The USGA and the R&A released its 2017 Distance Report today, and amidst all the latest hullaballoo about rolling back the ball we find that it’s all about 7 feet, or the length of one NBA pivot man.
There’s a ton of info in the full report, but the gist of it says there was a unusual spike across the Professional board in driving distance in 2017 compared to previous years – an average of 3 yards across the seven worldwide tours, and just over 2.5 yards - or approximately 7 feet - on the PGA Tour.
The report says that while distances have been creeping up slowly since 2003, this across the board spike “requires closer inspection and monitoring to fully understand the causes and effects.”
“As the review of this issue progresses, the USGA and the R&A remain committed to the spirit of the 2002 Joint Statement of Principles, which recognizes that distance impacts many aspects of golf and that any further significant increases in hitting distances at the highest level are undesirable.” – USGA 2017 Distance Report
While we may think this only applies to the Pro’s, another passage in the report may wind up impacting the rest of us:
“Increases in distance can contribute to demands for longer, tougher and more resource-intensive golf courses at all levels of the game. These trends can impact the costs to operate golf courses and put additional pressures on golf courses in their local environmental landscape.”
That seems to say distance may not only be a problem for the pros, golf’s governing bodies seem to be worried that you may be hitting it too far for your 6,000 yard muni.
We've written about this issue before, but there's an awful lot to digest in this report, particularly since nowhere in it does the USGA specifically mention the ball.
The Numbers Game
The 3-yard distance jump in just one year certainly looks like a statistical outlier, given that previously the 7-tour average distance increased around 0.2 yards per year. The 2017 increases were significant in five of the seven tours (the Japan Tour and Web.com Tour in particular), but it's important to note the Champions Tour saw a relatively insignificant increase, while the LGPA actually saw a decrease.
While the broad numbers certainly feed the narrative that golfers are hitting it too far, sources tell MyGolfSpy there are several other factors that need to be considered.
On the PGA Tour, data was taken from 41 events in 2017, but only 33 of those events were played on the same courses as 2016. Sources tell MGS that driving distance on those same venues showed only a half a yard increase. What's more, when you look at stats from the specific players who played those venues in both '16 and '17, driving distance actually went down by one full yard.
In addition, when you look at the Majors, driving distance at the Masters was actually down 0.4 yards, but there were huge increases in the other three. Driving distance was up 8.1 yards at the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale and 7 yards at the PGA at Quail Hollow.
The biggest delta, however, was at the US Open.
Sources tell us the average drive was 20.4 yards longer at Erin Hills compared to Oakmont the year before, primarily due to the fact Oakmont was soaked with rain. All together, these three tournaments made up 42% of the distance gains realized in 2017 on the PGA Tour.
Another factor is Nike exiting the equipment and ball markets. An analysis shows former Nike players picking up an average of 7.1 yards after switching over to new clubs and balls. One player picked up over 15 yards for the year simply by changing gear.
The USGA doesn't drill down this deeply, but it does look at driving distance from the PGA, PGA Champions, Web.com, European, Japan, LGPA and Ladies European tours. The data measures distance on two holes per tournament where players are virtually certain to use driver. The USGA pays particular attention to the PGA and European Tour stats, since that’s where the true bombers reside, but the 2017 data is based on nearly 300,000 drives across all seven Tours.
The holes used to create the data are oriented in opposite directions to take wind into account, and they like to use flat holes to minimize downhill or uphill slopes. And of course, they select holes where golfers are almost certainly going to use driver.
What all this tells us is that while yes, the USGA numbers show an unusual spike in distance, the deeper you dive into the numbers, the more a case can be made for course setup and weather conditions having more of a say in distance than equipment, at least for Pro's.
But what about the rest of us?
Pros Vs. Joes
Sources at various ball OEMs confirm what we already know – lots of factors go into distance beyond just the ball.
“It’s not the ball at all,” says Dean Snell, who cites equipment improvements, player fitness and course conditions as equal factors.
“Balls run in fairways forever,” he says. “Try softer courses and tighter fairways and a little thicker rough for the one week the tour plays, and see what happens to driver distance. When that tournament is over, cut the rough and let the rest of us play and enjoy the game.”
The USGA and R&A both state they are “steadfastly committed to ensuring a sustainable and enjoyable future for golf.” One could argue that shorter courses for recreational golfers may be suffering due to increased distance, but it would be a pretty weak argument.
“These numbers don’t indicate there’s any effect on the average golfer,” says Frank Simonutti, Wilson’s Director of Golf Ball Innovation. “To make any decision on golf ball performance based upon test results of ONLY top players would be a step to make the game more difficult for the average player.”
