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Does the Golf Ball Go Too Far?

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Recently we have heard everyone discussing whether or not PGA Tour players hit the golf ball too far. Everyone from Tiger Woods to Brad Faxon, Brandel Chamblee, Mike Davis, and Wally Uihlein have weighed in with their thoughts. I myself have struggled with what side of the fence I should be on, so I wanted to learn more about it before I made a judgement.

Because I am a golf nerd, I decided to do a little digging.

My first question in all of this is, what is too far? How do we judge that the golf ball or distance has reached a point where it is diminishing the product for our viewing pleasure? How do we know if technology and distance have effected the integrity of the game? Too far is a statement of relativity. One-hundred years ago, it could have taken you 12 hours to travel 200 miles. Now you can fly Los Angeles to Sydney in that same amount of time.

When Harry Vardon was winning championships early in his career, he and every other competitor exclusively used the gutta percha golf ball with his name on it, “The Vardon Flyer.” The gutta percha was invented in 1848 and used until a new ball came into play in the early 1900’s. This new ball was the Haskell Rubber ball invented by Coburn Haskell and Betrum Work. It was the first rubber ball that was a complete game changer. Despite is obvious performance enhancements and distance gained, however, many of the top players were slow to begin to play the new ball. In fact, it took Harry Vardon almost 10 years to make the switch. I can imagine they were having the same conversations back then that we are having today.

There are tons of examples of this throughout golf history, and although there have been limitations on technology there has never been a roll back in the golf ball. The ball has always won out. So I ask myself and you why now are we claiming that the ball is going too far? I decided to compare scoring average on the PGA Tour to driving distance and golf course length. Below in the graphs you will see what I found.

First, I must say it is very difficult to find accurate data on driving distance and scoring average before 1980. From 1980 to present time, this information has been tracked by the PGA Tour, so I decided to only look at the past 37 years for an example. Since 1980, the PGA Tour median scoring average has gone from 72.3 to 70.995 in 2016. That is a difference of 1.305 shots or a change of 1.8 percent over 37 years. The lowest scoring average on the PGA Tour has gone from 69.73 to 69.17. That is a difference of o.56 strokes or an 0.8 percent of change. So yes, scoring average has gotten better. Is this because the golf ball is going farther?

Let’s now look at driving distance on the PGA Tour since 1980 in the chart below.

In 1980, the median driving distance on the PGA Tour was 256.7 yards. In 2016, it was 290.1 yards. That is a gain of 33.4 yards over 37 years, or about 1 yard per year. This is a percentage change of 13 percent. The longest hitter in 1980 averaged 274.3 yards. In 2016, the longest hitter averaged 314.5 yards, an improvement of 40.2 yards. That’s a percentage change of 14.6 percent. PGA Tour players in 2016 hit it a lot farther than they did in 1980, yet scoring averages haven’t changed much. Is this because golf course length has kept up with distance gained?

Finding course length information since 1980 was difficult. I decided to only look at the majors championships as examples, where data is more plentiful. From here, I made the decision to only use the U.S. Open and PGA Championship. Unlike the Masters, they are played on a different course every year. As for The Open Championship, it’s generally a different kind of golf where distance and strategy can hinge on the elements. I felt as though this was the best representation for all courses on the PGA Tour. In the chart below, you will find the average course length of the U.S. Open and PGA Championship from 1980-2016.

As you can see, golf courses have absolutely gotten longer. For this chart, I will compare the shortest average length (1981) to the longest average course length (2015). I am doing this because of the smaller data sample size and I believe this would more correctly illustrate the average of all PGA Tour courses. From 1981 to 2015 the golf course length increased by 791 yards (6807 yards to 7598 yards). That’s an increase of 11.6 percent.

For review, we have seen scoring average decrease by 1.8 percent, driving distance increase by 13 percent and course length increase by 11.6 percent. The difficult part about looking at this much data is always trying to interpret it. How is the data helpful, and what story does it tell?

Let’s revisit the driving distance chart one more time with some timeline reference points to paint the picture in a clearer way. These are some of the biggest technological advances in golf since 1980, and they tell a fantastic story of why we saw certain leaps in distance over a short amount of time.

  • From 1991 to 2000, the decade of the introduction of bigger metal woods from the 190-cubic-centimeter Big Bertha to the 300-cubic-centimeter Titleist 975D, there was median distance increase of 4.7 percent (12.3 yards).
  • Just in the year from 2000–2001, which saw the solid-core Titleist Pro V1 introduced in October of 2000, there was a median distance increase in 2.3 percent (6.3 yards).
  • From 2002–2003 (TaylorMade introduced the adjustable-weight R7 driver on Tour in 2004), there was a median distance increase of 2.4 percent (6.6 yards).

