Driving distance stats can be misleading


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.

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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.