For more than a decade, the hot topic of conversation in golf has been driving distance. Members of the media have been asking the USGA and the R&A to address the issue of driving distance and the governing bodies have essentially refused to address it to any degree… until now.
The USGA recently released their statistical analysis on driving distance and how it’s affecting the game. Their results? It’s not. The USGA claims that the increase of driving distance has been marginal since 2003 and should not cause alarm.
I think, much like the sentiment with anchored putters, the real concern is that the fabric of the game will change, or already has changed and that it’s not the same game it was 20 years ago.
As the discussion ensues about driving distance and how the USGA is handling it (or ignoring it), I think the discussion is going in the wrong direction. The primary argument is that iconic courses are becoming obsolete because there is only so much real estate for those courses to lengthen. Or that it’s becoming more and more difficult to build new courses that can cater to the PGA Tour. The second half of that argument is that, if they continue to lengthen courses, then they are essentially eliminating players who don’t average 300 yards or more off the tee. At this point, I agree with the sentiment that courses don’t need to be any longer. But there is more to the story.
I think, much like the sentiment with anchored putters, the real concern is that the fabric of the game will change, or already has changed and that it’s not the same game it was 20 years ago. It’s a game that doesn’t reward shot making and short-game abilities, or the best putters on the planet. It’s a game that rewards power and the “bomb and gouge” mentality. And the argument is the bomb and gouge mentality is bad for the game.
I disagree. The game has changed because that’s what games do. They evolve.
Before we talk about the evolution of the 3-point line, let’s talk about course conditions. As lawn care advanced over the decades, golf courses have changed dramatically from tee to green. Greens haven’t always been 12 or 13 on the Stimpmeter week in and week out. With the change of the green speeds came the change of putting strokes. It also changed the way players had to fly the ball into the green for approach shots. Faster and firmer greens meant that it was harder to get the ball to stop. Grooves in irons and wedges changed, as did the ball.
The same thing happened to the fairways. When the greens became firmer and faster, so did the fairways. In a 2011 article from Golf Digest, David Toms talks about this at great length.
“[The tour has] tried to do the best they can to get the fairways firmer,” said Toms. “Guys wanted firm, fast conditions. That’s what the tour’s supposed to do. That’s part of their setup plan. So if the weather stays dry, I know they’ve tried to get them to firm up. Perhaps that translates into overall distance being a little longer.”
So, my question is, why is all the focus on the equipment? Rioting about equipment is a fruitless effort. Changing the entire marketing principle for the golf industry — Distance! Distance! Distance! — is infinitely more difficult than trying to change the set-up plan for the tour.
If people really believe that distance on the professional circuits is a problem, then we should be talking about course conditions. Let the fairways and the rough grow a little higher so that the ball doesn’t run 40 yards on a high draw. If a player wants his ball to run out, make him do it from the tee box by controlling his trajectory. A simpler solution is altering course conditions, but what if distance isn’t actually a problem? I mean, we’re really only talking about 1,000 players, right? Not the 30 million amateur golfers.
So, let’s think about it this way.
In 1967 there was no 3-point basket in the NBA, NCAA, or high school basketball. There was, however, a 3-point basket in the American Basketball Association. In an attempt to compete with the NBA, the ABA tried to spice things up in their league and one of the main ways they did that was by adding the 3-point line.
The coaches at the helm of ABA teams had coached basketball their entire careers based on a game without 3-point shots. Throwing in a basket that counted more than any other on the floor caused the coaches to rethink their entire philosophy of how the game was played. It caused the strategic problems that even lead to one game being decided by a 92-foot shot just before the buzzer. The problem was, the score before the shot was 116-118. The players on the team that made the basket didn’t realize they’d won because they weren’t thinking about the 3-pointer.
The ABA would be relatively short lived and eventually merge with the NBA. And like all established organizations, the NBA was slow to adopt change, but it finally added the 3-point line in 1979. And though it didn’t happen overnight, the game would change drastically over the course of the next three decades.
It took nearly 40 years for the game to evolve into a game where the 3-point shot was built into the repertoire of the best players in the game.
In the days before the 3-point line, basketball was played as close to the rim as possible. Big guys like Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain dominated the game down low. It was physical and focused on driving in the paint and scoring either by short lay-ups or drawing the foul inside.
When the 3-point line was added, it gave smaller guys, who didn’t stand a chance at the physical game, an opportunity to score big points from beyond the arc. In the ’96-’97 season, the leading scorer was Michael Jordan; in that season he made 111 three-point shots. In the 03’-’04 season, the leading scorer was Kevin Garnett; that season he made 88 three-point shots. In the ’15-’16 season, the leading scorer was James Harden; he made 236 three-points shots. The second leading scorer in that season was Steph Curry who made 402.
It took nearly 40 years for the game to evolve into a game where the 3-point shot was built into the repertoire of the best players in the game. It takes time for people to accept change, but it will happen.
