Sound the alarms. Storied golf courses are being rendered obsolete, and the chief culprit is a golf ball which has been over-engineered and now flies too far. Golf has a distance problem, and it's ruining the game.
That's one narrative, but as with any good debate, it's not without opposition.
The other side of the conversation postulates that if there is a distance problem, it’s far more complex than the arguments being presented would suggest. Is it really the golf ball, or is the USGA, once again, looking to solve a problem that doesn't exist – at least not at the level at which most of us play?
According to USGA Executive Director, Mike Davis, “The reality is this (ball distance) is affecting all golfers and affecting them in a bad way. These courses are expanding and are predicted to continue to expand. All it’s doing is increasing the cost of the game. The impact it has had has been horrible.”
Tiger Woods, who had celebrated the 6 yards he gained when he signed a multi-year deal in 2016 to exclusively play Bridgestone balls has changed his tune and recently echoed Davis’ sentiments, saying "We need to do something about the ball...I just think it's (the ball) going too far."
It makes one wonder if either man has any concept of the game beyond the narrow confines of the PGA Tour.
Given the divide in the debate thus far, the most surprising individual to take the "ball is out of control position" is Bridgestone Golf CEO, Angel Ilagan. Ilagan has asserted that "As it relates to the Tour...there needs to be something to standardize [the ball] because the guys are hitting it way too long."
Not everyone in the ball business agrees.
Titleist’s VP of Golf Ball Marketing, Michael Mahoney, says there's "no empirical evidence distance is hurting the game and golfer's experience of the game." Mahoney continues, "The dialog is focused around the ball, but it's not that black and white. There's a lot of nuance, and broadly speaking our position is the rollback of the golf ball for all golfers is not a good idea."
Implicit in this statement is the fact that historically the USGA and R&A have vehemently opposed bifurcation (in this case, that would mean differing rulebooks to govern the professional and amateur game). Given their steadfast positions on the subject in the past, it's reasonable to think should the ruling bodies move forward with a more restrictive ball standard, that standard wouldn’t allow for any distinction between professionals and the rest of us.
Here in the real world where the rest of us play our golf, OEMs sell distance, and the majority consumer is happy to buy. Habitually tapping into the male ego is the golf marketing department's lowest common denominator. As if you needed evidence of this, I submit Rocketballz, Rocketballz-IER, Epic along with technologies like SpeedFoam and Power Holes as but a few of many examples. While Glavine and Maddux were unquestionably on to something, it’s not just chicks who dig the long ball.
Thanks to modern technology, golfers are hitting the ball farther than ever before, but to give the totality of credit, and by extension, the blame, to the golf ball requires us to ignore the unquestionable role golf clubs, course conditions, and fitness play in the greater conversation.
Is the gear that equipment companies produce threatening the entire golf ecosystem to the degree that they need to roll it back? Titleist’s Mahoney asserts, "We've yet to see any data or analysis that we do."
Here's some food for thought which would seem to support Titleist's position. In 2003, PGA Tour average driving distance was 285.9 yards. In 2016, it was 290 yards. That's an increase of a whopping (and entirely statistically insignificant 1.5%. That said, the number of players averaging 300+ yards off the tee has tripled since 2003, which suggests while the overall average is more or less static, the tour is heavy on players who can bomb it off the tee.
Professionals have access to the same balls, but only a select few are gaining appreciable distance. Maybe it’s not the ball, but rather the guy hitting it.
If the USGA were to implement a rollback, it could have a significant impact on ball manufactures, so we reached out to of the largest ball producers to get a sense of each’s position. Callaway declined to comment, while emails sent to TaylorMade’s PR Manager were not returned.
Srixon was more open to a conversation about a rollback than most but wasn’t able to provide specific details about the performance implications of a rollback.
"There are many ways to limit distance in a golf ball”, says Mike Powell, Srixon’s President of Sales and Marketing. “To speak about how any possible limit would affect overall distance or performance from tee to green is quite difficult without knowing precisely what the proposed limits would be. For example, if the USGA limits initial velocity, you would expect to see a more significant effect on longer shots compared to those hit from say 125 yards and in. If there are limits on aerodynamic properties, then the effects could be of a different nature and affect golfers differently depending on their spin tendencies. Basically, it’s impossible to speak technically about something that isn’t specific."
