance at the professional level. Spitzer made it clear that the latest report contained little to change his feelings about the current state of distance.
“Not really,” Spitzer said when asked if there was any information in this year’s report that made him feel differently about distance than he felt last year.
Still, there was this: “But the slight upslope over the past four years on the PGA Tour, PGA Tour Champions and Web.com tours is something we’re keeping a close eye on.”
To clarify, the PGA Tour driving distance average has grown by 2.8 yards from 2013-’16, or 0.7 yards per year. In that same time frame, the PGA Tour Champions has seen a 5.7-yard increase, or nearly 1.5 yards per year, while the Web.com Tour is up 2.1 yards since 2013, or better than half-a-yard per year.
You can see those slope lines clearly in Figure 1 (below) of the 2017 Distance Report.
The Distance Report specifically breaks down distance into several groups, including the percentage of 300-yard drives as tracked by the European Tour and PGA Tour. Most notable is how the PGA Tour with 31.2 percent of its drives longer than 300 yards in 2016 shows nearly a 17-percent increase since 2003.
As well, the number of players averaging more than 300 yards for the season has increased. In 2003, that number was nine. That figure was 13 in 2008, 21 in 2011 and 25 in 2014. By 2016, it had tripled to 27. This year’s number (38) is actually about 20 percent fewer than a year ago (47).
The Distance Report doesn’t reflect concern at where this number is, but instead comments on how consistent the advantage (in yards) the longest players have over the field average. In other words, as distance average has increased in its slow creep, the longest hitters are no more longer than average relatively than they’ve ever been.
“The data demonstrate consistency both between seasons and tours,” the report reads. “The longest 10 players tend to be around 7 percent longer than the tour average, while the shortest 10 players are generally around 6 percent shorter than the tour average.”
The Distance Report’s charts show how the top 10 players distance average has stayed basically between 305 and 310 yards for the last 13 years, reaching around 310 in 2005, 2010 and 2011, sneaking nearly to 311 in 2015 and back to about 310 in 2016. The averages for the top 20, top 50, bottom 50, bottom 20 and bottom 10 all have increased by about 4-5 yards from where they were in 2003.
Spitzer sees that the distance bell curve is changing.
“I don’t have a good explanation for that other than if you look at driving distance like a bell curve, you could say that the tails are getting a little fatter, and the bell is getting a little wider,” he said. “I don’t know what the reasons are. Is it better athleticism? I don’t think it is equipment, but it is something we look at.”
There have been increased rumblings that players have learned to launch the ball more efficiently and that leads to a distinct distance increase. Higher launch angles and lower spin rates, especially at tour level speeds, can lead to increases that go beyond anything regulated by the spring-like effect limits placed on clubfaces.
The ruling bodies characterized the changes in launch conditions on the PGA Tour over the last decade as “relatively stable,” pointing out that from 2007 (the first year such data was available) to 2016, the average launch angle has actually decreased by 0.3 degrees, while spin decreased steadily each year to now be 270 rpm less than it was in 2007 and ball speed increased by about 2.5 miles per hour. In and of themselves those changes should have produced more than the 1.4-yard increase between 2007 and 2016. Spitzer sees it differently, saying that the ball speed gain basically mirrors the distance gain between 2003 and 2016.
In 2017, the trend toward higher launch and lower spin has continued. Spin rate is at 2,525 so far this year, about where it was last year, but launch angle is back up to 10.8. If it holds, that’s around where it hovered from 2011-’15. In other words, not a dramatic shift in launch conditions, and still nowhere near the ideal numbers equipment designers have been projecting for years of 12-14 degrees and 2,300 spin.
But those changes are not something inherent in equipment, aside from making a ball that spins much more off the tee. But low-spinning balls aren’t anything new. They’ve been in the game for more than four decades. It’s only in the last 15 years that tour players have switched to these kinds of balls that offer low spin off the driver yet still produce high spin and soft feel around the greens.
Spitzer clearly is watching the trend in distance performance that is driven by technique. He is well aware of the provision in the 2002 Joint Statement of Principles that calls for action if further significant distances are produced.
“We do not have a trigger and there’s no contemplation of one, but clearly even if you look at this slow creep of one foot a year and attributed that to athleticism, in 20 years you’re going to have a seven-yard increase,” he said. “Athleticism is still going to increase and at some point it may need to be addressed, just not as an equipment issue but as a pure distance issue long term.”
Other sports have seen the same challenges. Baseball has moved fences out and back in to deal with the twin masters of improved performance and increased entertainment. Speed skating saw all its records shattered virtually overnight because of an equipment change. Even a sport as simple as the javelin has been regulated again and again to combat purely athletic improvements and to keep the actual javelin from impaling the fans in the grandstands.
“Golf,” Spitzer says, “is not immune to that.”
The problem with the distance debate is that much of the discord comes from anecdotal evidence, the kind of performances that leave a mark on the memory and the emotions, but not directly and demonstrably on the data. The question for Spitzer is whether the distance outliers will become what he calls part of the “normal distribution.” Again, he’s looking at the distance bell curve.
“I don’t think we’re there at this point, but it’s on the radar,” Spitzer said. “I still think they’re in the tails, but when they start getting one standard deviation away rather than three, then that’s something we need to look at.”
And he isn’t about to give equipment manufacturers a pass, either. Even though he projects a feeling that the rules have limited what they can limit, he isn’t hesitant to consider changes. The proposed shortening on maximum driver shaft length is an indication that rollback remains an option in his mind.
“I have a great deal of respect for the talent and inventiveness of equipment manufacturers,” he said. “As such we’re not about to remove this important paragraph from the Rule book:
“Any design in a club, ball, device or other equipment that is not covered by the Rules, which is contrary to the purpose and intent of the Rules or that might significantly change the nature of the game, will be ruled on by the USGA.”