The Great Distance Debate: How Ever-Increasing Driving Distance Is Changing Golf
This story appears in the Jan. 28, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
Designating golf holes as masterpieces often triggers vehement debate, but you can make a rock-solid case for the 13th at Augusta National. The elevated tee box, nestled between perfectly manicured hedges, rests in shade provided by towering Chinese fir trees. The green isn't visible from the tee, as the hole swerves left after some 270 yards. The fairway slopes hard from right to left, and azalea shrubs—always in bloom, those azaleas—pair with a creek to guard the left side of the 510-yard par-5.
Everything about the hole entices players to stay right of center, toward a generous landing area and away from all that gorgeous trouble. But bailing out right leaves an uneven lie and a longer shot into a tricky green. Players who successfully challenge the left side of the fairway have their boldness rewarded by a flat lie and an unimpeded look at glory. Still, their approach shot has its own calculus, as the dramatically sloped putting surface is protected by water in front and four bunkers on the left and back edges. Laying up essentially takes bogey out of the cards. Going for the green in two can lead to a crowd-roaring eagle—or a round-busting big number.
It's a classic risk-reward hole, just as Alister MacKenzie imagined it when he designed the course in 1931.
On the final day of the 2018 Masters, eventual champion Patrick Reed stood over his ball on that iconic 13th tee and blasted his drive over the dogleg and past MacKenzie's obstacles, trivializing the fairway's nuances and leaving his ball just 186 yards from the hole. One of the most vexing par-5s ever conceived had been turned into a mid-length par-4 by a player who ranked 80th in driving distance on the PGA Tour last season.
It's an increasingly common occurrence in today's game: classic golf holes being rendered borderline obsolete by the modern player and state-of-the-art equipment. And it's why the golf world is anticipating the release of the Distance Insights project, a joint report from the USGA and the R&A that could determine that the golf ball has gone too far. In 1992 the average Tour driving distance was 260.52 yards. In 2018 it was up 13%, to 295.29 yards. "Imagine baseball not being able to have games at Wrigley Field or Fenway Park," says Andy Johnson, whose website, The Fried Egg, has emerged as an authoritative voice on golf course architecture. "That's where we we're headed."
Before atmospheric and turf conditions come into play, three factors go a long way in determining how far a golf ball will travel: the swing, the club and the ball. The swing generates momentum; the club transfers it into the ball; and the dimpled sphere cuts through the air. It comes as no surprise, then, that significant advancements in all three components have resulted in a distance explosion. Better chassis design + better tires + better oil = faster car.
The swing is an extension of the golfer—or, in more recent memory—the athlete. Tiger Woods's influence on the sport is immeasurable, but his greatest impact might have been on the power of golfers. Woods famously spent as much time running and lifting weights and working out with Navy SEALs as he did honing his swing, setting a standard that led to nearly everyone on Tour having a fitness regimen. His transcendent success also attracted more natural athletes to pick up clubs. Dustin Johnson, currently ranked No. 3 in the world, is cut like a beach volleyball player; Brooks Koepka, the current No. 2 who won the 2018 U.S. Open and the PGA Championship, brings to mind an NFL safety.
Stronger, more flexible players generate greater swing speed, but athleticism is nothing without refined skill. Invented in 2005 by Danish radar engineers, the Trackman is a 3-D launch monitor that equips players and teachers with a better understanding of ball-flight physics. The device, a thin square that gets propped up a few feet behind the ball and sends its data to a mobile app, quantifies virtually every aspect of the golf shot, including but not limited to swing speed, club path, club angle of attack, ball speed, ball launch angle, ball spin rate, carry distance and overall distance.
A player immersing himself in such data a decade ago was thought to be diving too deep into his own head at the expense of basic fundamentals and the feel of his swing. Now the Trackman box (starting price $18,995) and its competitors are as ubiquitous on PGA Tour practice ranges as alignment sticks and swing coaches.
