In September, the USGA invited golfers to participate in a distance survey. While, by some measure, the survey was wide-ranging, its ultimate purpose was to solicit feedback about how distance, and more specifically, the perceived distance problem is (adversely) affecting the game. As we said at the time, we thought there were issues with the survey. It was unnecessarily long and we felt that many of the questions were worded in a way that suggested they were designed to solicit a specific response.

Distance is a problem, take this survey so we can prove it – that was our interpretation. Transparency has never been a hallmark of how the USGA operates, and so we also thought there was a better than good chance that golfers would never see the results. We don’t think that’s right considering any decision the USGA makes will impact every last one of us. There’s a risk that a justification for any change might be cherry-picked from a larger dataset that suggests that a rollback isn’t needed, or that it’s definitely not wanted.

Long story short, we decided to publish our own survey. We trimmed some of the fat. We posted some questions verbatim, and we added some of our own questions to hopefully cut right to the heart of what it is we’re talking about.

As promised, we’re sharing the complete results with you. The charts shown below reflect the answers of the 3305 golfers who completed the survey.

DISTANCE SURVEY RESULTS

Before we get into the meat of the survey, let’s briefly explore the demographics so we can understand a bit more about the golfers who participated in our version of the survey.

Not much in the way of surprising jumps out from the demographic data. The USGA index results mostly fall on a bell curve, though it’s certainly interesting that nearly 9% of those who took the survey don’t maintain a handicap. That’s likely significantly lower than it is for the general population of golfers. Theoretically, this is a group that’s likely unaware of the distance discussion and wouldn’t much care what the USGA decides to do.

Rounds played responses suggest the majority of our survey takers would be considered avid golfers. The level of play results suggests most are typical/average golfers, though we do have some elite amateurs and possibly tour pros in the mix.

I suppose we can’t really talk about distance until we have some understanding of how far golfers are hitting the ball – or at least how far golfers think they hit the ball.

The majority of our readers are in the 225-275 range. We know that average golfers tend to overestimate their distance, so it’s reasonable to surmise that the average golfer hits it upwards of 50-yards shorter than the average PGA Tour Pro. Driving Distance stats from PGATour.com suggest that the Tour driving average is somewhere in the 295-300 yard ballpark. The ripple in the data is that we can’t be certain that all of those shots from the tour were actually hit with a driver. It’s possible, even likely that there’s an even greater discrepancy when the tee shot is hit with the driver.

Again, no surprises here. Just over 66% of respondents would like to hit the ball farther. Less than 1% claim that they hit it too far. Regardless of whether that’s a legitimate problem or bogus data, it’s perhaps the best illustration of the absurdity of the idea that distance needs to be rolled back across the board. If distance is a problem, it’s a problem for less than 1% of golfers, which is to say, it isn’t a problem.

This question was meant to be a little tongue in cheek. More than 9% of golfers believe some of their playing partners hit the ball too far. Distance isn’t a problem for me, but what is a problem is that my buddies are out-driving me. Let’s rollback the guys who are taking our money.

This was one of the questions we took directly from the USGA survey. We hadn’t heard anything about the USGA looking at MOI as part of the problem (though MOI is only part of the forgiveness equation). It’s possible this question was designed to give some insight into whether or not a rollback of the MOI rule could serve as a means to curb distance. The current limit on MOI is 5900 from heel to toe. While some manufacturers are slowly creeping towards the limit, nobody is there yet. If the USGA set a new limit of 5500 or so, it wouldn’t have much of an impact on existing equipment (the G400 MAX would be in trouble). Even dropping to 5000 wouldn’t be a massive hit for average golfers, but it would certainly curb any MOI-driven innovation/performance improvements.

Within the bigger picture, an MOI-based approach doesn’t make much sense. While tour players do miss the sweet spot, it’s certainly not to the degree that amateurs do. Higher MOI is one of those advances which benefits average golfers more than pros, so rolling it back would likely also negatively impact average golfers more than professionals.

Again, this one came directly from the original USGA survey. Increasing course length and the associated higher land acquisition and maintenance costs is a big concern for the USGA. The results provide an indication of the average course length, which combined with data from the past, could provide insight into whether or not golfers are playing longer courses than they did in decades past. We know that new courses are being built longer than ever, but with only 3.76% of golfers playing courses more than 7000 yards, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence to suggest that courses in the 6000-6500 range are being obsoleted due to increased distance.

