Retrying the case for rolling back the golf ball...from scratch
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Retrying the case for rolling back the golf ball…from scratch


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Does the golf ball go too far?

That's the hot topic these days in golf, particularly with the USGA and R&A unveiling their 2017 golf ball distance findings showing a nearly 3-yard increase in average driving distance across golf's major professionals tours. The jump comes after about a decade run of increases of less than a yard per year. (In fact, in 2007, driving distance on the PGA Tour slightly decreased.)

The USGA and R&A have committed to further study and discussion of the issue, and they'll ultimately decide if something needs to be done in the way of regulation beyond the standards the organizations have already set for equipment performance.



Of course, that's sparked a lot of conversation about a ball roll back no one at either of those organizations has (at least publicly) proposed. Titleist parent, Acushnet, which has the majority ball share in the market, has been vociferously proactive in suggesting a ball roll back isn't necessary. However, Acushnet makes remarks about golf ball distance figures in talking about a roll back of ball technology for all golfers. Many of their surrogates and staffers and ambassadors make the argument in a similar fashion.

However, that's not the argument roll-back advocates, like me, have been making.

I've personally been writing and talking about a ball rollback at least as far as 2006, and the internet has the receipts. I've discussed this with just about anyone who wants to talk about it, including Acushnet, which has published materials at least that far back on their view of golf-ball distance, the idea of a roll back, as well pieces critical of the media for a perceived bias in how pro golfers are asked about golf ball technology. (The most memorable piece, entitled "Where's the balance?" and targeting Steve Elling, is no longer on the internet.)

In all of these years of talking about rolling back the golf ball, I've never advocated for rolling back the golf ball for every golfer. I still wouldn't advocate for that.

And we're going through this cycle of talking over and around each other all over again, just a dozen years later. Folks who are anti-rollback are often arguing about a hypothetical in which the ball is rolled back some arbitrary percentage or measure for every golfer. Folks who are pro-rollback are arguing for a rollback specifically targeting professionals and high-level amateurs while maintaining, or even loosening, the existing ball performance standards for recreational players.

We're not having the same argument. We're having two or three different arguments here. So let's reset. If we're going to have an honest and forthright conversation about the golf ball and distance in golf, let's speak from the same place.

I believe the question at hand is not "Does the golf ball go too far?" I believe the question is "Does the golf ball go too far for professional golfers?" That clause changes the question and the potential range of actions. The argument of what can be done is also jumbled, perhaps by purposeful obfuscation of the question or maybe because we're just all bad at arguing. However, the potential spectrum of action can be distilled down to these options:

  1. Do nothing and maintain the current golf ball performance limits.
  2. Roll back the USGA and R&A golf ball limits for professional golfers and high-level amateurs by some arbitrary percentage.
  3. Roll back the USGA and R&A golf ball limits for professional golfers and high-level amateurs by some arbitrary percentage but keep things the same or looser for recreational players.
  4. Roll back the USGA and R&A golf ball limits for all golfers by some arbitrary percentage.

We could go more granular on the "arbitrary percentage," but let's frame it as extreme as the 20 percent figure offered by Jack Nicklaus (which I wouldn't advocate) down to, say, 5 percent. Let's come back to this at the end.

However, before you make your choice, you need to look at the evidence. All of the evidence. So let's try to figure out how much of the increase in driving distance in golf since 2000 can be attributed to the golf ball as opposed to other causes, like better agronomy (firmer fairways), improvements in other components like driver heads and shafts, better understanding of ideal launch conditions from launch monitor data, as well player fitness and performance. That means digging into data beyond the driving average of a single event, or a simple year-over-year comparison.

Before we start, a disclaimer. We don't have perfect data. Nothing even approaching it. We don't have universal swing speed data going back to, say, 1998. We don't have PGA Tour ShotLink data before 2003, and we don't have any data set that large on any of the other major tours. We can't control for weather and climate conditions, nor can we control for elevation or ground conditions at each event. In short, we have data with limited efficacy to tell the full story.

Let's start with the central issue: distance.

We almost always talk about this in the context of driving distance, but that's because it's the only somewhat consistent data we have to talk about distance. Distance gains should really be discussed on tee shots and approaches, as modern equipment has increased distances pretty much through the bag sans wedges and putters. However, we'll frame the argument around driving distance and extrapolate to approach distance.

