Going the Distance April 23, 2021 By Bradley S. Klein

The R&A and USGA spent two years digging into data studying how distance has affected game. (Darren/Carroll)

Before an issue is addressed, data must be analyzed. Never has that been truer than it was for the USGA and The R&A in the course of their two-year study of distance in golf, released in February 2020.

The impetus for the work was a sense that the distance the golf ball traveled was continuing unabated. The Distance Insights Report constitutes the single most exhaustive examination of the topic ever conducted by golf’s governing bodies – or anyone, for that matter. At the risk of simplifying a report that makes a convincing case for the complexity of the issue, the study led the USGA and R&A to conclude that “this continuing cycle of increases is undesirable and detrimental to golf’s long-term future.”

In 1995, average PGA Tour drives traveled 263 yards. By 2003, following major developments in the golf ball, clubhead and shaft, average drives measured on the European and PGA Tours averaged 286 – an increase of 2.5 yards annually. After a decade of virtually no change, distances picked up again starting in 2013 at the rate of one yard a year.

The results are consistent across all of the measured professional golf circuits (PGA Tour, Korn Ferry Tour, European Tour, Japan Golf Tour, PGA Tour Champions, LPGA Tour) except the Ladies European Tour. Not only are hitting distances getting longer, but measured in terms of shots gained per round, driving distance is now a more important statistic than driving accuracy, short game and putting.

These results open up questions about the impacts of distance upon the game, and not only at the professional tour level. The cost of adapting courses to increasing length, the consequent drain on maintenance resources and the way a stretched course often ends up placing mid-handicap and recreational golfers at teeing grounds longer than are suited for their enjoyment are all prominent concerns.

So the USGA and R&A rolled up their sleeves and got to work. They formed six in-house research groups, each with a distinct realm to study: how the game was played; playing equipment; history of golf; rules of the game; stakeholder perspectives; and golf course agronomics and construction. They combed archives, solicited and analyzed existing research and, in some cases, commissioned new studies to make sure their findings were comprehensive and bias-free.

Among the in-house professionals devoted to the study was Matt Pringle, the managing director of the USGA Green Section and Research, Science and Innovation group. Pringle’s title could be shortened affectionately to “geek in chief” – he earned a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and has spent two decades with the USGA studying the coefficient of restitution (COR) of driver faces, devised the TruFirm device for measuring green firmness, and helped design the pendulum test that rendered the COR test obsolete.

Pringle noted that the entire distance research program “was undertaken with impressive efficiency and determination.” For that he credits another in-house career scientist, David Pierce, who coordinated the six working groups. It was a truly collaborative effort among colleagues and outside resources who conducted research surveys across the golf industry.

The result is a 102-page study that draws upon the evolution of the game to highlight recent developments involving elite players as well as everyday amateur golfers. The study covers ball, shaft and clubhead technology, player performance, course agronomics, environmental and economic factors, as well as the attitudes of stakeholders across the spectrum of the golf industry – from club and ball manufacturers to competitive and recreational golfers, course operators, architects, course builders and superintendents.

The report comes with a supporting cast of documents that would be the envy of any Congressional bill: 83 charts, eight tables, and an appendix comprising 56 supporting documents totaling 1,409 pages. These cover everything from mowing heights and moisture levels of fairways to spin rates of golf balls, golf course footprints and yardages, clubhead speed and launch angle, difference between PGA and LPGA Tour players on iron play, and construction costs of tees, bunkers and fairway renovation. The historical data are largely anecdotal, drawing upon journalistic accounts, scorecards, maps and preliminary field measurements. The most recent data are, increasingly, taken from the likes of the PGA Tour, ShotLink, and from the USGA’s and R&A’s own championship measurements.

The report goes through the game’s history, covering the pre-1850s feathery ball all the way to the composite materials and advanced balls in use today. Golf courses over that time have certainly gotten longer. From the 1910s through 2010, the median course length in the U.S. went from 5,650 yards to 6,700 yards, a 19-percent growth. More indicative of competitive golf at the elite levels, the longest courses, those in the 90th percentile of back tee length, climbed from 6,050 yards to 7,350 yards in that time, a 21-percent hike. The footprint of golf courses has grown as well, from an average of 147 acres in the 1920s to 230 acres in the 2010s.

A bigger golf course needs more maintenance, more labor, more fertilizer and more water, and contributes to the game’s financial burdens. In an era of declining water availability and tightened labor markets, the lengthening of golf courses has a significant business component that cannot be overlooked.

“Distance has been increasing for as long as we have records,” said Pringle. “When courses lengthen in response to golfers hitting the ball farther, that affects everyone because maintenance costs are passed along to the consumer and longer courses take longer to play. If we don’t act now, that cycle will continue. We believe it is in the game’s best interest to end that cycle.”

Addressing all of this will not be easy. A key to the study is the balance among contributing factors leading to more distance. Those who point to course conditions – firmer fairways, tighter mowing heights – will find a relatively modest role is played by agronomics. Equipment improvements, increased athleticism, and enhanced technical monitoring to maximize launch angle and spin rates are certainly all major elements. The key moving forward will be to study those factors more closely before proposing any solutions.

For now, there is no talk of trying to manipulate a return to some idealized period of the game. As USGA CEO Mike Davis made clear, bifurcation – creating two sets of rules, one for recreational play, another for elite, competitive play – is also a non-starter. In a summary statement accompanying the report, the USGA and R&A indicated that one area worth studying was “the potential use of a Local Rule option that would specify use of clubs and/or balls intended to result in shorter hitting distances.”

No doubt, there will be much discussion and study before any steps are taken.

How this all plays out on social media will also be interesting. Will it be a Twitterati or a Twitterversity; a forum for knee-jerk reactions or discussion informed by a careful reading of the available documents? Much of the populist conversation is by pundits who have never operated or set up a golf course.

A mountain of evidence has now been brought to bear. Thanks to the combined research of the USGA and The R&A, we know more than ever about the causes and consequences of increased distance. Somewhere in all that data lie clues about a way to reduce the scope of the distance issue: to lessen its distortion of playing skill and to ensure the long-term sustainability of the game.

It will take a while before we learn about specific recommendations. The trick will be to address the issue without making recreational golfers feel as if they are being deprived of something they have been encouraged to value very much in the game: fun.