Modern technology has also allowed players and coaches to fine-tune swings from the ground up, leveraging energy created from the friction between a player's legs and the earth to generate more power. "It's like any other sport," says George Gankas, a 48-year-old swing guru from Westlake Village, Calif., who has developed a mystical reputation among his 120,000-plus Instagram followers for helping players such as Matthew Wolff (the top college golfer, at Oklahoma State) and Akshay Bhatia (the top junior) increase their swing speed. "When throwing a punch, you spring up from the ground. When throwing a baseball, you push off the ground. It's no different in golf.... Most things we've been taught in the past are bulls---."
The result is a torque-maximizing, athletic-as-hell golf swing like the one belonging to phenom Cameron Champ, a 23-year-old from Sacramento, who averaged 343.1 yard drives on the Web.com Tour last season—23.4 yards longer than Rory McIlroy's PGA Tour--leading distance (319.7). Champ won a PGA Tour event in just his ninth start, shooting 21 under par at the Sanderson Farms Classic in October.
As more fit young players who are well-versed in biomechanics and launch-monitor data reach the Tour, swing speeds will move closer to the upper bounds of human capability. The longest-hitting players today can swing up to 130 mph and carry a drive up to 330 yards; an era of 140 mph swing speeds and 360 carries doesn't seem to be far off.
Virtually all drivers in today's game are adjustable in some capacity, meaning players can tailor them to their unique swings and body types. Also helping them extract every yard out of their drives: innovations in clubface design mean off-center mishits are traveling nearly as far—and as straight—as perfectly struck shots.
But no matter how well clubs have been engineered, or how much stronger players have gotten, the most significant factor in increasing distance has been the ball. The PGA Tour's average driving distance jumped a record six yards from 2000 to '01, coinciding with the introduction of the Titleist Pro V1. Since the early 1900s professionals had played balls that had a liquid-filled rubber core wrapped with yarn, their exteriors covered with a rubber called balata. Even when manufacturers began developing solid-core balls covered by urethane, a soft plastic, in the mid-'90s, professionals stuck with the balata models, preferring a softer feel and increased workability to the greater distance provided by urethane. Then came the 2000 introduction of the Pro V1, a urethane-covered ball that felt soft and spun enough for the Tour player who wanted increased distance without sacrificing control in the short game.
"I remember the first time I put it in play, I airmailed the first three greens," says Gabriel Hjerstedt, a two-time PGA Tour winner who picked up more than nine yards in driving distance by switching to the Pro V1. "Just a massive difference."
No winner of any professional tournament in 2001—in the world, not just the PGA Tour—used a wound balata ball. The urethane takeover was complete and the game would never be the same. Case in point: Bernhard Langer is longer off the tee at 61 (282.0 yards, his Champions tour average in '18) than he was at 28 (269.7 yard average during the 1985 PGA Tour season).
According to a statistical analysis in The Hole Truth: Determining the Greatest Players in Golf Using Sabermetrics by Bill Felber, distance is more vital to success than ever before. In 1980 the correlation between a PGA Tour player's driving accuracy and his scoring average was 53%; between driving distance and scoring average, a mere 13%. In 2017 the correlation between driving accuracy and scoring average was 12%; the correlation between distance and scoring average was 44%.
"Just look at all the top players, they're all super long," Gankas says. "You can be accurate as hell, but if you've got no speed, good luck against someone who swings it 125. Good. Luck."
The strategy known as "bomb and gouge"—when a player hits driver as often as possible, willingly sacrificing the precision of shorter clubs—has become increasingly popular and effective. That name is a bit of a misnomer, though. According to Mark Broadie, a Columbia Business School professor whose creation of next-gen stats has earned him a Bill James--like status in golf, a relatively long hitter would, over a single round on a typical Tour course, have to miss four or five more fairways than average to nullify his distance advantage. "I don't believe in the term bomb and gouge," Broadie says. "They're just not missing that many more fairways. [They miss] one or two more per round, usually, if that."
Simply put, length is a greater advantage than accuracy. In 2018, among the top 10 players in strokes gained off the tee—a stat that compares the quality of a player's drives with the rest of the Tour field—the average distance rank was 13.8 while the driving accuracy rank was 107.8. And that advantage isn't just limited to the tee shot. A longer drive means a shorter approach shot with a more lofted club, increasing a player's opportunity of sticking one close.