We should begin in 1996, when titanium became a key material in driver heads. Then we look at 2000, when the solid-core ball was introduced. Not in 2005 or 2009 or 2016. We have to look at gains in watershed moments in technological innovation. If the rollback crowd is going to implicate the ball alone (which we shouldn't), then we have to understand its most dramatic impact point. (For the purposes of this, we're leaving out 2017, mainly to assuage anyone who thinks that's just a one-year statistical anomaly, which we need more data to prove one way or the other.)

We start with PGA Tour driving distance data covering the time span from 1996-2016, taking 2000 and 2002 as before/after years of the solid-core ball, then some more random intervals after that.

Click header to sort

TOP 1996 2000 2002 2005 2007 2010 2013 2016 YDS 96-16 YDS 00-16 PCT 00-16
10 283.13 289.60 294.50 309.79 307.06 306.70 303.60 309.37 26.23 19.77 6.83%
50 276.50 282.27 289.11 300.39 299.94 297.51 297.69 301.84 25.34 19.56 6.93%
100 272.11 278.51 285.65 295.68 295.67 293.70 293.70 297.22 25.11 18.71 6.72%
ALL 266.49 273.18 279.84 288.88 289.08 287.49 288.00 291.06 24.57 17.88 6.54%

We see the move to titanium accounts for approximately 7 yards. Better, more efficient materials with the same old, inconsistent wound balls.

We see the move to a solid core ball accounts for a large portion of approximately 18 yards from 2000 to 2005. Not every PGA Tour player had gone to the solid core by 2002, but by 2005, it was pervasive. However, driver technologies improved substantially in that time period, as well, getting into better shapes and bigger heads.

Two years later, distance was about the same in 2007. Why pick 2007 as a starting point? That's when we started getting Trackman data on players for the driving distance holes. In addition to driving distance, we picked up all of the shot characteristics we now take for granted: swing speed, launch angle, spin rate, carry distance and smash factor. However, this is also where problems begin to arise with the PGA Tour's driving distance data and the carry distance data. They veer off dramatically.

If you look at average driving distance on the PGA Tour from 2007 to 2016, we see a nominal increase of about 2 yards. It's not much to speak of, really. However, if you look at the average carry distance for the same groups of people in 2007, 2010, 2013 and 2016, as we have with driving distance, we see an increase of approximately 10 yards in carry distance. How can those two measures be 8 yards different? Well, not every player gets distance the same way. Some guys carry it longer and don't get as much run because of their other shot characteristics. Some guys run it out there forever. So, while carry distances have increased, how those distances roll out is very different.

Let's look at the shot characteristics of PGA Tour player drives since 2007 -- namely, swing speed, spin rate, launch angle and smash factor.

Generally speaking, 1 mph of swing speed leads to about 3 yards of increased distance. It's not universal, particularly above 120 mph. One of the great ironies of this discussion is that, as better athletes emerge and swing speeds increase, golf ball distance gains actually tail off substantially. In 2011, the USGA shared data suggesting distance gains flatten somewhat as swing speeds go over 120 mph. The golf ball becomes less efficient at that speed, as it deforms more at impact and the coefficient of restitution -- a measure of how much energy is transferred from one object (club) to another (ball) -- decreases. Golfers still see distance gains for each 1 mph increase in swing speed beyond 120 mph, but it's not quite the 3 yards/mph we normally see. However, the gain in swing speed is kind of small in the last 10 years.

The PGA Tour population has gained about 0.6 mph swing speed in a decade. That means about 1.8 yards off the tee.

Swing speed

TOP 2007 2010 2013 2016 MPH CHANGE % CHANGE
10 121.8622 121.4138 122.0120 123.4423 1.5801 1.30%
50 118.2038 117.8360 118.8152 118.8335 0.6296 0.53%
100 115.9350 115.9029 116.5273 116.1794 0.2443 0.21%
ALL 112.5303 112.8259 113.4413 113.1149 0.5846 0.52%

Now look at launch angle. As we've learned more about ideal ball flight with driver, PGA Tour players have become more uniform in their launch angles. The highest-launching players on Tour are now about 2.5 degrees higher than the PGA Tour population compared to about 3 degrees different in 2007. They're closer to that ideal 12 degree launch in the top 50 highest hitters in this stat.

Launch angle

TOP 2007 2010 2013 2016 % CHANGE
10 13.7892 12.8596 13.5158 13.0528 -5.34%
50 12.5396 12.1976 12.4152 12.1820 -2.85%
100 11.9273 11.6000 11.7598 11.5901 -2.83%
ALL 10.8126 10.6541 10.8415 10.5637 -2.30%
GAP 2.9765 2.2055 2.6742 2.4890 NA

How about spin rate? This one is important. Spin rates have come down across the board on the PGA Tour, meaning more distance through the air. Across the PGA Tour population, driver spin has come down about 10 percent over a decade. That reduction means different things for each player, but it generally means more length off the tee suitable for players with a PGA Tour-grade swing speed.

