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Frank Thomas, former senior technical director of the U.S. Golf Association and now a golf equipment consultant, discussed modern golf ball distance with Adam Barr.
 
Adam Barr: What is the crux of the distance question?

Frank Thomas: The problem hasnt been really well-defined, except for the fact the pros, who consist of such a small segment of the golfing population, are hitting the ball so much farther now than they were 30 years ago. And some of the grand old golf course designs could be compromised. Im not sure thats enough of a justification for rolling back the ball, which will affect all golfers.

AB: What factors contribute to this?

FT: Because of better agronomy, increased athleticism, diet, exercise, teaching techniques and more, the driving distance has increased a foot per year between 1968 and 1995. But in 1995, titanium clubs became popular because they can be larger and more forgiving. And the faces of these clubs got thinner and acted like a spring; they propelled the ball five to six miles an hour faster at impact for tour-level swing speeds, which are about 110 miles per hour. And distance increased.

Also, companies learned more about optimization, about how high the ball should be launched and at what spin rate. On top of that, multilayer golf balls improved, with better covers and more responsive rubber core.

All this added up to a distance increase among better players of 20 yards or so over the last five to eight years. Its had more of an impact on elite players, who hit the ball more often in the center of the clubface than average players.


AB: Is there a solution?

FT: A lot of people dont believe this is a problem. Course setup is something we should start looking at, especially at the major events, where youre trying to identify the best player. But at other events, regular tour events, people come wanting to see records fall. Thats entertainment, and I dont think theres anything wrong with it. And for 90 percent of us, were not hitting the ball far enough. I never knew anyone who said theyre hitting the ball too far.

AB: So theres no need for two sets of rules?

FT: Thats a bad option from a couple of points of view. I think most golfers relate to the superstars because theyre playing the same equipment. Also, its highly impractical to have two sets of rules, because at some tournaments, such as the U.S. Open, amateurs enter with professionals. And what about pro-ams? As golfers move up in skill level, when would they switch over to the pro rules?

AB: What about the fact that only four players broke par at the 2003 U.S. Open?

FT: Well, thats just an example of course setup at work. The fact is, long players arent winning everything. But if you really want to test golf skill, you could impose a limit on the number of clubs allowed in players bags at major championships. Try 10 clubs, for example, instead of 14. Make it a local rule, or a rule for elite players only in the relevant events.

AB: Whats the future of golf technology in relation to the distance the ball flies?

FT: The laws of physics are in play, and were not going to get more than another 10 yards or so due to technology ' that encompasses aerodynamics, coefficient of restitution, and optimized performance. But after that, were pretty near the top.