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PGA Tour Driving Distance Over The Decades

The PGA Tour's ShotLink folks have put together a dynamite package of year-end stats to pour over and inevitably I gravitated to the driving distance page. In it they share this statistical confirmation that core exercises really are the difference between today's Nicklaus' and Watson's and Nicklaus and Watson.

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Reader Comments (30)

Cue Tim Finchem as Obi Wan: These are not the statistics you are looking for.
Not sure why the number of players included varies year to year but a couple things that jump out at me are:

- the 2011 vs. 2000 comparisons are mindblowing.

- in 2000 85% hit is 280yds or 2011 a complete reversal, 85% hit it 280yds or longer.

- in 2000 only 1% of the players hit it 290+ (2 players, Daly & Tiger, both were 10+ yds ahead of Davis) 2011 fully 56.5% hit it 290+ (Retief , at 107th, is the first player below 290).
12.1.2011 | Unregistered CommenterDel the Funk
I followed Rickie Fowler for 9 holes on 2 different days at Bethpage, he was still an Am. I figured he'd do well as a pro but my only concern was that possibly lack of length would hold him back.

Well shame on me. I see he is 25th on the list in 2011 with a 299.5yd average! That really surprises me.
12.1.2011 | Unregistered CommenterDel the Funk
Simplified, the stat between 1980 and 1990 reflects the introduction of the metal wood, 1990-2000 the introduction of the trampoline effect in drivers and 2000-2011 the Pro V1 era and 460 CC clubheads. Therefore, the one statistic I would like to see added would be 1970 to 1980. The technological advances regarding balls and drivers were pretty small during that decade, so it could serve as a sort of control group as to how big a part technology plays in relation to player strength and physical conditioning (not that any sane person has an inkling of doubt that the former is far more important, but that's where Timmy & c:o like to steer the debate). The numbers aren't available, but I suspect the difference would be pretty small, too.
12.1.2011 | Unregistered CommenterHawkeye
I understand that the equipment manufacturers now have the absolute proof that the greater distances that the golf ball is flying with every club is NOT due to improved training by the players, nor technical advances in the design of the clubs and ball, but can definitively state that it is due to global warming...
12.1.2011 | Unregistered Commenterphil the author
Hawkeye makes an interesting observation. In my opinion, players fromthe current era take fitness and conditioning seriously, look at the difference between Podge Harrington now and when he first played on tour. Contrast the fitness programme of Lee Westwood to Brian Barnes.

I think the only test that potentially could settle this is to give Westwood, Clarke and Ogilvy some persimmon bats and wound titleists and see how they compare to the long hitters of the 70s and 80s. If they are significantly longer than the players of that era then the traditionalists must concede that improved fitness and conditioning is one of the factors in increasde distance - it will not be the only factor, but it is a factor and my test could determine how much of a factor it is.
12.1.2011 | Unregistered CommenterStyles
Hawkeye, good points. I was trying to remember when we reached the 460cc threshold on the driver? When did the first one appear?
12.1.2011 | Unregistered CommenterDel the Funk
Great post.

So good that chart will show up in every course architect's re- design proposal and PowerPoint. You can hear the speech now - gotta redo the entire course boys just to keep up - $10 million ought to do it. Cut me a check for 2 and I'll get on it.

Call it the golf course designer stimulus program.
12.1.2011 | Unregistered CommenterFan
@Del, I believe the rule was introduced about ten years ago, and that Taylor Made's 5 series (the first really popular 460CC driver) came out circa 2002. 2003 was the year of the biggest driving distance jump and also the year of Phil Mickelson's infamous "inferior equipment" comment.
12.1.2011 | Unregistered CommenterHawkeye
@Styles I'd be more interested to see a side by side test of new and old technology.using a robot. That would give us measurable data showing the increased distance gains directly attributed to technology. Within the test I would also like to see the how the improved technology benefit players at different swing speeds. I've heard that new technology disproportionately benefits golfers with higher swing speeds.

Golfers who can hit the ball far and straight have always had an advantage, but the USGA and the R&A should be asking when does that advantage become unfair to the point of trivializing the game itself?
12.1.2011 | Unregistered CommenterChris C.
Another factor not discussed is that players today are trying to hit it farther. Years ago the pros referred to that as the "college swing" and with the lack of forgiveness in the equipment that was not the way to win on tour. Everyone scaled it back to get consistency. So if todays player can hit old equipment farther in a test than the old guys did on tour, it does not mean the Nicklaus or Snead could not have done as well if they chose to swing all out. Or that they could not have hit modern equipment just as far as modern players.
12.1.2011 | Unregistered CommenterJJ
"It can't be the new ball and club technologies....IT JUST CAN'T BE....I choose not to look at these inconvenient stats!"