In just 4 short years (2000–2003), the median distance on the PGA Tour increased by a whopping 4.9 percent (13.4 yards). Of course, there was a necessary and actionable reaction to this by the USGA when it limited the driver to 460 cubic centimeters following the 2003 season and finalized the COR limit. Since 2003, we have only seen a change in median distance of 1.2 percent, or 3.5 yards. I believe this gain in distance can be explained by better fitting and the presence of launch monitors like TrackMan on tour. There has also been more adjustability added to drivers and several upgrades in shaft technology.

What I don’t understand when looking at this data is why are we just now saying the golf ball is going too far. It seems to me we are 15 years too late in noticing.

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PGA Member and Golf Professional at Biltmore Forest Country Club in Asheville, NC. Former PGA Tour and Regional Representative for TrackMan Golf. Graduate of Campbell University's PGM Program with 12 years of experience in the golf industry. My passion for knowledge and application of instruction in golf is what drives me everyday.

25 Comments

25 Comments

  1. GolfCodeWeekly.com

    Dec 8, 2017 at 1:25 pm

    Yup the increases in the last 10 to 15 years are almost nil, i really do not get the problem, golf is fine, the ball is fine

  2. HDTVMAN

    Dec 8, 2017 at 11:49 am

    When I play, the ball doesn’t go both far enough & straight enough! I’d also like to see a chip which incorporates my watch to find the ball when it goes anywhere but the fairway, which it tends to do!

  3. Rich

    Dec 8, 2017 at 11:04 am

    Let the Ball fly.. I like distance and to see it fly far is exciting.. The course design should be made narrower deeper ruff more trees and sandtraps and more water . Make it more of a gambler course.I don’t like these -21 under scores .What ever happened to these under -10 course score total for the event? That’s why most people love the OPEN (US,British) because they are low scoring and a test of the skill of a player to play the course where does the risk worth the reward ! The tougher the better with some RISK/REWARD when ever available . I like to see the distance but also I want to see accuracy with the yardage.

  4. Mark

    Dec 8, 2017 at 8:59 am

    The most interesting part of this to me is the distance gains prior to the introduction of the Pro V1. Looking at the chart it appears there is about a 20 yard gain from 93-00. There is another increase after the introduction of the Pro V1. To me this speaks to the complexity of the distance discussion. It can’t be reduced to only the ball. There are a lot of other factors involved.

    Think about how much more advanced we are in all the different areas like driver tech, shafts, athletics and power generation, biomechanics, launch conditions, etc. Sure rolling the ball back could reduce median distance, but it’s far from the only factor.

  5. RJM

    Dec 7, 2017 at 9:23 pm

    They have also talked about lowering the speeds in auto racing (granted, for primarily safety reasons) but how many fans would the sport lose, say, for the Indy 500, if the top speeds were limited to 180 or 200. People go to golf tournaments to watch PGA players hit the snot out of a golf ball. Knowing that DJ, Jason, or Rickie is somehow going to be “limited” off the tee or from the fairway takes a boatload of interest out of the game.

  6. jeff

    Dec 7, 2017 at 8:30 pm

    #Whocares?

    The longest hitters aren’t the only ones winning…

    Sounds like a bunch of old codgers irritated their old antiquated records could one day be broken, and the golf channel stirring up something to talk about during the off months. Get over it. The game SHOULD be made easier, not harder, want the game to stick around a while longer and grow? Although data shows its hardly been made easier…. The game needs to progress, I understand keeping the integrity of the game, but there is a fine line of overdoing that to the point of people just saying “forget it, golf is too hard, too expensive, and way to much trouble to deal with, i just want to have fun with my buddies”

    The tour players are better athletes now, the equipment is better, the ball is better, the courses are longer, firmer, and harder faster greens. Swings technique is better, availability to data and what ACTUALLY makes the ball go further or roll longer is easier to get and more readily available. It all adds up to hitting the ball further. Again, why is this a bad thing? To say they used to be hitting 3-4 irons and now wedges? Thats not a diff of 33 yards, its a diff of 100 yards. 33 yards is a 1-2 clubs max. Not to mention todays “5” iron is actually a 3 or 4 iron loft of old… its like the 30 handicapper saying he hit is 8iron 180 yards, well maybe? But more then likely its actually a juiced up 5-6 iron… but who cares? Ain’t no tour pro hitting a wedge in from 215 yards when he used to have to use a 3 wood from 250 because of a ball.