Because finite percentages haven't been declared (Mike Davis has, however, often referenced a 20% reduction) and the USGA and R&A are resolute in the belief one set of rules is foundational to golf's very existence, we have to believe whatever decisions are made will impact all golfers, regardless of status.
With that, 99% of the golfing population would come to experience something quite different than the game played now. Consider the average male drive travels 220 yards (3 wood is 187, 7 -iron is 134 and pitching-wedge is 74). Assuming a 20% reduction on all shots, those distances would be 176, 150, 107 and 59 yards respectively. Should a reduction prove uniform, golfers would likely see the gaps between clubs compressed, thereby limiting the necessity of carrying 14 clubs. At some point, pragmatic golfers won't want to purchase 14 clubs, which puts the OEMs in the unenviable position of selling fewer clubs.
At the pro level, long hitters would lose more in terms of actual yardage than shorter hitters, meaning that a rollback could benefit shorter hitters by narrowing the gap between Zach Johnson and Dustin Johnson.
Suppose a uniform ball could be engineered with gradual limitations. For example, shots with an initial velocity of greater than 175 mph would be reduced by a full 20% and those will less initial velocity would be reduced by smaller percentages, say down to 10%. At face value, this would restrict players like Dustin Johnson and JB Holmes more than Zach Johnson and Brian Gay, and it could place a soft "cap" on driver distances. But the reality is it would still disproportionately impact amateur golfers once again (see: groove rule, anchoring ban), in an attempt to regulate the professional game.
Srixon isn't against a roll-back for professionals but believes it works against best interests of amateur players.
"Regarding the impact on golf, we feel that limiting ball performance for amateurs would have a negative impact on interest in the game. Unlike professionals, the majority of amateurs are not obsoleting courses with excessive distances. In fact, they continually strive for distance gains, which is why we believe amateurs should not be subject to any new distance-reducing regulations. " - Mike Powell, President of Sales and Marketing
That said, Powell did open the door to regulatory changes on equipment.
"We do not think that it is unreasonable to propose different regulations on equipment for elite amateur and professional players, however, if such changes were proposed these should not be confined to balls only."
Dean Snell has a unique perspective that comes from decades of experience inside the big OEMs (Titleist/Acushnet and TaylorMade) as well as more recent experience as the owner of a direct to consumer ball company (Snell Golf). He's been both in the balcony and on the dance floor, and because of his industry aptitude and experience, he’s seen enough to understand that complex problems often have multiple causes. When it comes to the ball issue, Snell contends, "it's a multifaceted problem, but we're focusing on a single solution."
It's easy to make the ball the scapegoat, but, says Snell, "the ball has always been fast," and the evidence suggests other factors (equipment, agronomy, and athletic training) share the responsibility for the distance gains.
Rolling back the ball is simple in principle, but Snell believes it’s littered with consequences and disincentives, or what economists like to call negative externalities. According to Snell, "manufacturers have to spend tons of money to create a ball with absolutely no retail value...and companies aren't going to pay tour players to promote a ball people don't want to buy at retail...it kills the entire conversation."
Secondly, any rollback may prove to benefit longer players, presumably those most "at fault" for the current situation. As a rough example, Dustin Johnson might go from playing a par 4 with driver-wedge to driver-7 iron. A shorter player can reach the green with an 8-iron, but after the rollback would need to pull a 5-iron. Even if the gap off the tee is narrowed, is the shorter hitter in a better competitive situation with the 8-iron vs. DJ's wedge or the 5-iron vs. DJ's 7-iron?
And what if the USGA did force this Pandora's box on all golfers? Snell says, "They would absolutely ruin the game."