Spin rate

TOP 2007 2010 2013 2016 RPM CHANGE % CHANGE
10 2372.98 2314.48 2276.66 2183.15 -189.83 -8.00%
50 2538.34 2465.38 2402.41 2324.76 -213.58 -8.41%
100 2635.80 2561.19 2489.56 2409.09 -226.71 -8.60%
ALL 2820.23 2717.17 2645.36 2542.74 -277.49 -9.84%

Perhaps the most telling piece of launch monitor data is the substantial improvement in smash factor. And it has happened in seemingly rather short order. Smash factor is the ratio of ball speed to swing speed. For a PGA Tour player, the ideal ratio is about 1.5. In 2007, that factor was around 1.47-1.48 across the board on the PGA Tour. In 2016, that is now 1.485-1.51. That means players are getting higher ball speeds from the same swings. For a 120 mph swing speed, that's 3.2 mph ball speed, or about 6.6 yards of distance.

Smash Factor

TOP 2007 2010 2013 2016 SF CHANGE % CHANGE
10 1.4789 1.4812 1.4847 1.5109 0.0320 2.16%
50 1.4770 1.4798 1.4843 1.5038 0.0268 1.81%
100 1.4755 1.4787 1.4833 1.4973 0.0218 1.47%
ALL 1.4712 1.4750 1.4795 1.4854 0.0142 0.96%

These three things combine to pretty much explain the entire increase in carry distance. It's the result of better athleticism to a minor extent, but it's largely the result of better equipment and a more efficient golf swing. We also can't say with certainty how much these things were factors before 2007. I venture to guess little because Trackman-style data wasn't widely available at that time, but there's probably a piece of it.

I want to close the loop on distance gains. I went back to 2000 and used the same years to get driving distance data for the Web.com Tour and LPGA Tour.

Web.com Tour

Click header to sort

TOP 2000 2002 2005 2007 2010 2013 2016 YDS 00-16 PCT 00-16
10 297.56 307.96 314.91 308.13 312.91 311.68 318.57 21.01 7.06%
50 289.36 298.40 305.45 302.36 305.47 303.65 307.51 18.15 6.27%
100 283.99 293.18 299.66 298.13 299.55 298.56 301.11 17.12 6.03%
ALL 279.18 288.18 294.69 293.82 295.65 294.41 296.27 17.09 6.12%

My initial theory was the Web.com Tour would see more gains because players are generally younger on that tour, and the setups encourage more aggressive play. The distance gain is approximately the same, however.

LPGA Tour

Click header to sort

TOP 2000 2002 2005 2007 2010 2013 2016 YDS 00-16 PCT 00-16
10 259.75 264.91 263.11 269.22 265.09 267.63 271.95 12.20 4.70%
50 250.60 259.00 255.65 259.00 257.00 257.78 263.73 13.13 5.24%
100 245.52 253.97 251.19 253.73 251.62 252.24 258.44 12.92 5.26%
ALL 239.15 248.04 245.64 248.88 247.13 247.50 253.37 14.22 5.95%

I wasn't sure what to expect from the LPGA. However, the ladies have gotten about 5 yards less in average increase since 2006, and the percentage increase is a few hundred basis points lower -- about a 5.25 percent increase versus about a 6.75 percent increase for the men. I can't easily explain that away, but by using data from leading women's tours in their reporting, the USGA and R&A are somewhat masking the distance increase for men. It's not diabolical, just reality.

***

Back in 2007, Phil Mickelson played around with persimmon woods and old balls and a modern driver and new balls (for the era). He came up with this conclusion:

Phil Mickelson says he last used persimmon during practice for the 2007 EDS Byron Nelson Championship, conducting an experiment of sorts. "It was an old Wood Brothers," said Mickelson. "Callaway did some tests three years ago with a persimmon driver and a ball from the 1990s, comparing it to an HX Tour ball and modern driver. There was a 50-yard difference. The testing said it was 25 yards driver and 25 yards ball. So I tested it, and that turned out to be about right. I couldn't believe how different the launch conditions were -- and that was a driver I used to play with."

I think this conclusion is probably pretty accurate. However, looking at the total picture since 1996, I would say it's probably about 40-40-20 -- 40 percent each for the ball and driver, and then the last 20 percent for better swing efficiency.