12.1.2011 | Unregistered Commenterjohnnnycz
@Del, Rickie picked up a lot of distance while he was in college

and if everyone can now hit it long enough (i.e. can reach par 5's in 2, hitting mostly short clubs into greens) it actually diminishes the advantage that longer hitters (and better ball strikers) have. One more reason the game has turned into primarily a putting contest
12.1.2011 | Unregistered Commenterelf
As much as I'd like today's muscular pros use the old persimmons and irons, the comparison wouldn't be complete without the old squirrelly balata balls.
12.1.2011 | Unregistered CommenterHodenfield
@elf -

I think I agree with you overall, but I don't believe good ball-striking necessarily translates into distance. What I mean is: you can get "just distance" from a bunch of players, but good ball-striking (into winds, shaping shots) is only from a few players.

12.1.2011 | Unregistered CommenterLiquidKaos
@LK, I agree with you, and it's also harder to shape shots etc w/longer clubs. With increased distance players aren't hitting as many long clubs another reason good ball striking is no longer as much of an advantage.
12.1.2011 | Unregistered Commenterelf
Design better short holes and take driver out of hand. Stop running fairways at 12. 31 years of stats, that's a long time, what do you expect? A loss of distance?
12.1.2011 | Unregistered CommenterA3
And the gain of distance between 1920 and 1950 is?????
12.1.2011 | Unregistered CommenterA3
@A3 -

What should they run FWs at? Slower or faster? I'm in the "faster" group overall (firm and fast baby), and let those monster 300+ drives (that aren't shaped just perfect) run into some rough/trouble and cause the player to think twice before just lettin' rip.

Most of these guys we're talking about are hitting 290 in the air - so I don't know if slowing down the FW speeds is going to make much of a difference.

I don't suppose many people would expect a loss of distance over 31 years - but perhaps (if the "conditioning/strength" argument was true) we should be seeing a more gradual increase across the player field instead of such rapid explosive growth?

I assume (by the tone/wording of your posts) that you are NOT in the crowd that believes that equipment (espcially drivers, balls, "launch monitor created driver-shaft-ball combo", etc.) has gotten out of hand? You're in the "who cares, this has happened for the entire existance of the game" group? I have no problem with that, lol ... but times change.

I'm unsure as to whether the entire professional golfing industry was supported/propped up by equipment manufacturers during the 1920s - 1950s, all of whom have a vested interest in creating a demand for "new" equipment. I'm unsure as to whether they had MASSIVE R+D departments with rocket design engineers getting 6 figures to design a new "hot face" driver, or new shaft/face/ball combo for "Pro Golfer X".

12.1.2011 | Unregistered CommenterLiquidKaos
A3, I can't actually answer your question with specific numbers but you might find this letter interesting. I wrote it down word for word a while back:


June 6th, 1951

Mr. J. Wilson Jones
Garden City Golf Club
Garden City, Long Island

Thank you for your letter of May 24th. I sent the historical documents just before leaving for New York, fully intending to visit the club. But Mrs. Behr could not stand the heat. But I shall be on again.

The Travis document I bought from Gilpatrick about 1915, the then golf reporter for the New York Herald. To my knowledge it has never been published as written. I suggest that when the 50th anniversary of his winning the British Amateur Championship comes around it might be printed in a folder to commemorate his victory.

How well I remember the great course that is yours. I fear me that the modern ball has all but killed the skillful shots that were demanded when I played it with the proper ball. Indeed, true golf can no longer be played. And I can say that, statically, play is worse than the days of the Triumvirate to, Vardon, Taylor, and Braid.

I have often wondered if the giant golf club I gave the club has been preserved. It was used as the insights of the golf trade, St. Andrews, in the processions celebrating the coronations of Edward VII and George V. Maybe this fact, is unknown.

Thanking you again for your kind letter, I am

Sincerely yours,

Max H. Behr

751 Swarthmore Ave.
Pacific Palisades
12.1.2011 | Unregistered CommenterDel the Funk
@Del -

The more things change, the more they stay the same, hmm?

Awesome letter. :)

12.1.2011 | Unregistered CommenterLiquidKaos
@A3: Good question. But we should view the 1920s as the same as aughts that began the 21st century. By the early 1930s steel had supplanted hickory and Bob Jones was retired. ANGC opened in 1933 at 6820 yards, give or take. It stayed that way for about 70 years, with a gradual increase of about 150 yards, but was still listed at less than 7000 yards when Tiger made his debut...the essence of strategic design in the US. Metal drivers with good graphite shafts were the equivalent of the change from hickory to steel (see Hawkeye, above), but there is no reason to think that the original Pittsburgh Persimmon and a wound ball, whatever its cover, would have caused golf to lose its way as it has. The tamed Pinnacle and the trampoline drivers made of titanium (which actually became available for such frivolous products with the end of the Cold War) were not inevitable.