    I sure hope the people complaining about the ball going to far and the game becoming too easy, are the same people still riding a horse to work, and going to the haberdashery to get a new button for their will jacket they made themselves… They better not be using Amazon, or Nordstrom.com to buy their suits…. You all better not be using any form of technology to make things easier and better.

    Get over it, it doesn’t matter, the game is hard enough. Every sport progresses, the athletes become stronger, faster, smarter. Its called evolution, and with out it, the game dies.

  7. Carl

    Dec 7, 2017 at 8:03 pm

    It seems like many people are opposed to the ball going too far because it benefits the longer hitters. But restricting the ball isn’t going to take that advantage away. If anything, they will still be hitting mid-long irons where shorter players will be hitting hybrids or woods.

    To me, the underlying problem for many people calling for ball rollbacks is that they don’t see length as equivalent skill-wise to a great short game or solid putting. I’m not sure why though because the tolerances for mis-hits and clubface to club-path are smaller when you are swinging at higher speeds. There is inherently skill involved to hit it long AND straight, just as there is skill involved in bunker shots or putting.

    • henry

      Dec 9, 2017 at 11:55 pm

      this is spot on. should Rickie or Jordan be penalized bc they putt too well? Distance is a skill. Let the ones who can hit it far keep it that way. And the funny thing is, DJs skill would be even more celebrated bc hed be hitting 7 irons while other guys are hitting 5 woods.

  8. Terry Medlar

    Dec 7, 2017 at 7:40 pm

    I’m not really concerned about the distance the pros are hitting, but if you want to make a change, instead of changing/restricting the ball, why not just tell the pros they can’t use their drivers?

  9. Jon

    Dec 7, 2017 at 3:29 pm

    Much ado about nothing.

  10. Prime21

    Dec 7, 2017 at 3:28 pm

    Cigarettes & Alcohol have killed people for a long time, but they still exist. $ is the answer you are looking for, plain & simple.

  11. Antoine Steeghs

    Dec 7, 2017 at 2:56 pm

    I think youcanlook at the masters. What clubs are used to the green? Are the using 4 irons 40 years ago and now 8 irons?

  12. chinchbugs

    Dec 7, 2017 at 2:40 pm

    Can you make a shoe stink?

    Genuine question…

  13. Uhit

    Dec 7, 2017 at 2:34 pm

    …and you have to remember, that driving distance is in this case carry and roll.

    Latter is strongly correlated to the course conditions and setup – fast and firm fairways.

    The recorded carry distances show no increase in distance since more than a decade.

  14. CB

    Dec 7, 2017 at 1:14 pm

    It’s not that the ball goes too far – it goes too straight. Because they have been designed so well aerodynamically, they tend to not bend as much as the old Balata and wound type balls – which is what Johnny Miller has been saying, as opposed to just calling out the problem of the ball flying too far. With forgiving heads and forgiving balls – the modern players are getting away with a lot of mis-hits that the old ball would not do as well, that you had to be a much better ball striker back then. But this current ball technology is part and parcel of all this tech of heads, shafts and balls, and to talk about rolling it back now, after Eldrick made all his money and success during his career from 2000 on – with the very balls that he wants repealed – is a joke.

    • Hunter Brown

      Dec 7, 2017 at 1:38 pm

      Great point here and I agree with you to a point however if it were a problem I think we would see scoring average dramatically drop. If you look at swimming when the “shark suit” was introduced 49 world records were broken in 18 months. This is a dramatic drop and why they are now banned. We have not yet seen that kind of drop in scoring avg or records to suggest a ban is needed in my opinion

    • Andrew Cooper

      Dec 7, 2017 at 2:15 pm

      I agree 100%, how much straighter the new equipment goes is every bit as important. This is rarely spoken about. Courses have been lengthened proportionately with the new equipment, but have they been tightened up proportionately? I would imagine with measuring technology we could get a fairly good number on how much straighter the ball flies now. And let’s say we find it’s around 10% straighter (to pick a number) then bring in tour fairways by a similar amount.

  15. Barry Martin

    Dec 7, 2017 at 12:52 pm

    Yes, we are about 15 years too late, but there were guys – like Nicklaus, Geoff Shackelford, etc. – who were calling it out back then. But there were a chorus of people, led by Uncle Wally at Titleist who said “Nothing to see here kids, everything’s fine, stop whining.”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boiling_frog

    • Hunter Brown

      Dec 7, 2017 at 1:41 pm

      You are definitely right I remember Nicklaus talking about this a long time ago and that was kind of my point that it has always been a topic of conversation and why the USGA puts limits on how much it can improve. If we really do want to take away distance on the PGA Tour I think there is a lot easier and more simple way to do it. Just take away the tee. It would force players to use higher lofted “drivers” and would take away the advantage of hitting up on it. Now the unfortunate part about most of these solutions is that it will actually give the longer hitters even more of an advantage

  16. Greg V

    Dec 7, 2017 at 12:09 pm

    Hunter, you stated that there has never been a ball roll-back, but you are mistaken.

