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Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Some Thoughts on the Distance Debate

As I was watching Golf Central yesterday, I couldn't help but be surprised at some of the things that Geoff Shackelford, Jaime Diaz and Matt Adams said about the various statements that have come out from the USGA, the R&A, the PGA Tour and the PGA regarding the distance study. So I thought I'd note a few things that I believe have been forgotten in this discussion.

Ball on tee

In case you haven't heard, the USGA and the R&A released a report Monday which they say shows an unusual jump in the distances golf balls carry on six of the seven tours that were studied. Most thought this report indicated consideration of new rules to "roll back" the golf ball. Here's a link to Golf Channel's post about that report, with a link to the report itself in it.

The first thing that surprised me was the panel's general belief that the statements from the PGA Tour and the PGA probably meant that any meaningful discussions would be stymied. Why? Because the statements made it pretty clear that the ruling bodies and the "playing bodies" had opposing views.

That makes no sense at all to me. We all know that each of the interested parties in this discussion has their own agenda. That's nothing new in any situation like this because the movers and shakers in any discussion have something at stake, and we know that they're always going to take stances to defend those stakes.

In my opinion, knowing what those stances are in advance make it easier to discuss things, not harder. If they made statements that indicated they didn't care one way or the other about the outcome, they would only be saying what they thought others wanted to hear and not what they meant. Knowing where everyone stands up front should make it easier for them to uncover the issues — the real issues — and perhaps make progress toward a solution.

Of course, it's unlikely that any real progress will be made toward a solution anytime soon. The reason? Because the only logical solution involves bifurcation of the rules, and to do that eliminates one of the things that really differentiates our sport from other sports. As it stands, amateurs and pros can compete against each other using handicaps, because handicaps take into account the things that differentiate an amateur's game from a pro's game.

You know, things like differences in driving distance.

But once you bifurcate the equipment, you eliminate even the possibility of a handicap. In fact, you eliminate the very thing which allows amateurs and pros to compete together. Because if they use different equipment, their games don't have enough in common to allow a usable comparison of their games. So the argument that bifurcation of the equipment is necessary to maintain the integrity of the game is actually a faulty one, because the ability of pros and amateurs to compete together is an integral part of our sport.

But that's only the beginning of the problems. Because the basic assumption — that rolling back the ball's distance will mitigate some of the challenges our game faces — is shortsighted.

One of the concerns is that classic courses are becoming obsolete because of the golf ball's distance. However, distance is the least of the problems. Most classic golf courses, having a smaller footprint as they do, don't have the space to handle a modern golf tournament. They weren't built to handle modern crowds, nor the parking that crowd will require, nor the rest of the infrastructure a modern event requires.

Things like grandstands, executive boxes, merchandising tents, and even sufficient trash cans and recycling receptacles to handle the waste a modern crowd creates take up far more ground space than the designers of those golf courses ever expected to need.

Rolling back the distance a modern golf ball travels will have absolutely no impact on those problems.

But can we even be so certain that rolling back the golf ball will have a major impact on the other issues that depend directly on the golf ball? By that I refer to the actual factors involved in the launching and landing of a golf ball. For the sake of this post, I'll ignore the agronomy issue, because hard and fast fairways certainly influence how far the ball travels once it lands.

Let's go back in time to 1997, Tiger's first year as a pro. That's the year the distance became something of an issue as Tiger rewrote the entire concept of the power game. This is before the introduction of the Titleist Pro V1, which debuted in October 2000. I pulled the driving distance of a few big-name pros that year from the PGA Tour's website.
  • Tiger Woods, 294.8 yards (2nd)
  • Phil Mickelson, 284.1 yards (5th)
  • Mark Calcavecchia, 279.1 yards (14th)
  • Ernie Els, 271.6 yards (52nd)
  • Mark O'Meara, 261.7 yards (153rd)
The reason for choosing Tiger and Phil is obvious, but perhaps the others are not so clear. Calc was in one of his better stretches of golf, winning three times from 1995 to 1998; Els was in a dominant stretch which spanned several years, and had won his second U.S. Open that year; and O'Meara won twice that year, with his two majors to follow in 1998. (In case you're curious, the longest driver on tour that year was John Daly at 302.0 yards.)

What's interesting here is that both Mickelson and Els were noticeably taller than Tiger, while Calc and O'Meara will roughly the same height. (Daly was the only one of this crew under 6 feet in height.) The changeover from persimmon drivers was nearly complete, with Davis Love being one of the last holdouts; 1997 was the last year any significant number of players used one.

Note that Woods was significantly longer than Mickelson — and Daly significantly longer than Woods, for that matter — although the major new ball technology had not been introduced yet. All three of these players used swings which were distinctively different from most other players — Woods used a very powerful, muscular swing while Daly and Mickelson both used swings which were much longer and more flowing than the standard tour swing. While it's possible to lay some of the credit for this distance on driver technology, it's clear that strength and flexibility were a much bigger influence on their results.

Look, I'm not saying that the distance golf balls travel these days is an unimportant consideration, nor that we can ignore the challenges it poses to the future of our game. The costs involved in maintaining longer golf courses are a real cause for worry. (As an aside, I suspect that indoor golf courses using simulators may become the next great source of growth for the golf industry. They have far less overhead, it doesn't take any more time to play a long course than a short one, and they are more easily located in population centers where they might attract casual players.)

But I do think the golf ball is receiving far more than its share of blame for modern golf's problems. And I hope the industry proceeds slowly as it pursues possible solutions because, if this is mishandled, we could harm the future of our game far more than we'll help it.

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