The golf ball is a sore subject in a lot of golf circles.
Many, including yours truly, think the golf ball travels too far for professionals. The two-part remedy is clear:
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1. Calling on the game's governing bodies to further limit how far the golf ball can travel
2. Bifurcating the rules of golf, creating separate rules and equipment standards for weekend hackers and high-level competitive amateurs and professionals
So, you can imagine the reaction from those corners of the game when the USGA and the R&A jointly released the results of a statistical analysis they conducted looking into how far pros are driving the ball these days. The governing bodies' findings claim that the ball isn't really going farther, based on data they have from seven majors tours around the world. If it's possible, the response was one that was simultaneously muted and apoplectic.
The notion that the golf ball isn't continuing to go farther fails the eye test. Think of how far Dustin Johnson nukes the ball off the tee. Jason Day hits a 2-iron 300 yards. Rory McIlroy is killing the ball. Justin Rose suddenly gained 10-15 yards off the tee a few years ago. Phil Mickelson is still moving it out there at 46.
The cynic in me had to get a look at a sample of the data. It wasn't that I believed the governing bodies were fudging the numbers, but rather, I think they lacked perspective.
So, I turned to the PGA Tour's dataset, which is the best of any of the major tours in the world. Their ShotLink data, while not always perfect, is extensive and dates back to 2003. The other major tours keep data, too, but it's not as vast.
First, let's set up a baseline on some of the governing bodies' findings:
- Between 2003 and the end of the 2015 season, average driving distance on four of the seven tours increased about 1 percent, or 0.2 yards per year.
- For the same period, average driving distance on the other three of the seven tours studied decreased about 1 percent.
- Looking at all of the players who are ranked for distance on the PGA TOUR and PGA European Tour, the amount by which players are “long” or “short” is virtually the same – for instance, the 10 shortest players in that group are about 6% shorter than average, while the 10 longest players in the group are about 7% longer than average. The statistics are not skewed toward added distance.
In my look at PGA Tour data, I wanted to look specifically at three things: how far players are carrying the golf ball and what percentage of players are driving the ball 320 yards. Fortunately, we can discern this from ShotLink data, which measures each and every shot on the PGA Tour, instead of having to rely on measured holes, the two holes selected at each tournament where almost every player is expected to hit driver off the tee.
Let's start with how far PGA Tour players are carrying the ball.
I started in 2007, the year when we could first get that data reliably from the PGA Tour, and took it all the way through 2015. I created four groups -- similar to those made up by the governing bodies for their report -- to compare carry off the tee: all players, the top 10 players in carry, the top 50 and bottom 10.
To put it real terms, the average carry distance in all four of those categories increased by at least 3.5 percent comparing 2007 to 2015. That figure seems more significant when translated to yards.
So, every category has gained 10-11 yards of carry since 2007. However, it hasn't been a steady climb. There are several years -- 2010 and 2013 stand out in particular -- when carry distance went down pretty much across the board.
Is 10 yards a big deal? In my mind, it is. That's most of a club for a player, meaning they can go into a green -- if the ball doesn't release out at all -- with one less club. That makes golf courses easier, even if from the rough. And, as the USGA and R&A pointed out when they proposed the new grooves rules at the end of the 2000s, pro golfers realized that and diminished the skill of driving the golf ball straight. They still diminish that skill a reasonable amount, even with the new grooves regulations.
Then I wanted to take the question of distance to its natural extreme, looking at how often PGA Tour players hit the ball more than 320 yards off the tee. I chose again to build four different categories to compare easily, based on the percentage of all drives that go over 320 yards in total (carry and roll). I broke that out into categories of at least 5 percent of drives more than 320, then at least 10 percent, at least 20 percent and at least 30 percent.
The numbers intrigued me, particularly looking at the at least 20 percent and at least 30 percent groups. They're basically the same size from 2007 all the way through to 2015. Only one or two players -- though sometimes none -- move the ball 320 yards off the tee at least 30 percent of the time. Similarly, with the exceptions of 2012, when distance was higher than a trend would expect, and 2013, when it was lower than trending would indicate, there are about a handful of players that drive it 320 yards more than 20 percent of the time.
That number even largely holds up in the category of players hitting at least 10 percent of drives more than 320 yards, getting in that 30 range each year.
Most intriguing, however, is the general decline in the number of players who hit the ball 320 yards off the tee at least 5 percent of the time. After a large number of players (117) meeting that threshold in 2007, the number has since hovered around 90, ticking up in 2015 to 96. This would seem to suggest that players have slightly tempered their appetite for distance. What isn't clear from this figure is why, but the insinuation seems to be that players don't need driver on as many holes.
That's why looking at the number of drivers -- not drives -- hit per round matters. We learned from the PGA Tour that the average -- so, middle of the pack distance-wise -- player hits their average of 14 par-4 and par-5 tee shots per round as follows:
- 10 drivers
- 3 fairway woods
- 1 iron/hybrid
We're working to obtain data that goes back further to give us a true idea of how much distance impacts how often players hit driver.
So, what's the takeaway here? Mine are pretty concise.
- We can't call the USGA and R&A's findings wrong. The bullet points shared earlier that interested me help up on scrutiny, even of just PGA Tour players.
- Driving distance is going up, and appreciably so. However, the increase isn't dramatic like it was at the beginning of the 2000s.
- Players also appear to be throttling back on how often they're hitting driver, choosing instead to take a few yards off the table to get more precise off the tee.
- Of course, we'll continue to have eye-popping examples of athletes hitting the ball unexpected distances. By and large, though, PGA Tour players have only gained about 140 yards on a golf course per round off the tee since 2007.
This piece was originally published June 30, 2016.