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.
The death of the 3-iron and what it means for your bag setup
The 3-iron is almost extinct. It sounds like an odd statement, but it’s very true. Don’t believe me? Go try and buy one in a set. They are not easily found.
As we evaluate this topic, I’ll refrain from specs from “players” clubs as these are not the irons normally purchased. Yeah, it might skew the data, but even the players capable of playing the long irons are opting out of the 3 iron. And let’s be honest, should any of us be playing a blade 3-iron?
Mizuno only offers 4-PW in the JPX line now. Titleist only offers a 3-iron in T100s, while the rest are void of 3-irons. TaylorMade provides 4-PW in the P790, P790Ti, and P770. Callaway has done the same, only offering a 3-iron in the “players line” of clubs, while the rest is again void of the-iron. Cobra golf has also followed suit.
So are 3-irons just too hard to hit? Is that why no one is buying them, thus causing the OEMs to stop making them? The only ones left to buy are the “players” 3 irons, and those aren’t even reasonable unless you’re a professional.
What if I told you we were being deceived? What if I told you the 3-iron is still very much alive in all the iron sets available but under the guise of a different number?
Let’s hop into the “wayback machine” and take a quick look at the history of iron lofts.
The year is 1970, and the vast majority of irons available are blades. You know, the razor-sharp leading edges that are ready to break your wrist with a deep divot.
The image above is an actual snippet from a catalog from the ’70s. At this point, the 1-iron was virtually extinct, and in 1975, Lee Trevino was immortalized by his joke about how God couldn’t hit a 1-iron, which typically fell in the 18-degree range at the time. 2-irons were standard issue in the set, and the lowest loft you might find is 20 degrees.
Then the ’80s came, and things started to progress. As you might expect, lofts started to decrease. It wasn’t because of flight windows, or launch numbers, because they didn’t have that kind of technology readily available to measure those attributes. It was simply a quest for distance.
Then in the ’90s, you’d pretty much see all iron sets with 21-degree 3-irons, down to 48-degree PW’s, and 21 degrees being the norm for the lowest lofted 3-iron. 2-irons at this time were typically 18 degrees and available by request only.
Then came the 2000’s, an era we all should be familiar with. This is where things started to get interesting. Not only because lofts continued to be strengthened, but because the hybrid became a new option to replace the long irons. Adams Golf made a killing as it perfected this golf club, creating the Idea line that was in the bags of most of the senior tour players and many of the PGA Tour players. These were a fan favorite at retail too. The hybrid was an easy long iron to hit and quickly started to replace 3-irons in golf bags across the country and even on tour.
By this time the pitching wedge lofts started to get pushed to 46 degrees, which was a big jump, to be honest. In the 1970s, MacGregor was making pitching wedges with 49 degrees of loft. So, for the 90’s to be around 48 degrees, it wasn’t too much of a shock. But in the 2000s, we now saw PW’s drop to 46 degrees; a half club stronger. This is where the downfall began, in my opinion.
The first decade of the 21st century needed the gap wedge, also known as the approach wedge or utility wedge or just plain old “wedge.” Now, keep in mind, this club wasn’t anything new. The gap wedge existed ever since the beginning because at 50-52 degrees it was simply a pitching wedge from the ’70s. But it became a necessary element for the bag since the lofts of every iron were starting to move farther and farther away from the sand wedge.
Now in 2020, the average loft of the PW is 43.5 degrees, and the average 4-iron loft is 20.6 degrees. Turns out, the 4-iron from 2020 is .3 degrees stronger than the average 2-iron (20.9 degrees) from 1970. We have come full circle! Instead of maintaining those classic numbers, of 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, PW, the new sets are labeled 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, P, G.
I wonder how many golfers out there carry a 4-iron thinking it’s a club they can hit? Probably too many! Obviously, the 3-iron is dead at this point, since it would actually carry the loft of the elusive 1-iron Trevino claimed was unhittable!