That means the ball isn't the boogie man, at least not all of it. Then again, I don't know I've ever argued that. However, that 25-yard gain off the tee and then maybe 17-yard gain on approach shots means about 42 yards per hole, 14 times per round. That's 588 yards of gains over 20 years in a round of golf. That explains the jump from 7,000-yard courses being eye-popping in the late 1990s to 7,500-yard scorecards getting attention just a few years ago.

That also explains why so many championship venues have expanded over the years, in the interest of trying to compete with technology by continuing to reframe the architectural elements of a design to compete with how players can challenge them with distance. The PGA Tour, USGA, R&A, Augusta National, the PGA of America, etc., they can all impact scoring with setup -- more rough, narrow fairways, firmer conditions, tougher pin positions and the like. That's not the argument here. It's not that golf isn't hard. That lever can be pushed or pulled fairly easily. Rather, the question is if 588 yards per round eliminates too many historic, important, meaningful championship venues from offering a realistic, modern test to today's best players. That's the place of concern for the USGA and R&A.

So, what to do?

If we do nothing, then we have a more limited set of championship venues that offer a true examination as designed, or we acquiesce to distance gains and just let more players blow over things that used to be trouble. We could also ask these classic clubs and venues to fork over millions to redesign themselves to remain beloved championship sites.

If we roll back the ball by, say 20, percent, then we've overshot the mark. That's something like 60 yards off the tee, and that just seems too much a shock to the system.

If we roll back the ball by, say, 5 percent (from a USGA limit of 320 down to 304), then that probably accounts for the golf ball's impact on the game. That's probably something that could be done across the board and not kill recreational amateurs who don't hit it that far anyhow, as well not make the change tremendously awkward for everyone who straddles high-level golf as a competitive amateur.

The idea of a rollback isn't totally unprecedented. USGA officers haven't been completely silent on this issue. The broaching of a rollback isn't new. In fact, in 2007, former USGA President Jim Vernon called for a 20-yard rollback.

Vernon sees the impact of the high-tech ball on the “No Fear” generation, and it troubles him. He said unless the ball gets brought back by 20 yards or so, we’ll be forced to bulldoze our way into the future. “The lengthening of golf courses is costly, and in many cases, impossible,’’ Vernon said. “That’s why we need everyone’s cooperation on this (issue).’’

Honestly, Vernon had it about right in terms of the golf ball's impact on the game.

But perhaps you're against shaving off 5 percent on your drives. It would mean about 10 yards or less for the average golfer, but that might be a bridge too far. One extra club into each hole? Who knows. However, if you're opposed to that, what about bifurcation?

In 2008, then-Callaway Golf CEO George Fellows argued for bifurcation. In an The Economist piece, Fellows is quoted suggesting Callaway's mission should be to cater to the recreational golfer.

“I'm in awe of the professional golfers,” he says. “But I identify with people who are average golfers infinitely more than I do professionals.” Callaway's ambition, Mr Fellows explains, is to appeal to dabblers, not least by designing equipment that makes golf easier “for people like you and me, who don't play the same game as Phil Mickelson, and never will.”

...

Another obvious strategy, though a more controversial one, is to make golf more “consumer-friendly”—meaning easier. Golf's rulemakers have tended to focus on maintaining the integrity of the game for the best players, which has made life tough for the rest. Callaway has to conform to a welter of arcane specifications: there are regulations about how far from the centre of the club a ball can be hit and still go straight, for example. These are intended to stop Tiger Woods shooting 30 under par, but also make the game less fun for less gifted players. Golf needs to “bifurcate” into a professional sport and a game for the masses, says Mr Fellows.

The difference between pros with a 5 percent rollback and amateurs would mean the game kind of comes closer together. You'd play a game a little more like the pros. Not much, but a little. I never understood why that matters to anyone, but if it does, it might make you feel better about your raw skills. It also wouldn't make that big a difference for a high-level am stepping into a US Open situation. It would be like playing at sea level versus common elevations in the United States. Not a big deal.

I don't have an answer, but I do hope this exercise of going through the data and somewhat properly assigning weight to certain factors in the distance debate will help us all work from a more common footing.

About the author

Ryan Ballengee

Ryan Ballengee is founder and editor of Golf News Net. He has been writing and broadcasting about golf for over a decade, working for NBC Sports, Golf Channel, Yahoo Sports and SB Nation. Ballengee lives in the Washington, D.C. area with his family. He used to be a good golfer.

Ballengee can be reached by email at ryan[at]thegolfnewsnet.com