"Distance is a much bigger factor in a player's success than just about anything," says Rich Hunt, who does contracted work for NASA and pursues golf analytics on the side to help Tour players strategize and identify areas for improvement. "If you're a Bubba Watson or a Dustin Johnson, you don't have to putt all that well to be competitive."
More daunting than ever: the plight of a player such as Luke Donald, whose pinpoint wedge play and superhuman putting propelled him to world No. 1 in 2011 despite ranking 147th in driving distance. Shorter hitters have to decide: Stick to my game and compete on only the right style of course, or try to hit longer and hope to keep up? "In an effort to try to maximize distance, I got into some bad habits in my swing," says the 41-year-old Donald, who's currently ranked 728 in the world. "Ultimately, I might have hit it a bit farther. But I was more crooked."
As in other sports, golfers are only going to get bigger, stronger and more flexible. And regulations on clubs already exist—the USGA and the R&A began enacting restrictions on the size and springiness of driver clubheads in 2004, a move that had some success in slowing distance gains until the recent uptick. Which leaves us with the ball.
The idea of regulating—or "rolling back"—the golf ball to an agreed-upon standard has been gaining traction in recent years among pros, commentators and fans. One possibility includes reducing the ball's maximum initial velocity, which Jack Nicklaus has suggested reducing by 20%. Other options include outlawing certain materials, internal construction methods and dimple patterns. Whatever the means, the result would be the same: shorter tee shots. Holes like the 13th at Augusta would get their teeth back. A 450-yard par-4 suddenly wouldn't be driver-wedge. And longer players would still have an advantage over their peers.
Within the rollback crowd, the loudest calls are not for a blanket rollback but a bifurcation of the rules, similar to baseball's. Just as metal bats are legal at every level except the pros, today's golf balls would be permitted for amateurs but not Tour players. And there's a bit of precedent: The USGA allows amateurs but not pros to use range finders. (According to a 2017 SI/Golf.com anonymous player poll, 62% of Tour pros favor general bifurcation.)
Woods has been lobbying for such a change since '17, when he told Golf Channel's Todd Lewis, "My idea was to have it so that every professional would have to play a reduced-flight ball.... At a professional level I see no reason why we can't have it very similar to where baseball has it right now."
The USGA said as recently as last June that no changes to rules about ball composition are imminent. And it should be noted that the current clamor for a rollback is hardly a new phenomenon (to say nothing of how such a change would disrupt the lucrative golf ball industry that thrives on letting weekend warriors play the same ball as the pros).
Nicklaus is on record calling for a rollback as early as 1991, well before the solid-core ball and metal woods were pervasive. "In the '60s you can find people talking about rolling the ball back to the '30s," says outspoken Golf Channel commentator and former Tour player Brandel Chamblee. "The argument is nothing new. People always want to idealize a previous era."
Chamblee is far from alone in thinking the distance problem should be oriented toward the future, not the past. Namely, golf courses must evolve to challenge the modern player and ball. "This can all be solved with a proper understanding of how to set up a golf course to combat the distance problems," Chamblee says. "Look at different fairway heights, different fairway widths, different rough heights. You can experiment with—and this is where American architecture has completely missed the boat—the placement of bunkers that are sufficient penalty to negate the impulse of always pulling out driver."
Some of the world's top courses have already evolved. Koepka won the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock, shooting one over par; in 1986, Raymond Floyd won the U.S. Open at Shinnecock at one under. Francesco Molinari won the 2018 British Open at Carnoustie at eight under; Tom Watson won the '75 British Open on the same course at nine under. Score is the ultimate currency of golf, not driving distance.
The reason courses like Shinnecock and Carnoustie and Augusta have remained championship tracks: They've been lengthened significantly—and they might keep growing still. After the 13th at Augusta played as the easiest hole at the 2017 Masters, the club acquired land behind the tee box from an adjacent course, laying the foundation for a possible extension of the famous par-5. The purchase speaks to the uncomfortable conundrum facing the game: Rein in the ball or reconfigure the masterpieces.