Driving distance stats can be misleading

By Rex HoggardFebruary 15, 2017, 10:14 pm

LOS ANGELES – The USGA and R&A unveiled the annual driving distance report on Wednesday, which is a rough snapshot born from something called the “Joint Statement of Principles.”

Essentially, the statistics suggest that distance gains for the top players remain relatively static, with average drives on five of the seven tours studied increasing about 1.2 percent since 2003, or about .2 yards per year.

In other words, stay calm and play on.

That handwringing that echoed around the water cooler earlier this year when Justin Thomas shot an easy 59 on Day 1 at the Sony Open, that the modern game was making some classic courses like Waialae, and even this week’s pitch at Riviera, an analog stop in a digital world were unfounded, alarmist even.

The report went on to explain that the average launch conditions on the PGA Tour - clubhead speed, launch angle, ball, spin rates, etc. - have been "relatively stable since 2007.”

Mark Twain popularized the line that seems apropos here: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics."

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That’s not to say the USGA and R&A’s data is incorrect or misleading, it’s simply skewed in favor of a commonly held belief that the ruling bodies have gotten a handle on out-of-control distance gains.

But using only PGA Tour statistics – which is essential because it's the only circuit that utilizes ShotLink and therefore is the only tour that can paint an accurate picture – distance gains are marginally more than reported, with the average drive in 2003 being 285.9 yards and in 2016 increasing to 290 yards (a 1.5 percent bump).

But where the report seems to truly lose steam is among the game’s longest players. In ’03, nine players averaged 300 yards or more off the tee. That number has jumped to 38 players this season with a driving clip of 300 yards or better.

Where the averages have remained relatively constant, the longest among the play-for-pay set have improved at an exponentially greater clip.

To be clear, this is not an equipment problem, at least not entirely. The truth is whether this is a problem at all is a matter of perspective. For every traditionalist concerned that the game has become too easy for the top players there are those who cheered Thomas’ record round on Thursday in Honolulu.

Were you not entertained?

Beyond the obvious statistics, which prove that there are simply more bombers today, it’s the report’s take that the average launch conditions on Tour have been “stable” that drew the most double takes on Wednesday at the Genesis Open.

According to multiple equipment representatives from various companies, the average golf ball spin for a driver on Tour is down about 500 rpm from ’03, while the average launch on drives is up between 2 and 4 degrees. Without getting lost in the science of the golf swing and new technology, lower spin and higher launch means more distance and it’s the players with the highest clubhead speed that enjoy the greatest benefit from this evolution.

Put another way, more clubhead speed is the byproduct of better athletes, not better equipment, and modern technology can be maximized for these players, which at least partially explains why the number of players averaging 300-plus yard drivers has tripled since 2003.

“You have kids like Justin Thomas who are using their bodies in ways that we weren’t taught and they swing for pure distance with their drivers,” said Johnson Wagner, who only half-jokingly refers to himself as a “dinosaur.”

“I think it’s working out, it’s launch monitors, it’s coaching. I don’t think it’s equipment; the clubs are what they are and have been for the last 10 years. It’s just everything and there’s nothing you can do.”

While equipment gains have been slowed and even stopped on some fronts, everything else has gotten better – from the physical abilities of modern professionals to technology like TrackMan that allows players to dial in every aspect of their driver.

To Wagner’s point, where the USGA and R&A study focused on average driving distance, consider that in 2007 (the first year of radar data on Tour) the average spin rate with a driver was 2,814 rpm, whereas that average has dropped dramatically to 2,525 rpm this year.

That drop has come despite an average launch angle that has remained virtually unchanged (10.83 degrees in 2007 compared to 10.84 degrees this season). All together now, low spin and high launch means longer drives.

“I can’t argue with the stats, but a lot of guys are hitting it a really long way and that’s not the way it used to be,” said Bob Estes, who is playing his 28th season on Tour. “That’s why you see so many courses having to move bunkers and building new tees, and even through they are doing that guys are still shooting low scores. There are just a lot of variables.”

And that reality is showing no signs of slowing. As more athletes gravitate to golf and those who teach the game refine their trade, so will the number of players who can reduce even the longest of holes to a pitch and putt.

Wagner figured the only way to slow this current trend is to “roll the [golf] ball back,” which is something of a nuclear option for the ruling bodies that’s not exactly popular in most corners of the game.

But if the USGA and R&A are serious about keeping tabs on driving distance, they may want to start with some better data.

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What's in the bag: CareerBuilder winner Rahm

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 10:37 pm

Jon Rahm defeated Andrew Landry in a playoff to earn his second PGA Tour title at the CareerBuilder Challenge. Here's what's in his bag:

Driver: TaylorMade M4 (9.5 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Fairway wood: TaylorMade M3 (19 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Irons: TaylorMade P790 (3), P750 (4-PW), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Wedges: TaylorMade Milled Grind (52, 56 degrees), Milled Grind Hi-Toe (60 degrees), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Putter: TaylorMade Spider Tour Red

Ball: TaylorMade TP5x

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Strange irked by Rahm-Landry friendly playoff

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 9:45 pm

Curtis Strange knows a thing or two about winning golf tournaments, and based on his reaction to the CareerBuilder Challenge playoff on Sunday, it’s safe to say he did things a little differently while picking up 17 PGA Tour victories in his Hall-of-Fame career.