Maybe that’s the thing that has golf enthusiasts scared; maybe they don’t want the game to change, but the problem is that it’s inevitable. It’s already happened. It changed when players stopped putting hickory shafts in their irons and using steel. It changed when players stopped using putters that looked like 1-irons and started using the mallet. It changed when Gene Sarazen invented the sand wedge.
The game has evolved, but just because we see players hitting it 330 yards, does that mean those players are the one’s winning all the tournaments? Let’s look at some numbers.
Between 2003 and 2015 the average driving distance of all winners in that period (a total of 500 events) was 293.3 yards. The average driving distance on tour was 287.8 yards. That means that, on average, the winner of a PGA Tour event was driving the ball 5 yards longer than the rest of the field. But the problem is not the average distance; it’s the top 10 percent that has everybody worried. It’s also not the majority of the tour players who take that average to new heights. What we’re seeing are about 10-12 guys that hit it over 20 yards longer than the tour average.
Can we really make huge changes in the game because we have about 15 players that are just that much longer than the rest of the field? I don’t know. Maybe we can, but like so many have said about the USGA Driving Distance Report, “It doesn’t pass the eye test.”
Out of the 500 events between ‘03 and ‘15, 160 winners averaged fewer yards off the tee than the tour average. And you have to remember that in that same span 44 events were won by Tiger Woods, 21 events were won by Phil Mickelson, 23 were won by Vijay Singh and nine were won by Dustin Johnson. Four players account for nearly 20 percent of the wins between ’03 and ’15, and all four of those players hit the ball longer than the tour average (by about 11 yards).
From of the remaining 403 events, 160 averaged less than the tour average in driving distance. That gives us right at 40 percent of the winners on tour from ’03 to ’15 averaged less than the tour average in driving distance. Even further, out of all 500 events in that time, only five players averaged more than 303.3 yards. That’s one percent of the winners averaging over 303.3 yards.
The current proposed solutions are as follows: increase the ball size (or dial the ball back) and increase club regulations. Both of those solutions are going to punish the average golfer, which is completely the wrong thing to do. The golf industry is unlike most other sports; it doesn’t make its money from the professionals, it makes its money from the amateur. So why punish the target audience for revenue? (A surefire way to hurt the game.)
The solution is much simpler. Alter the course set up. If you’re tired of players being able to hit every par-five in two, then grow the rough up and narrow the fairway at 300 yards. Dustin Johnson didn’t win at Oakmont last year because he hit the ball further than everyone else, he won the U.S. Open because drove the ball in the fairway and hit his irons close to the hole. If you look at DJ’s stats from last year, from the rough at 150-175 yards, he was T164. From 50-125 yards, he was T103.
What does that tell you? If the long hitters drive the ball in the rough, they have a harder time getting the ball close to the hole. Like everyone else.
Dustin Johnson didn’t win at Oakmont last year because he hit the ball further than everyone else, he won the U.S. Open because drove the ball in the fairway and hit his irons close to the hole.
The USGA and the PGA Tour are offended that players are hitting the ball 330 yards. And they’re even more upset by the fact that there are 30 guys who can hit it that far. That’s a PGA Tour and USGA problem; it’s not a player or a manufacturer problem. Up to this point, those entities have tried to solve “their” problem in the least creative way possible: lengthening courses. It’s the wrong way to look at it. It’s also the wrong way to look at it by assuming it’s actually a problem. Things change. Games evolve. Players get better. Equipment gets better.
So what are we so worried about? If the score of the average tournament is 20- or 21-under par, who really cares? There are only a couple of times a year that anybody wants to really see PGA Tour players struggle; the U.S. Open and the Open Championship. And players struggle for completely different reasons at those tournaments. The rest of the year just let the drama be that players are trying to beat each other. Not that they are trying to beat the course.
Let’s stop whining and enjoy watching the best players in the world do what they do. Use the ProTracer function more on your coverage. Let’s take advantage of the technology we have and show the types of shots players could hit when they are stuck behind the tree and stop complaining that they’re behind a tree because they tried to cut the corner and failed.
Driving distance is only a problem for the people who refuse to admit that the game is going to change. It’s only a problem for those who refuse to be creative with course setup and think the only way to even the playing field is to lengthen the course. If anything, they are only reinforcing what they call a problem. Players have to hit it farther to be consistently competitive if you stretch all the courses to 7,500 yards or longer. It’s a circular logic that has created an entire subcategory of “searchable problems” in golf. We don’t need any more problems, we already have the most difficult one to overcome: expense.
We’re trying to solve a problem that is only a problem based on the data points for 0.01 percent of the players who play the game. In any other industry that would be considered lunacy. Like the 3-point line changed the way basketball was played, so too will distance in golf. It’s inevitable.
You can scrutinize my calculations here.