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April 2018

New USGA Distance Report Spurs More Debate

By Steve Eubanks
 
It will be the topic of discussion in most grill rooms all year, and a subject operators will need to be familiar with as the debate continues. On March 5, the USGA and R&A put out their annual joint report on distance, a compilation and average of driving statistics from seven different tours in 2017. The report showed an average increase in driving distance of more than 3 yards over 2016 with a substantial jump of 6.9 yards coming on the Web.com Tour.
 
Previous reports showed an incremental increase of 0.2 yards per year from 2003 through 2016. And while this most recent jump was not seen as a five-alarm fire at USGA headquarters, sources with intimate knowledge of the situation say that the numbers sparked feisty internal debates at the R&A and USGA.

“Increases in distance can contribute to demands for longer, tougher and more resource-intensive golf courses at all levels of the game,” the game’s ruling bodies said in a joint statement. “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.”

No data was taken from average players for this report. It was a composite look at the best-of-the-best.
“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,” the joint statement read. “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.”

Mathematicians know that even with more than 300,000 drives measured per year, one year’s worth of data from seven professional tours in a 500-year-old game played by 60 million people is statistically indistinguishable from zero. Also, the number of variables that go into distance is so voluminous that isolating a root cause is impossible.
Golf courses and conditions change. Titleist did their own research and found that the distance increases on golf courses the PGA Tour played in both 2016 and 2017 was negligible. Driving distance at Augusta National, for example, went down last year over 2016.

Types of courses matter. Driving distance at Erin Hills was always going to be greater than at Oakmont. Why three of the four major championships, which are played on different courses every year, were included in the study remains a mystery. As new courses are added to the various tours, driving distances will go up and down. Mexico City is 7,000 feet above sea level, for example. Players are going to hit the ball much farther there than they did in Miami.

Also, driving distance on the Web.com Tour, where rough isn’t very high and courses are more open, will always be higher than other tours. According to Titleist’s data, Web.com players get shorter when they graduate to the PGA Tour. Whether that is due to maturity, course conditions, the types of courses being played or any of a thousand other factors is unknowable. The data support no conclusions.

Course conditioning is a major variable. For more than a decade organizations, including the USGA, have pushed golf course owners to reduce water consumption and return to “firm and fast” conditions. “Brown is beautiful” has become axiomatic in the industry. Obviously, crispier fairways roll out more than lush, green, spongy grass. That is why there are bountiful old newspaper accounts of Tommy Armour and Ted Rae hitting 300-yard drives more than 100 years ago when the only irrigation was rain. 

Wind speed, relative humidity, mowing heights, air and ground temperature, time of day: these are but a few of the factors that go into how far a tee shot travels. Isolating one data point would be as complicated as predicting next year’s weather.

“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 report stated. “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.”

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