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We don't need a rollback; here's how you combat distance on the PGA Tour

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It has been argued for well over 100 years that the nature of the way golf was meant to be played is in danger of losing its appeal because of advancements in equipment. Never mind that the average handicap has dropped more than two shots in the last 30 years and those amateurs are some 17 to 18 yards longer, on average, and, one would presume, having more fun than ever.

It is further argued that because of those advancements in equipment that certain golf courses – if not all them – are in danger of becoming obsolete – if they aren’t already. Never mind the comparative results of majors played at Carnoustie, St. Andrews and Merion – to name a few – return winning results not too dissimilar from decades ago.

Yet in recent years, the most vocal proponents of those aged claims have become like town criers blaring out a skein of royal proclamations while ringing a mournful bell.

In 2019, the USGA and R&A issued the Distance Insights Report which chronicled, going back to the 1800s, the contributing factors to what they see as the growing problem of increased driving distance. Within the 13 pages of this report are reams of data to state the obvious: that the very best players, amateur and professional alike, are hitting the ball farther; and the less obvious: this increased distance causes problems, and pressures courses to add length to their layouts, robbing them of the nuance and intrigue that the original architect intended. Furthermore, that this added length strains resources and causes undue economic and environmental burdens. In short, they are restating the arguments of old, but pouring gasoline on the fire with sustainability claims.

Then came 2020 and Bryson DeChambeau. Talk about an accelerant.

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Which begs the question: With the target date for the next Distance Insight Report in March, will solutions to the obvious conclusions be forthcoming?

The solutions, if one can call them that, will not be easily found in merely reducing the flight of the golf ball or limiting its overall distance by mitigating contributing factors. I recently talked to an entrepreneurial equipment engineer, whose job is to both anticipate which way the winds will blow regarding such solutions and to, within those stipulated parameters, squeeze every yard and mph out the shaft, club head and ball. He said that any regulated reductions would be eventually, if not quickly, recouped by the innovations of the many highly motivated equipment engineers.

Set aside to what extent golf equipment – and improved agronomy – contributes to the increased distance the ball travels and one is left with the athlete. DeChambeau didn’t become the longest hitter in PGA Tour history solely or even largely because of advancements in equipment. He became the longest hitter in PGA Tour history because of advancements in his athleticism and his technique. His 2019-20 before-and-after pictures would, if he were alive, send Charles Darwin back to the Galapagos Islands. And yet pervading his every heaving step in 2020 hung the question: Is this better or worse for the game?

I’ve seen all the graphs which show that the increased yardage PGA Tour pros hit the ball corresponds to the increased usage of larger headed drivers and solid core balls. But there is also a graph which shows, quite clearly, players’ increased visits to the fitness van plots the line of the increased yardage gained over the last 40 years. I’d argue that one could also make a graph where the increased driving distance, to some extent, corresponds to the decreased fairway heights, which over the last 30 years have come down from being cut at 3/4 of an inch, to now being cut at 3/16 of an inch.

To state the obvious, the increase in distance is a multi-pronged equation. Not as obvious, has the game changed as drastically as the length of a PGA Tour tee shot?

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Let’s crunch a few numbers.

Since 1980, when the PGA Tour started keeping statistics, through the 2020 season, the average Tour drive has grown from 256.5 to 296.4 yards – a gain of 39.9 yards or 15%. The average score over the last 40 years has dropped from 72.59 to 70.56 – 2.03 shots or a 2.7% improvement.

Yes, players are considerably longer, but they are only marginally better.

Over that same time span, the world record for the 100 meters has dropped from 9.95 seconds to Usain Bolt’s blistering 9.58 seconds – a 3.7% improvement. With no equipment to point a wagging finger at, the track world applauds the athlete. But the 100 meters is only about speed, whereas in golf, speed, which is to say distance, is only one element that contributes to a score.

In looking at all the data – from distance and driving accuracy, to greens in regulation and proximity to the hole from the fairway and rough (only available beginning in the early 2000s), from scrambling and bunker play, and finally to putting – players are only negligibly better in almost every significant category. For instance, players now hit just 2.4 more greens over the course of 72 holes than they did in 1980, despite being almost as accurate (Tour driving accuracy average in 1980 was 62.55%, and in 2020 it was 60.22%) and 40 yards longer off the tee. Their bunker shots and chips (only available since the early 2000s) finish a little closer – 4 to 6 inches – to the hole, and they have almost one fewer putt a round.

Add all that up and it’s easy to see where the 2.03 shots of improvement come from and where it doesn’t. Mainly, players are better out of the rough – in fact, they hit 12% more greens from the thick stuff than they did 40 years ago – which stands to reason, given that the players are using much shorter clubs and can more easily cut through taller grass with a steeper angle of attack. But this still only amounts to less than three more greens hit in regulation over the course of 72 holes.

Since a 15% improvement in distance has only resulted in a 2.7% improvement in score, it is obvious that when Tour players face a golf course that holds them accountable for a missed fairway – either because of thick rough or a poor angle to the hole – regardless of how short the course plays, scores look very much like they did decades ago. Which suggests to me, that although players may be hitting shorter shots into greens, the integrity of revered designs is far from obsolete. If – and that’s a big if – missing a fairway comes with a commensurate penalty to what missing a fairway meant decades ago.

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In fact, the delta between a hit fairway and a missed fairway on the PGA Tour today is 0.3 shots when the rough is just 2 inches thick. But grow the rough to 4 inches and the cost of missing a fairway goes up to .55 shots. If, in addition to growing the rough, the PGA Tour reverted to fairways heights of 1980’s standards, according to and buried within the USGA Insights Report document, the total distance the ball travels could be reduced by 6 to 12 yards. And while they’re at it, if they would raise the green heights, almost every significant problem in this game could be ameliorated if not eliminated. Shorter drives with a larger importance on finding the fairways would make the game less about muscle and more about the mind, and with slower greens we would have faster rounds.

I am not suggesting longer rough for the recreational player – on the contrary, I’m for lowering the rough to speed up rounds for the casual golfer – but for Tour players, this is where there needs to be some sort of bifurcation. Longer shots come with a bigger miss and this has the effect of maintaining balance in the game between power and precision. Problem is, if the bigger miss does not also come with a bigger penalty the equalizer fails to work and the nature of the game breaks down. It becomes a sport based more on power and less on nuances.

We do not need the ball to fly shorter and nor do we need the clock to be rolled-back on equipment, just to make “more relevant” a few holes or a few courses in the golf world. Those who think we should, remind me of merchants of a coastal city who are against the building of a light house because it will injure the wrecking business. What we need, is not to make golf balls shorter or golf courses longer, but to make the fairway heights, the rough heights and the green heights longer, and almost every single problem in this game will be solved.