Driving Distance vs Accuracy



So much effort has spent developing equipment and balls that go farther and farther. The USGA has placed limitations on some products such as compression limits on balls and volume size for driver heads. A few years back, some courses (like Augusta National) started lengthening courses in an attempt to 'Tiger proof' them. I have always wondered why they didn't shorten courses, narrow the fairways, and make the rough more severe. It would be somewhat like lowering the basketball rim to 8' which would mean being 8' tall would not be as advantageous. This also might reduce water and maintenance costs. What do you think?

–Greg, CA

I really do appreciate your question as it makes sense at a time when we seem to be running out of this faculty.

I have suggested on many occasions that there is truly no need to lengthen courses for the tour players just because some of them are able to hit the ball a long way but rather, as you have suggested, shorten them. There are more skills required to identify the best golfer than his ability to drive the ball a long way. However, we have placed a disproportionate premium on distance and unknowingly rewarded those who have developed this ability – at the expense of other skills – by lengthening courses.

If distance was the most important skill in golf, as we seem to have implied by our actions to continue to  lengthen courses for major championships, then we should build a course 8,000 yards long with only two holes. One hole 4,000-yard long  outward and the another 4,000 yards back. This would clearly identify and reward the longest hitters.

Course design and strategic set up are of utmost importance if the object is to identify the best golfers. The fact that golfers, not all of us but certainly the tour pros,  are able to hit the ball great distances has created a problem. The solution for coping with this, is not to lengthen courses  but as you have suggested, shorten them.

The driver is not sacrosanct, and if we decide not to use it – because the risk of not being accurate with a long drive is too great – we will not face a life in purgatory.

I reviewed the change in the average driving distance on the PGA Tour to find – as anticipated – that we have reached the predicted plateau. This plateau is governed mainly by the laws of physics – with a little help from the governing bodies – and the fact that the tour pros are launching the ball at its optimum launch conditions for their head speeds. This should be of some comfort to those who believe that increases in driving distance are never ending.

The major shift in average driving distance was between 1996 and 2004 when the USGA allowed spring like effect in titanium club faces and this, in combination with the multi-layered solid construction ball increased the distance on tour  about 25 yards without any increase in skill. A major contributing factor to this extraordinary increase is the fact that the new better performing ball and club allowed golfers to reach the optimum launch conditions of higher launch angles with lower spin rates.

The fear of any further increase in distance on Tour is over. For the rest of us, we may have a little more to go if we found the sweet spot more often. To help in this mission, a shorter driver may help not only keep us in the fairway but, on average, have longer drives.

As much as we don’t really want to believe it, the average golfer drives the ball close to 90 yards shorter than the average Tour pro but we think we are only 50 yards shorter. We also believe that every new driver we pay $500 for will make up 20 yards of this difference.

The thrill of looking for this magic club is part of the charm the game has to offer, and something the manufacturers thrive upon.

Greg, for those few events, when the Tour comes to town, we really need only change the course set up for appropriate risk/reward options and there will be no need to make the course any longer. This would allow more good golfers to exhibit their true skills and allow us to identify the true champion while increasing the entertainment value of tour events.

Our thrills can come from watching golfers – those long hitters – try to drive, if they have the courage, a green on a 350 yard par four with the potential of making a triple bogey. This is a form of entertainment, similar to but not as disastrous, as going to a NASCAR race to see the accidents.

For those of us who want to enjoy our game more, we need to find the sweet spot on our driver more often with a shorter driver and play from shorter tees. Unfortunately we fantasize about more distance and as a result it is has become the magic word in marketing. We buy hope and there is a lot of it for sale.

Thanks, for your question about which many will agree and I am sure you will enjoy my book “Just Hit It” where I discuss similar issues and other thought provoking topics as well as guide to golfers in their selection of new equipment to increase their distance and allow them to enjoy their game a little more.

– Frank  

Frank Thomas, inventor of the graphite shaft, is founder of Frankly Golf. Thomas is chief technical advisor to GolfChannel.com. He served as technical director of the USGA for 26 years and directed the development of the GHIN system and introduced the Stimpmeter. To email a question for possible use in an upcoming Let's Be Frank column, please email letsbefrank@franklygolf.com