If the sole issue is distance off the tee, Snell asks, "Why not look at limiting COR or club length?" To focus on the ball while ignoring the role other equipment advancements over the past 20+ years have played 5is entirely disingenuous. Should the USGA look beyond the ball, there'd still be a disincentive for OEMs to produce equipment for which there's no retail market, and amateurs would be far from keen on having their gear distance-limited.
Perhaps the answer lies elsewhere.
The typical vanilla PGA Tour course set-ups favor the long hitters. Minimal rough, firm fairways and greens stimping at 12+ do little to dissuade players like Tony Finau (124 MPH driver swing speed) from gripping and ripping. Snell and others advocate for a more balanced approach to course setup. Every week doesn't need to be the Career Builder Challenge birdie-fest, but it doesn't need to be Oakmont or Torrey Pines South either. Snell believes the solution could be as simple as "grow the rough, leave the fairways a bit longer and softer. Narrow the fairways or add hazards in the 280-320 landing areas."
In 1980, the average tour swing speed was 104 mph. It's currently around 113 mph. The ball has played no role in that. What the governing bodies seem reticent to admit is that athletes have evolved. Today’s professional golfers have extensive training and nutritional programs derived from a body of information which simply didn't exist a generation ago. Moreover, the advent of the launch monitor has given players access to information which has created a better understanding of the physics behind hitting the ball farther. Technology, not the golf ball, is the principle reason why, since 2007, PGA Tour average driver launch angle has increased by 1.5°-2°, while backspin has decreased by 500 RPM.
For now, Bridgestone is the only manufacturer to publicly advocate for a reduced distance ball. In recent weeks, both its CEO (Angel Ilagan) and its biggest needle-mover, Tiger Woods, have suggested a rollback might be warranted. While it could be coincidence, the timing suggests a measure of coordination.
Some inside the industry have suggested Bridgestone may already be several exits down the road in a rumored partnership with the USGA that could position Bridgestone as the sole manufacturer of the reduced distance balls used for USGA testing.
Titleist CEO, Wally Uihlein’s comments on the subject leave little room for interpretation.
“Given Bridgestone’s very small worldwide market share and paltry presence in professional golf, it would seem logical they would have a commercial motive making a case for a reduced distance golf ball,” Uihlein wrote in a letter to the Wall Street Journal in response to comments made by Mike Davis.
Is Bridgestone, as Uihlein seems to suggest, using the prospect of a ball rollback to make a money and market share play, potentially to the detriment of the recreational golfer?
When reached for comment, Bridgestone's response from Adam Rehberg, Bridgestone’s Marketing Coordinator for Golf Balls, declined to provide any details.
"Although we would like to, unfortunately, we are not at a place where we would be able to comment on the matter," said Rehberg, who also declined to comment on Mr. Uhlien’s statements. Rehberg did reiterate that "We [Bridgestone] do maintain that we make golf balls for all players and the tour is not our sole focus. All players are our focus. We design specifications for all players that seek all types of different performances."
The between the lines read is a suggestion that at least some of Bridgestone’s competitors may be too focused on the tour. While Rehberg didn’t mention any of those competitors by name, I'm not sure he has to.
Without the declarations of Ilagan and Woods, Bridgestone’s unwillingness to speak in specifics might be construed as Thanks, but no thanks, but given the previous on the record statements the response does little to combat Uihlein’s suggestion that Bridgestone might be cozying up with the USGA, not because of an altruistic desire to benefit the game, but rather to advance its own economic prospects.
It's a precarious position which, for now, would seem to isolate Bridgestone from the rest of the industry. Depending on how this all unfolds, particularly from the perspective of the recreational golfer, the company could find itself in an unfavorable position. Should some sort of reduced distance ball make its way into professional events, however, Bridgestone could find itself with an early foothold and by extension, a market advantage.
The USGA states on its webpage a core value of service, rooted in engaging the "diverse perspectives from the golf community" which allow us all to "collaborate and encourage healthy debate."
Technology and tradition have long been opposing and dynamic forces. Their dance has shaped golf's storied past, and in time we'll come to see this debate as another anecdote and possibly, a watershed moment.
What do you think? Does golf have a distance problem? If so, who or what is the culprit?