    For 1931, the USGA reduced the maximum weight of the ball from 1.62 ounces to 1.55 ounces. The players didn’t like it, as the ball didn’t go as far, and it was more affected by wind. They called it the ‘floater.”

    It might be time to look at a reduction in the weight of the ball again, as today’s ball and club technology afford much more control in the wind. If the USGA could roll back the ball in 1931, they can certainly do it again soon to keep course lengths for elite golfers from approaching 8,000 yards.

    • Hunter Brown

      Dec 7, 2017 at 1:35 pm

      Thanks Greg I was unaware of this for sure so I appreciate you pointing it out. However it seems as though it only lasted a year so I would still contend the ball won out. Also what are your hindrances to 8,000 yard courses for pros? Also I have seen plenty of “shorter” courses hold the test of the pros. See Oakmont, Merion, Riviera, Shinnecock, etc. All of those cut lines in US Opens were significantly over par.

  17. Andrew Cooper

    Dec 7, 2017 at 11:55 am

    Good work Hunter. The stats show that the limits on balls and clubs have worked since the early 2000s, so it’s strange to be having this debate now. An unspectacular 3.5 paces forward over the last 15 years-not what the industry would want the golfing public to know maybe, but there it is. So if the rules are working why change?

  18. dat

    Dec 7, 2017 at 11:44 am

    I think it goes too far, and nothing can be done to stop it. If in 15 years the ball goes 15 yards further, that will continue to make the game less exciting to watch. Driver, wedge into every hole is just boring.

  19. Drew Boggs

    Dec 7, 2017 at 11:26 am

    You can make great short par 4s like everyone wants to see and just make them absolutely brutal. Risk/Reward holes get the most attention out of any course or PGA Tour venue. Example, #10 at Riviera. Arguably the greatest short par 4 on tour, and everyone watches it. If you roll back the ball, you are hurting the game of golf. Juniors will not be as involved, and everyone wants and chases the 300+ yard drives. It’s our game today and what it will continue to be.

  20. Bob Jacobs

    Dec 7, 2017 at 11:05 am

    I think we need 10 more articles on ball go too far!!

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Let’s Retire Old Man Par: A Modest Proposal

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In 1729, Jonathan Swift wrote a satirical essay entitled “A modest proposal,” in which he suggested that the Irish eat their own children. As might be expected, the piece drew a great deal of discussion and controversy. He was of course not serious, but simply attempting to make a point. As you will read this piece contains “A Modest Proposal” as well, but it is not intended to be satirical. I am for the record dead serious.

The golf industry is wringing its hands, trying to find a way to bring new players into the game, while at the same time keeping those that are in the game from leaving. They have initiated any number of programs designed for this purpose. How successful have they been? I would venture that they have barely moved the needle.

Barriers to the game

What we do know is that today there are three major barriers that confront the industry. They are first, the time required to play the game; second the costs associated with playing the game; and third the difficulty of the game.

There are among those adults that start the game, three distinct different groups:

  1. Those who would like to start playing golf but for any number of reasons decided not to take up the game.
  2. Those who once played more frequently but have reduced the number of rounds that they play.
  3. Those who started to play the game but then after a short period decided to leave it.

Those who leave the game

Those in the golf industry, the hand-wringers, have developed any number of programs to bring new players to the game. I would ask the question, “What is the point, when almost an equal number of players that start playing the game each year, decide to give it up within a span of a few months.

Does it make any sense to continue to put water into a bucket when there is a hole in the bottom? Of course not, but that is effectively what is being done. The first question to be ask, why do these new players quit the playing after a short time? In my opinion, the number No. 1 reason is the method of scoring being used.

Were an exit poll to be conducted asking these people why they quit playing, I seriously doubt they would answer truthfully. Who would want to admit that they were discouraged by their inability to succeed at any endeavor? The two answers that would be given the most often would be 1) that golf is too expensive to play; or 2) that they simply didn’t have time.  In this case both answers serve to preserve the individual’s dignity. And who could blame them?

