Golf has a distance problem.
That’s now the official position of the game’s governing bodies, which released their long-anticipated Distance Insights Project Tuesday that comprehensively outlines how the distance boom has had an undesirable effect and is detrimental to the game’s long-term future.
Nearly two decades after warning that further significant distance increases would “have the impact of seriously reducing the challenge of the game,” the USGA and R&A finally appear poised to tackle one of the sport’s thorniest issues. Relying on data from industry experts, tours and stakeholders, they unveiled their two-year findings that included a 15-page statement of conclusions and a 99-page summary of the research that was gathered from 57 individual reports.
Though distance has consistently increased for more than a century, the USGA and R&A believe that golf has reached a crossroads because recent gains have compromised the strategic challenge of many courses and created adverse consequences that affect golfers at every level and the game as a whole.
“We just think this continuing cycle of golf courses having to expand is detrimental to the game,” USGA CEO Mike Davis told Golf Channel. “This is not an emergency. We don’t have a crisis. This didn’t happen overnight. But we are looking to solve a problem that we believe is in the best interest of all golfers.”
The Distance Insights Project sets the foundation for a multi-year process that could eventually lead to equipment or rules changes.
The USGA and R&A said their equipment standards teams will now conduct a broad review to assess the wide range of options related to distance. In the next 45 days the governing bodies will publish a set of specific research topics and then gather information from stakeholders and manufacturers, a process that is expected to take up to a year. At that time, if necessary, the governing bodies could propose a rules change.
The upcoming review is expected to include the potential of a local rule that would specify the use of equipment that would decrease distance. Though the term “bifurcation” does not appear in the 15-page conclusions document, and both the R&A and USGA cited during a Monday news conference a desire for a single set of rules, the governing bodies left open the possibility of having two sets of rules by stating the review is “not currently intended to consider revising the overall specifications in a way that would produce substantial reductions in hitting distances at all levels of the game.”
Any proposed restrictions to equipment – a rollback of the ball, or driver clubhead reductions – would likely receive severe pushback from manufacturers. Davis said he’s not had any dialogue with manufacturers prior to Tuesday’s published findings and cautioned that they’ve not yet entered the “solution stage.”
“This is a long-term process; this is a multi-year process, a collaborative process,” Davis said. “For this to work it has to have the golf industry, as a whole, engaged. Through a lot of data research, we have determined there is a problem that golf collectively needs to solve.”
That research in the 99-page report focuses extensively on the driving distance of “highly skilled male golfers,” for whom more information is readily available. From 2003-2019, the governing bodies noted that the average drive of the 20 longest hitters on the PGA and European tours had increased to 310 yards, with the average driving distance overall at 294 yards. Since 2013, in particular, distances increased at a rate of roughly one yard per year, with the top 20 increasing by eight yards and the average rising by seven yards. Left unchecked, the report says, it’s possible that elite players might soon be able to generate swing speeds of 145 mph, ball speeds topping 215 mph and drives in excess of 400 yards.
Such increases can’t be explained solely by equipment innovation. In their report the governing bodies also point to the evolving athleticism of today’s top players, many of whom have focused on fitness and flexibility to maximize their performance. Coupled with modern swing principles and technology that helps players optimize their swing speed, launch angle and ball speed – in addition to firmer, drier course conditions – the biggest hitters are longer than ever before.
That trend of increased distance, the USGA and R&A contend, has undermined the inherent strategic challenge of courses, with decreased shot variety and an emphasis on distance at the expense of accuracy and other skills. For those at the non-elite level, the USGA and R&A believe that recreational golfers are playing from tees that are longer than necessary.
“Longer distances, longer courses, playing from longer tees and longer times to play are taking golf in the wrong direction,” the report states, “and are not necessary to make golf challenging, enjoyable or sustainable in the future.”
Longer and larger courses also have put the game at odds with growing societal and environmental concerns, with a need to address escalating issues involving water and chemicals, land use, wildlife and habitat protections, and energy.
Both the USGA and R&A acknowledge that they could have – and perhaps should have – done more to curb distance increases prior to the release of their study. In their Joint Statement of Principles, published in 2002, they warned that “further significant increases in hitting distances at the highest level are undesirable ... and will have the impact of seriously reducing the challenge of the game.”
So why are they prepared to act now, nearly two decades later?
“Our views have evolved as events have unfolded and new information has become available,” the report reads, “... and we believe that it is never too late to do the right thing for the future of the game.”