As cited above, the USGA is concerned that distance increases may lead to "longer, tougher and more resource-intensive golf courses at all levels of the game," and may impact the costs those courses may have to incur, and - left unsaid - pass on to the golfer. One source suggests there's simply no evidence to support that conclusion, nor is there any evidence to support it's actually harming the game on a recreational level, especially since the USGA's own statistics indicate very little change in driving distance for amateurs studied in the UK dating back to 1996.
Add to that the joint USGA/PGA TEE IT FOWARD campaign, which in essence asks golfers to swallow their egos and move up a tee box. That simply doesn't jibe with distance increases leading to "longer, tougher and more resource-intensive golf courses at all levels of the game."
Deep Data Dive
Data can be funny stuff. If you strictly adhere to the Scientific Method, you make no conclusions ahead of time and go where the data tells you to go. That methodology, however, pretty much requires you to have no skin in the game and no agenda. The increased rumbling over the past few months about distance and ball rollbacks, combined with today's report, makes you wonder about timing and just who might benefit from a roll back.
Of course, it could be the USGA pulling a Dean Wormer and declaring no more fun of any kind in the name of protecting the integrity of the game.
But still, we're talking about 2-and-a-half yards - or seven feet - on average for the very best golfers in the world. Justin, Dustin and Lexi are freakish athletes, and they're not alone. "They're just really good at what they do," says Dean Snell. "They're younger and understand stretching and fitness better. They also understand launch angles and spin rates on every club, and have access to technology to improve just by changing loft or shaft,"
But if this rolling back the ball idea continues to steamroll, and if a rolled back ball is Tour-only, whom would it benefit? Consider last month’s AT&T Pro-Am at Pebble Beach; Dustin Johnson averaged 313 yards off the tee, while Ted Potter, Jr averaged 283. Despite a 30-yard disadvantage off the tee, Potter won by three strokes because he hit fairways and greens on a course that’s not all that long but does have the smallest greens on Tour.
It’s a small sample, but it leads to one conclusion and one question: First is even if you do roll back the ball, Dustin Johnson is going to hit it a hell of a lot farther than Ted Potter, Jr. And second, with a rolled back ball, does Potter still win that tournament if he's hitting even longer shots into the green than DJ, Phil, Jason Day or Chez Reavie? It sure would seem a shorter ball rewards the longer hitter.
Perhaps the USGA and R&A are worried classic venues, such at Pebble or St. Andrews, might become obsolete for pro events. But Pebble Beach showed a short knocker could beat a field of bombers, and if you compare last year's US Open at the 7,800 yard Erin Hills to the 2013 US Open at Merion at 6,900 yards, you could easily conclude the longer you make the course, the more you actually do favor the bombers. Justin Rose won at Merion with a score of 1-over, while Brooks Koepka won at Erin Hills with a record-tying 16-under.
A quote from today’s distance report perhaps gives some direction – maybe not the direction the USGA wants, but direction nonetheless:
“History has proven that it is impossible to foresee the developments in golf equipment which advancing technology will deliver. While generally welcoming this progress…the R&A and USGA (are) committed to remaining vigilant when considering equipment Rules to protect golf’s best traditions, to prevent an over-reliance on technological advances rather than skill, and to ensure that skill is the dominant element of success throughout the game.” – USGA 2017 Distance Report
I don’t think anyone who loves the game can disagree with that sentiment, but the statistical spike from 2016 to 2017 is certainly curious, but explainable. It is important to note, as is shown in the report itself, that between 2004 and today there has been relative stability in both ball technology and equipment technology regulations.
And not for nothing, hitting the ball a long way is also a skill, is it not?
But the question remains, does seven feet worth of additional distance in one year mean golf has a distance problem? Courses setup is clearly a better solution than rolling back the ball, but who foots that bill? If you're a real conspiracy theorist, you might think the USGA and R&A don't want their premier properties on the hook for changing their courses, and would rather stick OEM's with the tab for developing a limited flight ball, or is there something even more sinister going on? It's hard to imagine that golf really has that dark of a Dark Side?
"There's a huge problem if one company is awarded a tournament ball contract for the tour for a year," says Snell. "All the endorsement money is gone, but manufacturers have to now pay to create research and tooling to supply a ball to the Tour that nobody in the consumer world would want to buy. No wants to pay $50.00 per dozen for the ball Justin Thomas uses that's 30 yards shorter."
It's easy to dismiss this as a Tour-only issue that doesn't affect the millions of us who play golf just for fun, but the economics of any kind of a roll back will more than likely impact our enjoyment of the game. While the USGA and R&A are careful to point out continuing analysis of the "impacts of increased distance on both the playing and overall health of golf," and that all stakeholders will be involved, one does have to wonder if this is another brick in the wall of a conclusion that's already been reached.