By Mike Stachura
Hinted at in increasing intensity over the last year until bubbling over in the last few weeks, it became official today: Golf’s ruling bodies are officially concerned about driving distance.
The USGA and R&A released their third annual report on driving distance across golf’s professional tours, and the report’s message was succinct. Unlike comments from the associations’ two leaders in recent months, however, it did not indicate any clear movement toward a distance rollback.
“The 2015 and 2016 editions of the distance report presented the increases in driving distance since 2003 as a slow creep of around 0.2 yards per year,” the report’s preamble reads. “The 2017 data shows a deviation from this trend. The average distance gain across the seven worldwide tours was more than 3 yards since 2016.
“As noted in previous annual reports, variability in driving distance of 4 or more yards from season to season on any one tour is not uncommon. However, this level of increase across so many tours in a single season is unusual and concerning and requires closer inspection and monitoring to fully understand the causes and effects.
“Increases in distance can contribute to demands for longer, tougher and more resource-intensive golf courses at all levels of the game. These trends can impact the costs to operate golf courses and put additional pressures on golf courses in their local environmental landscape. The effect of increasing distance on the balance between skill and technology is also a key consideration. Maintaining this balance is paramount to preserving the integrity of golf.
“Building on the extensive research we have undertaken in recent years, we will conduct a thoughtful conversation about the effects of distance prior to making any specific proposals. We remain open-minded and our absolute priority is to ensure that all key stakeholders are involved in an open and inclusive process, and that we move forward together in the best interests of golf at all levels. There is no fixed timetable, but we will commence this process immediately and endeavor to reach a conclusion as promptly as possible.
“In conjunction with the publication of the 2017 distance research report, the R&A and USGA are carrying out a comprehensive analysis of the impacts of increased distance on both the playing and overall health of golf.
“The USGA and the R&A intend to consolidate previous work conducted by the two organizations, as well as others in the golf industry, regarding the effect of distance on the footprint and playing of the game, conduct new research on these same topics to augment the current state of knowledge of the issues, and, most importantly, in the coming months, engage with stakeholders throughout the golf industry to develop a comprehensive understanding of perspectives on distance. Additional information on this stakeholder engagement will be made available in due course.
“Ultimately, the R&A and the USGA remain steadfastly committed to ensuring a sustainable and enjoyable future for golf.”
USGA officials contacted by Golf Digest declined further comment beyond the contents of the report.
The report shows all-time highs in driving distance average for the PGA Tour, the European Tour, the Web.com Tour and the PGA Tour Champions. The driving distance on the PGA Tour reached 292.5 yards for the 2016-2017 season, a 2.5-yard increase from the year prior. The less than one-percent jump may not sound like much but is more than 10 times the average annual rate of increase across golf’s pro tours from 2003 to 2016.
Not highlighted, but a chart in the report also contains average driving distance data for average male and female golfers, conducted at the same venue since 1996 in the U.K. The report shows the average for male golfers at 208 yards and female golfers at 146 yards. Not mentioned is that for the lowest three of the four male handicap groups, the average distance decreased from 2016.
The year 2003 is significant because golf’s ruling bodies use that as the starting point for its distance evaluations. It is the first full year after the USGA and R&A released their Joint Statement of Principles (and was endorsed by the PGA Tour), which in spirit called for a moratorium on increased driving distance without actually drawing a theoretical line in the sand. That statement read in part, “any further significant increases in hitting distances at the highest level are undesirable.” Since that statement, the driving distance average on the PGA Tour has increased 6.6 yards.
The 292.5-yard average for 2017 is less than two yards longer than the driving distance average from 2011 (290.9, the previous all-time high), and the 2.5-yard year-over-year gain is less than the one-year gain from 2010 to 2011 (3.6 yards). It’s also dwarfed by the gain in the first full year after the Joint Statement was released (6.4 yards).
While not discussed in the report, the gain on the PGA Tour reflects noticeable distance bumps at three of the four major championships last year. Looking at the driving distance gains at events contested at the same venue year on year, the gain on the PGA Tour from the 2015-’16 season to the 2016-’17 season was about half a yard.
Counting 2017, the annual rate of increase in average driving distance on the PGA Tour since 2003 is less than half a yard per year. That’s higher than it’s been trending certainly. But it’s also less than one-quarter the annual rate in the decade leading up to the release of the Joint Statement.
The percentage increases were larger on the European Tour and the developmental Web.com Tour, the latter seeing a 6.9-yard gain to become the first professional tour whose players averaged more than 300 yards on measured driving holes. It is the largest one-year jump on any professional tour tracked by the Distance Report since the Joint Statement was released. That number is more than 30 times what pro tours averaged annually over the last 15 years. However, that jump came after a 1.7-yard decline in 2016.
Not included in the report is the high-flying start to the distance numbers this year. More than a third of the way through the wraparound season, some 69 players are averaging more than 300 yards off the tee. That’s double what it was last year at this point, and more than eight times what it was in 2011 through a similar number of events.
Of course, the ruling bodies have remained largely indifferent to distance increases over the last 15 years, suggesting consistently that increases were flat, or like outgoing USGA senior technical director Dick Rugge said in 2012, “The train is not leaving the station. It may not be the station that some want to be in. But it is not leaving.”
Even as recently as last year, the most alarming phrase found in any official pronouncements was “slow creep.” But ever since the USGA’s Mike Davis suggested that distance has been bad for the game at the USGA-sponsored North American Golf Innovation Symposium a year ago, the drumbeat from the ruling bodies has intensified.
Davis spoke firmly about distance concerns at the USGA Annual Meeting earlier this month, as did incoming president Mark Newell. Davis specifically raised the prospect then of an equipment rollback.
“I don’t want to see a headline next week saying the USGA is proposing going back to hickories and gutta-percha balls in the future, but it does make you wonder what golf courses will look like if we stay on this trajectory,” Davis said. “We see a future where a player’s score continues to be fundamentally dictated by his or her athletic and course management skills, not just an over-reliance on equipment and technology.”
Last month, Martin Slumbers, head of the R&A, did not equivocate.
“For a number of years there has been a slow creep upwards, but this is a little bit more than slow creep,” Slumbers said. “It’s actually quite a big jump. Our 2002 Joint Statement of Principles put a line in the sand. But when you look at this data we have probably crossed that line in the sand. A serious discussion is now needed on where we go.”