What we don’t know is what clubs are golfers typically hitting into greens compared to the past, but the data suggests that most golfers likely still have some room to move back if necessary.

What strikes me as bizarre, or even slightly hypocritical about this entire processes is that, not long ago, the USGA was telling golfers to move forward and play from the proper tees. The idea was that playing a course too long for your ability level contributes to slow play. Now it’s suggesting there’s a distance problem that’s on the verge of ruining the game. We’re talking about updating equipment rules to effectively lengthen courses.

Yesterday we were told to move forward, tomorrow the USGA wants to effectively move us back. Which is it?

This above chart and the one below were part of the same question. We split them up to make them a bit more readable. With the exception of the last statement (The current equipment rules are just fine), the statements were taken directly from the original USGA Survey.

From this first set, it doesn’t appear that golfers are overly concerned that technology is ruining the spirit of the game. The overwhelming majority either agree or strongly agree with the statement that technology has not taken away from the spirit of the game. Issues around regulation in golf are more balanced, though more golfers feel there is already too much.

The statement about too much attention being paid to how far a player drives is ambiguous and open to interpretation. Is it too much attention is being paid, so we should do something about it, or is it too much attention is being paid but golfers (and the USGA) shouldn’t worry about it? Regardless, a majority of respondents believe golf is a great sport to watch on TV. Presumably, longer drives haven’t hurt that perception.

There’s nothing ground-breaking in the first pair of responses. Most think golf takes too long to play, and the highest percentage of survey takers believe it’s expensive. Nothing new here, we play golf because we love it, not because it’s expeditious or comparably affordable. Shorter courses might shave a few minutes off a round, but it’s unlikely we’ll see rates drop significantly. It’s not a game where we typically pay by the yard.

Perhaps worrisome given the USGA’s staunch stance against bifurcation (two sets of rules), a majority of respondents agree that recreational golf and elite amateur/professional golf are effectively two different sports.

The most evenly distributed response was to the statement that golf is more about accuracy than distance. I suspect if we asked if golf were about both accuracy and distance, we’d find significant agreement.

The last two graphs are telling. An overwhelming majority believe that technology has made the game more enjoyable, and most believe the current equipment rules are just fine. Fundamentally, I believe this is why a rollback of distance will have far greater consequences than the anchoring ban or the change to the groove rule. Long and belly putters weren’t used by any significant percentage of golfers at any level, and most average golfers didn’t generate tour-level spin with the old grooves anyway. Besides, manufacturers have figured out how to give most of that spin back.

Rolling back distance, however, that affects everyone in a quantifiable way. Many say they will find the game less enjoyable, and say they would play less, or quit entirely because of it. If one of the core tenants of the USGA’s mission is to grow the game, a rollback will run contrary to it.

Given that the USGA is responsible for the rules, I thought it might be worth finding out what our readers think about the organization and its current activities.

The balance of responses to the first statement should be concerning. More than 30% of survey takers don’t believe the USGA has the best interests of the game at heart. It’s roughly the same number that believes it does. 50/50 with plenty more on the fence isn’t a great split for an organization which, in principle anyway, should represent all golfers.

An overwhelming majority believe the USGA is out of touch with the average golfer. I’d certainly put myself in this group. Elite golfers are an absolute minuscule percentage of the golfing population, and yet, that’s the group the USGA is constantly focused on regulating at the expense of the rest of us.

Again, no surprise here. An overwhelming majority believe the USGA should make a bigger effort at simplifying the rules. To its credit, the 2019 rule changes are a hell of a good start. I love what’s coming in January.

While neither agree nor disagree is the majority, those who a expressed an opinion overwhelmingly support the notion that the USGA is not a forward-thinking organization. There’s plenty of evidence to support that opinion. If, for example, the USGA had anticipated that professional golfers would get bigger, faster, and stronger (as they have in every sport), perhaps it would have set lower limits a decade or more ago. The USGA has consistently shown itself to be habitually reactionary by nature, and ultimately, that’s why we’re having this conversation.

This is another one we added to gauge your feelings about existing and recently updated rules.

With respect to anchoring, we find a relative balance, though more of you disagree than agree with the rule. The balance is similar to what we find with the groove rule, though a greater percentage of you appear to ride the fence on that one.

