The USGA and R&A Driving Distance Report is Still Shortsighted

Kris McEwen Opinion Leave a Comment

If you follow me on Twitter (@krismcewen) or are part of our fun, sometimes odd, little golf Twitter world, you’re probably familiar with the seemingly quarterly debate regarding the distance in which the ball travels these days at the professional level.

It’s a cyclical, never-ending debate between those that see no issue with guys “bombing and gouging” their way around a golf course and others that feel technology has made some of the classic courses either obsolete or re-configured to the point that the courses no longer reflect the original intent of the architect (see: Golf Club, Augusta National).

Inevitably, golf Twitter essentially divides itself into two camps regarding these beliefs. There is Team “Roll the Ball Back” for the professionals and leave it alone for us weekend hacks and Team “Leave the Ball Alone,” golf doesn’t do the “separate rules” thing, and it is what it is.

If you’re blissfully unaware of this debate, you’re probably better off for it. There are no real winners or losers. There are no minds being changed. It’s basically Groundhog Day, but about golf, and without Bill Murray.

After partaking in the debate for much of 2018, one of my New Year’s resolution was to swear off any and all debates regarding the golf ball and distance.

And yet, here I am. Reading the latest report from the USGA and R&A regarding driving distance within our beloved game of golf with a highlighter in one hand and a red-inked pen in another.

A golf bag belonging to Chez Reavie of the United States is seen…

A golf bag belonging to Chez Reavie of the United States is seen alongside a USGA logo during a practice round prior to the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on June 13, 2018 in… Get premium, high resolution news photos at Getty Images

I have a few issues with the report…again.

The report is 24 pages long, mixed with narrative and graphs, basically reporting what the data says. This is where my issues begin. There really isn’t much analysis taking place of the data. Yes, I can see by looking at the data that average driving distance on the men’s tours has increased 2.9% since 2003. But as with a lot of data, the devil is in the details. And that’s what I feel is missing from this report. For example, that minuscule 2.9% combines all of the men’s tours. That’s Euro, PGA, Japan (?) and And overall, 2.9% doesn’t sound that bad. The problem is, it’s compound interest.

Nowhere in the report will you find a chart showing year to year changes in driving distance. You have to kind of figure it out yourself based on the graphical representation.

But what they do include is a chart that tracks the percentages of drives that go a certain distance.

In 2015, 29% of drives on the PGA TOUR traveled 300 yards or farther. In 2018, that number went up to 41%. That’s a 40% increase in three years. Now, extrapolate that and it isn’t long before half the tour is hitting it over 300 yards on average. Also, in 2015, 7.63% could hit over 320 yards. Three years later, that number has doubledImagine if that trend continues over the next ten years.

The USGA/R&A state in the first paragraph of their “Joint Statement of Principles” that “it is impossible to foresee the developments in golf equipment which advancing technology will deliver.” Which, technically speaking, is true.

However, you can see the impact technology is having on the game right now if you’re looking in the right place. Rather than looking at the current state of the PGA TOUR, look at what is happening on the Tour.

Nine years ago, the average driving distance on the Tour was 290 yards. Last year, it was 305. That’s the average. That’s also a 5% jump. Now, extrapolate that another ten years. Now the average is 320 yards. Which means the low end of the distances, which according to the report, is 6%-8% shorter than the average, would be about 300 yards.

The low end of the distances would still be 300 yards.

There isn’t a golf course in its current state today that could defend itself from 315 yard average drives. They can barely do so now. As one would expect, the average score on all of the tours have continued to drop over the years. And the Tour? They’ve seen their average score go from 71.6 in 2010 to 70.6 in 2018. On the surface, that may not seem like a big drop. However, compared to the PGA TOUR, the two were two-tenths of a stroke apart in 2010, and are now six-tenths apart. That’s a 30% difference.

So either you start lengthening courses (again) now or start building new ones to prepare for these increases. There is an inevitability built into these numbers and averages. There has been for over twenty years now. Professional golfers are hitting the ball longer year on year. To report an increase based on a single year without historical context is flawed and misleading. Period.

USGA flags are displayed during a practice round prior to the 2018…

USGA flags are displayed during a practice round prior to the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on June 12, 2018 in Southampton, New York. Get premium, high resolution news photos at Getty Images

Now, all of that being said, to the USGA and R&A’s credit, they have conceded “that any further significant increases in hitting distances at the highest level are undesirable.” They are also absolutely correct when they state “consequential lengthening or toughening of courses would be costly or impossible”.

However, through the other side of their collective mouths, they blame equipment for the increases while offering nothing more than intending “to bring forward proposals designed to improve procedures for the approval of new products.”

That isn’t much of a solution.

Had they been looking at the data through historical context, they easily could have seen these gains coming and could have reacted pro-actively.

Instead, with data lines continuing to trend up, it seems the USGA and R&A are now trying to catch the horse that escaped the barn.

Cover Image via Flickr

About Kris McEwen

Kris became obsessed with the game of golf after deciding to finally hang up his baseball cleats about four years ago. Still learning the game, he’s leaned on much of the on-line golf community for help and loves to return the favor whenever possible.

A contributor to several golf sites in the past, Kris writes from the perspective of your average golfer. One who has a passion for the game, but also has the typical restrictions of life and budget.

He can be reached on Twitter at @krismcewen.

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