The concept of par

Why did these individuals find the game difficult? The short answer is that while golf is a hard game to learn, there  is a more compelling reason.  I would venture, that the underlying reason they quit the game is that it ceased to be fun because of how they viewed their performance. And for one central reason… the concept of par. The idea that an amateur golfer, especially a beginner, should measure their level of success against an imaginary set of numbers that represents what an expert player would score on each hole is on the surface ridiculous.

You might imagine a beginning player scoring an eight on a par-four hole after hitting six good shots and then two putting for an eight. In the context of their ability, they should be ecstatic — but of course they are not (because as their playing partner reminds them) they were four-over par on that hole. The time has come for Old Man Par to retire. And retire permanently. He is killing the game.

Perceived failure

In another scenario, the beginning player scores sixty for nine holes, which is an excellent score given the short amount of time they might have spent playing the game. And yet their nine-hole score was 24-over par. How would that make you feel? Would you be encouraged or discouraged? You might imagine yourself back in school and regardless of the amount of work that you put into a given class you always receive an “F.” At some point, would you give up?

Why should every golfer be judged by the same standard when there is such inequality in their ability? The equivalent would be placing a high school freshman in a graduate-level college course, expecting that they could perform at the same level as the other graduate students. The disparity in knowledge, based on age and experience, is precisely the reason why there are different grades in school. The same disparity exists among golfers. In this case, the difference being the ability to perform on the golf course as opposed to the classroom.

What about the second group of players that now plays less than they did in the past? Could it be that they are no longer having fun playing the game?And then there is the third group, those that consider playing the game but abandon it for another sport. Could it be that they are intimidated by the scoring system, knowing that as a beginner par is an absolute impossibility?

Old man par 

The legendary Bobby Jones was the first to coin, perhaps with the help of his friend O.B. Keillor, the phrase “Old Man Par.” Jones was, of course, the greatest amateur to have ever played the game. He won the Grand Slam in 1930, retiring then at the age of 28.

The time has come to retire “Old Man Par” and devise a new system for measuring a golfer’s progress in the game. I know that those in the USGA. would reject the concept immediately for fear of, and here is a $10 word used primarily by attorneys, “bifurcate” the game. What that word essentially means in this context in having more than one standard. The USGA is responsible for preserving the nature of the game, but at the same time it should be equally concerned with preserving the future of the game.

Personal par

What I would suggest is a system based on the principle of what might be termed “personal par.” This was essentially the system that was used to groom a young Tiger Woods. As a young child, he was not capable of reaching the longer holes in regulation, making par a virtual impossibility. Consequently, his coach wisely devised a system in which par was adjusted upward based on his ability at a given point in time. This served to keep the young child feeling good about his performance and subsequent progress.

This is the type of system that needs to be devised for the health of the game. The system would begin at a nine-hole level using a par of thirty-six as a basis. The actual numbers are not as important as the basic concept. There would be within the nine-hole and the eighteen-hole groups five different levels as follows with assigned par for each hole and eighteen holes roughly equal with the player’s ability.

As players improved, they would graduate from one level to another based on their total score. The handicap system would work in similar fashion as it does now with a single modification. The strokes give from one player to another would depend on the level in which they fall and the par assigned to that level.

The personal par handicap system would not be as exacting as it is presently used, but it would be sufficient to allow players to be reasonable competitive without any significant sacrifice. There would then be two scoring systems then, allowing players to choose which one they wanted to use. Or a recommendation might be given that until they reach a given scoring threshold that they use the personal par scoring system.

There would, of course, be the usual concern with something new being injected into the system, but the proposed change would be no greater than when the system of equitable scoring was introduced or when courses were first assigned a course rating number.

A few years ago, when life-long teacher and educator Dr. Gary Wiren was inducted into the Golf Teacher’s Hall of Fame, he wanted to pass along a single piece of advice to those teachers in the room. “Gentleman,” he started and then paused for emphasis. “We must find a way to make the game more fun for our students.”

I’m in full agreement with Dr. Wiren. The question is, “What is the best way to accomplish that goal?” I believe that that the first step in that direction is to change the scoring system so that golfers experience more satisfaction and accomplishment. That is what makes learning fun.

And so, I would have you consider “The Modest Proposal” that I have put forward. And rather than attempting to find reasons why a revised scoring system couldn’t never work, for the benefit of the game, look for the same number of reason why it could work. The time has come for Old Man Par, as we know him, to retire. He has served us well, but he has become an anarchism. He is as obsolete as the horse and buggy. Let’s hand him his gold watch and let him enjoy his golden years in peace.

And at the same time, let’s welcome the “new kid on the block” who will pave the way for the next generation of golfers pioneering a scoring system that promises to make the game more “fun.”

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TG2: What’s the most annoying breach of golf etiquette?

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