Support for rolling back driver CT or introducing new regulation for the golf ball is absolutely abysmal. A significant majority of our respondents aren’t interested in either. That likely speaks to why the majority also believes that the USGA cherry-picks data to support predetermined outcomes.

Given that we’re talking about reducing distance, it comes as no surprise that most believe that any change the USGA makes will adversely impact the majority of golfers. Again, if distance is a problem, it’s only a problem for a minute percentage of golfers (pros and elite amateurs). I suspect that’s why most don’t believe that changing current rules is a necessary step to preserving the game.

The responses to this question provide some small degree of support for the notion that golfers are hitting the ball farther (which obviously isn’t the same as too far).

36.52% say the drive it a little longer, while 7.78% say the drive it much longer. That’s still less than 50%. Everyone else either drives it the same, or shorter. I suspect that speaks to an aging population of core golfers.

Perhaps we should have filtered this one based on gains or losses in distance. Hindsight. Regardless, change in playing skill was the most popular choice for why distance has changed. It makes sense; either you got better or you got worse. Fitness levels and the effect of age on range of motion were also popular choices. It’s a safe assumption that nobody got younger, so we’re almost certainly talking about decreased range of motion. It’s certainly possible that average golfers have increased their fitness levels – and certainly, that’s happening at the elite level, but most of us lose fitness as we age.

The headline is that most golfers don’t believe that courses are being made obsolete in significant numbers. For those who answered yes, I’m curious to know if you’re concerned about courses you play, or courses you see on TV. Are courses being made obsolete for everyone, or is it just a problem for classic tour venues?

Nearly a clean 1/3 – 2/3 split. A majority believes that distance isn’t a problem at the elite level, while the other third believes it is. Herein lies the challenge for the USGA. If we accept that distance is a problem on tour, or at least concede that we don’t care either way as long as any new regulations don’t impact our equipment, how does the USGA resolve it without buggering it for the rest of us? That’s exactly why we added the next question.

If there is a distance problem, most of us would agree the scale of the problem is limited, so why is it the USGA’s problem to solve? Nearly 60% believe that the solution should fall on the Professional Tours. It’s always struck me as odd that the PGA Tour and others defer to the USGA to regulate the professional game. With the USGA at the controls, the only viable choices are bifurcation (which it doesn’t appear to see as viable) or imposing unnecessary and performance diminishing regulations on amateurs to fix a perceived problem at the most elite levels. Perhaps its time for other organizations to step in and say, “We got this.”

This one, I think cuts to the heart of everything in the distance debate.

Do amateur/recreational golfers have a distance problem?

No. And that should be the end of this ridiculous discussion.

And yet, we must indulge the debate further.

It’s at least interesting that the ball is seen as a more significant factor than clubs. The USGA’s regulations on balls are much tighter, much more absolute than they are for drivers. Nobody is making a longer ball without compromising in areas where pros won’t compromise (greenside spin). IF distance has suddenly emerged as a problem on tour (or anywhere else), it’s not because of the ball. We’re only talking about it because it’s the easiest fix.

There’s some support for the notion that course setup is contributing to distance, but the biggest spikes we see suggest most believe increased distance is coming from improved fitness, better coaching, and a significantly greater understanding of performance. The reality is that the modern golfer is an athlete. Some of these guys look like they could play in the NFL or fight in the UFC. Again, bigger, faster, stronger. Since the USGA can’t force professional golfers to eat more doughnuts and it can’t take away their launch monitors and coaches, it’s looking to the equipment, not because it makes sense for the majority of golfers, but because it’s apparently the only solution it can think of.

I suspect this question was designed to support the notion that golfers are obsessed with distance and that it plays too big a role in the purchasing decision. Frankly, I think nearly 10% of you are stretching the truth. Distance is always in the conversation. Even if it’s not at the top of our list of considerations, there is a theoretical point where a club is too short for consideration, but you don’t find many of those anymore. You can thank the current rules for that.

We’ve asked about non-conforming clubs before, but this is the first time that we’ve had any significant number of you tell us that you would play a non-conforming club, or even think about it. To me, this suggests that most of us accept the current regulations, but if new rules rob of us of distance, we’re going to be open to playing gear that helps us get it back, even if it’s against the USGA rules.