Now, it’s time to discuss how we got to this point. You’ll hear a lot of companies talk about “flight windows” or “launch angles” and how it was changed by engineering, lowering CG’s, and increasing speed through thin faces. Some will talk about how the ball has changed, and it just launches higher, and it requires the lofts to be strengthened, or it will just go too high!
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that is all a bunch of baloney, and here is why: They started making gap wedges as part of the set. If the launch was too high or the window was too different, why make a matching gap wedge with the same technology and have the loft of a pitching wedge from the 1990s? Wouldn’t that launch or window then be too high for that club too? And yet you still need to buy another gap wedge to fit the 52-degree range. If the average golfer bought a 2020 game improvement set today, they would find the set make up to be 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, PW (43.5 degrees), Gap #1 (48.6 degrees), Gap #2 (52 degrees). That means if you happen to carry a 56 and a 60 degree, you now have the same amount of label wedges (5) as you do irons (5)!
Five wedges in the bag! Does anyone think this is weird?
Furthermore, when was a higher launching iron shot a bad thing? Wouldn’t average golfers benefit from a steeper angle of descent so the golf ball stops quicker on the green?
I conducted a study where I tested a Titleist 716 MB 8-iron with 39 degrees of loft to a TaylorMade P790 9-iron with 40 degrees of loft. All the data was captured on the Foresight GC2 launch monitor. It wasn’t a perfect test since they didn’t have the same shaft or loft, but my findings were surprising none the less. They went the same distance, almost down to the decimal. The Titleist went 165.2 yards, and the TaylorMade went 165.1 yards. Launch was only .6 degrees different while peak height was less than four feet different. So, unless you are Tiger Woods, you are not noticing a difference out on the golf course.
Some of you might think, “so, the label on the bottom of the club changed, it’s all going the same distance. So, what’s the big deal?” To me, it’s the confusion it creates more than anything. By decreasing the lofts, you’re just making the numbered iron go farther, and you are creating even bigger problems by having large gaps with the sand wedge when all amateurs need those clubs. It’s also putting clubs into the hands of golfers when they have no business hitting, like the 4-iron with 20 degrees of loft. Titleist has already made a T400 5-iron with 20 degrees of loft, and that’s just silly.
There also is the argument that golfers love distance, and when they start playing and can hit a 7-iron relatively far, it helps grow the game. Growing the game isn’t a bad thing, but if they are new to the game, they shouldn’t have any preconceived notions of how far to hit a 7-iron, and that means loft at that point becomes irrelevant.
I will not refute that a 40-degree lofted game improvement iron will be slightly longer than an identical lofted players club, but I think you’d be surprised to see the actual difference is a maximum of about three yards longer. The technology works, but by no means is it so substantial that we need to change the label on the bottom of the golf club.
The bottom line is that loft is king, regardless of the technology involved, and I have seen, but one equipment company make a change backwards! This is TaylorMade with their P770 irons. In comparison the P790, they increased the loft by one degree in the short irons and up to two degrees in the long irons, to add height and spin to the irons to improve performance. Imagine that, more spin and height are an advantage! And that was backed by their testing and their data.
Now to even further nail down my point, it is worth noting that TaylorMade Golf offers the highest lofted Pitching Wedge in the industry at 49 degree, which are in the Tiger lofts of the P7TW irons. That same iron set has a 22.5-degree 3-iron. At 22.5 degrees, it is typically the lowest-lofted iron in the golf bag of the best iron player on the PGA Tour in 2019. Of course, he has the skill to play an iron with lower loft, but the point that history reveals to us is that the effective loft of playability for an iron is about 22 degrees and higher. Anything lower lofted than that is typically replaced with a hybrid. This is not just a trend for the amateur golfer either, and it is even happening on tour with the best players in the world.
We will probably never see the lofts rolled back, but the least we can do is update Lee Trevino’s quote, “if you ever find yourself in a thunderstorm, lift up your 4-iron, because not even God can hit a 4-iron.”
The Gear Dive: Going scorched earth on Tiger documentary
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Golf 101: If you could only pick one wedge loft to use, what would it be?
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