For 70 years and a lot longer, really, golf was a "practice" (see Alistair MacIntyre's book After Virtue; hey, it works and the good professor had a great first name), with "standards of excellence and obedience to rules as well as the achievement of goods...(these need not be fixed, but) enter into a practice is to accept the authority...of the best standards..." To quote another author in this context, "when practitioners are no longer willing to be judged by the standards, a practice loses authority over itself. This may happen because the lure of external goods is greater than fidelity to a practice's internal goods, as it has been (for example) for steroid-using baseball players." With the advent of equipment that allowed average professional golfers to carry a drive 300 yards willy-nilly, it is safe to say that Golf-as-a-Practice "lost authority over itself" largely in pursuit of external goods. Pity.
@KYG -

You are sure you're not a Golf/English Professor, right? ;) Great post Sir - puts me to shame (not hard to do, but still - sheesh).

12.2.2011 | Unregistered CommenterLiquidKaos
Average swing speed in 1990: _____
Average swing speed in 2000: _____
Average swing speed in 2011: _____

Those numbers matter too. Any ball will go farther if you give players longer, lighter, larger drivers AND improve their fitness AND help them to optimize their launch conditions.
12.2.2011 | Unregistered CommenterErik J. Barzeski
"The USGA and the R&A should be asking when does that advantage become unfair to the point of trivializing the game itself? - Chris C."

I'd say that happened around 1990
12.2.2011 | Unregistered CommenterMatt
16 year old LPGA pro Lexi Thompson was just averaging over 290 yards driving distance in her last tournament. And she didn't miss a fairway. She is literally driving the ball further than a couple of pGA men. Something just isn't right. How in the world is she generating that kind of club head speed and keeping it in the fairway? We're talking about a 110 pound girl who couldn't bench press 90 pounds. It's time to scale back and put some regulations on this equipment. At least at the pro level.
09.2.2012 | Unregistered CommenterDanny Noonan
You guys all need to pick up some persimmon woods on ebay and give it a go. I have a set of Titleist Tour Models and a set of MacGgregor Tourney Customs both from around 1980 that I take to the range and play with half the time. Using todays balls you definitely lose 25+ yards with the driver. But when you hit it on the screws there is no better feeling. The amazing thing is that Hogan could drive it 250 and Nicklaus could get 275+. More amazing is that Palmer and Nicklaus would swing all out and still hit the sweet spot that is smaller than the size of your thumb nail.

Friends of mine have shot their best rounds with old blades and woods because they focus better and dial in their swings. The old clubs really show the flaws in your swing and if your swing gets wild, look out.
10.9.2013 | Unregistered CommenterBig Ron
I find the above chart extremely misleading. It should use 2003 rather than 2000. From 2000 to 2003 the average on tour went up from 273,2 to 286,6... a huge increase by 13,4y. This is when the drivers were increasing COR and 2003 they put a limit on it.

So why is it misleading to ues 2000 and not 2003. Because since 2003 to 2014, in 11 years, driving distance average on the PGA tour has gone up by 2.2 yards. 2.2 YARDS! Since drivers hit the OEM limit.. nothing has basically happened. Hank Kuehne's record for a season still holds and that's from 2003. Swingspeed has gone up from 2007(when radars were used first) by .6mph. So much for all the fitness and TPI work.

Equipment manufacturers want people to believe distance is going up.. that's what sells. Callasway had 9 new drivers models last year. TaylorMade on average has 4. They want to sell them. They're marketing departments are doing well, people don't do their research and drink the cool aid. Distance isn't going up on tour ATM.. it's the same year after year after year since 2003, so relax everyone.
01.17.2015 | Unregistered CommenterBiggi
Clearly the primary reason for the incredible increase in distance must be attributed to the equipment. Aphibarnrat is an example to show that conditioning is not the primary factor. I think it would have been good, as in baseball, if the professionals were required to play wooden clubs. For pros, the first 200 yds of all par 4s and 5s is wasted real estate.
05.27.2016 | Unregistered CommenterR. Simons
I've been wondering about the ball for decades (Nicklaus called it out a long time ago). But as mentioned above, Palmer, Nicklaus, et al, could pound it 330 when they wanted to. Why didn't they? Why was the "college swing" the thing to do? Were courses tighter? More trouble? In any case, please don't have one set of rules for the Pros and another set for amateurs. And FYI: I still love my staff blades (1980).
12.6.2017 | Unregistered CommenterBob

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