While Jon Rahm and Andrew Landry were “battling” through four extra holes, Strange, 62, tweeted his issues with the duo’s constant chit-chat and friendly banter down the stretch at La Quinta Country Club, where Rahm eventually came out on top.

The two-time U.S. Open champ then engaged with some followers to explain his point a little more in depth.

So, yeah ... don't think he's changing his perspective on this topic anytime soon ever.

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Randall's Rant: The Euros won't just roll over

By Randall MellJanuary 22, 2018, 9:36 pm

The Ryder Cup may not be the King Kong of golf events yet, but you can hear the biennial international team event thumping its chest a full eight months out.

As anticipation for this year’s big events goes, there is more buzz about Europe’s bid to hold off a rejuvenated American effort in Paris in September than there is about the Masters coming up in April.

Thank Europe’s phenomenal success last weekend for that.

And Rory McIlroy’s impassioned remarks in Abu Dhabi.

And the provocative bulletin board material a certain Sports Illustrated writer provided the Europeans a couple months ago, with a stinging assault on the Euro chances that read like an obituary.

McIlroy was asked in a news conference before his 2018 debut last week what he was most excited about this year.

The Ryder Cup topped his list.

Though McIlroy will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National come April, he talked more about the Ryder Cup than he did any of the game’s major championships.

When asked a follow-up about the American team’s resurgence after a task-force overhaul and the injection of young, new star power, McIlroy nearly started breaking down the matchup. He talked about the young Americans and how good they are.

“Yeah, the Americans have been, obviously, very buoyant about their chances and whatever, but it’s never as easy as that. ... The Ryder Cup’s always close,” McIlroy said. “I think we’ll have a great team, and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”

McIlroy may have been talking about Alan Shipnuck’s bold prediction after the American Presidents Cup rout last fall.

Or similar assertions from TV analysts.

“The Ryder Cup is dead – you just don’t know it yet,” Shipnuck wrote. “One of the greatest events in sport is on the verge of irrelevancy. The young, talented, hungry golfers from the United States, benefitting from the cohesive leadership of the Task Force era, are going to roll to victory in 2018 in Paris.”

European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn won’t find words that will motivate the Euros more than that as he watches his prospective players jockey to make the team.

And, boy, did they jockey last weekend.

The Euros dominated across the planet, not that they did it with the Ryder Cup as some rallying cry, because they didn’t. But it was a heck of an encouraging start to the year for Bjorn to witness.

Spain’s Jon Rahm won the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour, England’s Tommy Fleetwood started the week at Abu Dhabi paired with American and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and won the European Tour event, and Spain’s Sergio Garcia won the Singapore Open in a rout on the Asian Tour.

And McIlroy looked close to being in midseason form, tying for third in his first start in three months.

Yes, it’s only January, and the Ryder Cup is still a long way off, with so much still to unfold, but you got an early sense from McIlroy how much defending European turf will mean to him and the Euros in Paris in September.

The Masters is great theater, the U.S. Open a rigorous test, The Open and the PGA Championship historically important, too, but the Ryder Cup touches a nerve none of those do.

The Ryder Cup stokes more fervor, provokes more passion and incites more vitriol than any other event in golf.

More bulletin board material, too.

Yeah, it’s a long way off, but you can already hear the Ryder Cup’s King Kong like footsteps in its distant approach. Watching how the American and European teams come together will be an ongoing drama through spring and summer.

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Quail Hollow officials promise players easier conditions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 22, 2018, 9:14 pm

Quail Hollow Club - a staple on the PGA Tour since 2003 - debuted as a longer, tougher version of itself at last year’s PGA Championship, receiving mixed reviews from players.

The course played to a lengthened 7,600 yards at last year’s PGA and a 73.46 stroke average, the toughest course in relation to par on Tour in 2017. As a result, it left some players less than excited to return to the Charlotte, N.C.-area layout later this spring for the Wells Fargo Championship.

It’s that lack of enthusiasm that led officials at Quail Hollow to send a video to players saying, essentially, that the course players have lauded for years will be back in May.

The video, which includes Quail Hollow president Johnny Harris and runs nearly five minutes, begins with an explanation of how the first hole, which played as a 524-yard par 4 at the PGA, will play much shorter at the Wells Fargo Championship.

“I had a number of my friends who were playing in the tournament tell me that tee was better suited as a lemonade stand,” Harris joked of the new tee box on the fourth hole. “I doubt we’ll ever see that tee used again in competition.”

Harris also explained that the greens, which became too fast for some, will be “softer” for this year’s Wells Fargo Championship.