When asked the same question about the ball, the results are nearly the same. A slightly higher percentage of you would be more open to playing a non-conforming ball than a non-conforming driver. Why is that?

In this question, we assume the worst case scenario. If the USGA rolls back distance, how much of a loss are you willing to eat. The results suggest that 10% is the upper limit, though it’s worth noting that more than 1/3 of you responded that no amount of loss is acceptable. I’m with you. I don’t hit the ball too far. Nobody I know hits the ball too far. Again, I ask, why is this even a conversation?

This was a curious set of statements from the USGA. Some are just ambiguous enough, where one could probably make whatever argument one would like to make regardless of the actual answers.

Is technology good, or do the responses suggest golfers have become too reliant on it? Must something be done? Most don’t think so.

Is distance only a problem for elite players? The overwhelming majority think it is.

Does distance increase costs? If the solution is longer courses, probably. If the solution is narrower fairways and longer rough, then no.

No surprise, yes distance makes the game more fun. We all enjoy hitting the ball far.

The last one is my favorite because I suspect the subtest is that diminishes the need for accuracy and somehow isn’t in line with the spirit of the game. The responses are split almost evenly between degrees of agreement and disagreement, but let’s try it the other way.

How much do you agree with this statement?: Being able to hit shots more accurately can make up for a lack of distance.

It seems to me that in either case strength in one area can mitigate a weakness in the other, but ultimately you may need a bit of both to shoot a low score.

When it comes to equipment and technology, the responses suggest a majority believe that nothing should be done at any level. When the statements pertain to golf courses, the majority opinion is that changes need only be made for elite golfers.

I’ll admit it, this one is a bit of a dog whistle, but we added with the hope it would cause you to think about more deeply about the consequences of taking some percentage of distance away from recreational golfers. Decisions like that don’t exist in a vacuum. Many, likely a majority of courses, don’t have the necessary teeing grounds to properly balance any distance loss. Ideally, if we’re hitting driver, 7-iron now, we’d eat whatever rollback the USGA puts in front of us, and simply move forward to a teebox that allows us to continue to play driver, 7-iron, or at least something close to it. But what happens when that box doesn’t exist?

Do we move up and hit driver, wedge all day? That’s not fun.

Do we effectively lengthen the course and hit driver, 5-iron? For many courses, that amounts to playing the tips with the current boxes. Is that what we want? Wasn’t there an entire campaign built around the idea that we need to play the proper tees and speed up play?

Where do golfers already playing the most-forward tees go?

The reality is that for all the talk of increased distances, most of us aren’t hitting it much farther on the courses we play every day. For courses to play as they were designed, new boxes will almost certainly need to be built. Who pays for that?

One way or another it’s the golfer.

We asked what should be done to solve the distance problem. We gave you the option to say do nothing (because there is no distance problem), and more than 45% of you chose to do so.

More than 31% came out in favor of bifurcation, while just over 30% suggest the answer lies in agronomy, i.e., grow the damn grass.

There’s significantly more support for rolling back the ball than there is for rolling back the driver (Not sure why…either way we lose distance), while less than 4% favor making courses longer.

We don’t know what the USGA is going to do, but generally, where there’s smoke, there’s fire, so I believe it’s going to do something. You’d hope it will give consideration to what average golfers think, but the USGA has cultivated a reputation for not listening to its constituents.

The results to our survey, which closely mirrors its own, strongly suggest that average golfers, which make up the overwhelming majority of the golfing population, aren’t in favor of any type of rollback.

You Had Your Say

Finally, we asked you if there was anything you’d like to say to the USGA.

The overwhelming majority said things like “leave it alone”, or “do it for the pros only”.  The consensus reflects the idea that distance is exclusively a professional problem. Comments suggested tremendous support for bifurcation, and there were also indications that rolling back distance could cause some to play less. “Reduce distance and I reduce play”, another saying “Do it and you will lose golfers in droves.”

What’s absolutely clear based on the totality of survey responses is that support for a rollback among avid golfers, which the equipment industry depends on for equipment sales, is all but none existent. To implement a rollback of any kind (short of some form of bifurcation), would effectively alienate the most important segment of the golfing population.

Let me say this again. An overwhelming majority of core golfers – the heart of the USGA’s constituency – do not support any sort of rollback.

Will the USGA listen? I’m not optimistic.