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Freakonomics Guy: Forget Anchoring, Distance Is Golf's Real Problem

Thanks to reader Bertie for sending the link to best selling writer and economist Steven Levitt calling the governing body anchoring ban a "distraction" and make a case for something that reduces the footprint of golf courses.

It'll be interesting to see what how his readers respond to a question:

So, I’m wondering (without knowing the answer) if there might be a third approach.  Basically, what we need is a ball that goes about as far as the current ball when a golfer with a slow swing speed hits it, but goes less far than the current ball when a guy like Bubba Watson hits it.  With current technology, every extra mile per hour of clubhead speed translates into an extra three yards of distance. What I’m looking for is an alteration to balls or clubs such that someone who swings the club 100 mph still hits the ball the same distance as now, but someone who swings 130 mph hits it, say, 60 yards farther than the guy who hits it 100 mph, instead of 90 yards farther.

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Reader Comments (42)

And it will float on water, and glow in the dark.

The Pros need a ball that will go ''correct'' distances TBA, and let AMs use whatever the marketing geniuses are peddling his month. As to the clubs- let it be, and let the manufacturers start working on clubs that put ''control'' back in the contact- newer golfers (played less than 15 years) will be AMAZED at how exciting it is to WORK THE BALL!--- and marketing and the sales departments will have years more ''new improved'' clubs to sell!

Next week : world peace solved.
12.4.2012 | Unregistered Commenterdigsouth
I suppose Steve Levitt was thinking that the USGA may have banned anchored putting because of a distortion in scoring; some sort of competitive adavantage. But that was never the case; we knew that. The USGA saw no competitive advantage, and for years everybody presumed that anchored putting was only for people whose regular putting strokes were already so hopelessly bad that they could not play any other way. It was, we presume, not for "competitive advantage" but rather for aesthetics that the USGA banned anchored putting.

Still: If there is no urgent competitive distortion, and if the USGA is (rightly) sympathetic to the plight of Keenan Bradley and Webb Simpson and Adam Scott and Bernhard Langer and Carl Petersson and all the rest, for having innocently relied on the USGA's longstanding inaction, there is a solution. It won't be fast, but it will be fair. Just build the next generation of competitive golfers under no-anchoring rules. Disallow anchored putting in all junior golf events. Ban it in high school play, and then in competitive amateur and NCAA play (all via a Condition of Competition as with the groove rule), so that no young players ever begin to rely on anchored putting. And let that rule follow the generation up until the time they reach a professional tour, before banning anchored putting on all of the tours. That will give everyone a long time to adjust.

Hockey did something similar with its helmet rule. New players in the league had to wear helmets; veterans who had not previously worn helmets were allowed to go without if they wanted to. Eventually, all of the no-helmet veterans retired, with or without helmets as they chose.

I wouldn't personalize a rule of golf as to a player's birthdate; I'd make it a competition-wide rule. (Per a condition of competition.) But the Keegan Bradleys of the world would have six or eight or ten years to adapt under my rule. Anchored putting would be an anachronism, and there would be no more motivation for aspiring youngsters to copy Keegan as they learned to be competitive players.
12.4.2012 | Unregistered CommenterChuck
These guys are working on a golf project with Luke Donald right now. They had a big event at Kemper Lakes a couple months ago where they put us through all sort of skills challenges. Should be interesting to see what they come up with.
12.4.2012 | Unregistered CommenterSeitz
The number of golf courses that had needed to be changed because of anchoring proves the ruling bodies have the priorities straight.
12.4.2012 | Unregistered CommenterVRWC
If you bifurcate the balls or the clubs (other than transitional stuff like the grooves that people don't even know what sort of grooves they have), the ams will label each other as cheaters for using the "juiced" equipment. Ams and casual golfers want to play with the same stuff the pros have, that is the whole point of why the manufacturers pay the pros so much to use their gear. Either 1) Cap the current gear, or 2) just live with the fact that the pros are going to score low at some courses and move on.
12.4.2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrianS
Geoff correctly defines the problem a disproportionate distance increase for increased clubhead speed, which is inherently unfair.

Back in the day, Nicklaus was 30 yards longer than the club champ, today Bubba is 100 yards longer than the club champ. Jack and a decent club player were effectively playing the same course, Bubba is playing something today different..
Why handicap the likes of Bubba Watson who've the talent and athleticism to swing 120mph+. If he can do that but Luke Donald, for example, can't then why try to level the playing field?. Watson's obviously plays to his strenghens and Donald his and both are great players.

And some of the posts here a getting a bit ridiculous-Bubba Watson hits it 100 yards further than the Club Champion??
Bubba's averaging 315yards in 2012, let's say a good scratch club player is 270-280yards.
Bubba's clubhead speed, which is the fastest on tour is 124.6mph.
12.4.2012 | Unregistered Commenterandrew coop
Not directly related (although it may be indirectly related) to the anchoring and distance discussions is that Steven Levitt's father is a physician (gastroenterologist) who has worked many years at the Minneapolis VA Hospital. His main research interest has been the study of intestinal gas.
I attended a lecture by Dr. Levitt ~ 25 years ago. Both the subject and the lecturer were as funny as any I've ever heard. No one fell asleep during his presentation.
12.4.2012 | Unregistered Commentergov. lepetomane
It's not just distance. It's the "gear effect" that allows for mishits to not be AS bad as before (where you can visually WATCH a ball that should be slicing actually hold it's line, even come back left a bit).

Shorter would just mean a bit shorter, while still allowing for an all-out, no-control smash.

Spinnier ball ... or, what we talked about before on here ... and I can't remember which it was (but someone smart will enlighten me, I'm sure) = either a smaller/bigger ball, which brings back the effects of yesteryear.
12.4.2012 | Unregistered CommenterPepperdine
It already exist! Its called a persimmon head driver! Persimmon is why every golfer over the age of 45 has slower swing speed than everyone under 35. We had to hit a spot the size of your thumbnail to get maximum distance on any shot. Swing faster and miss the sweet spot and you are 30 yards shorter than you wanted to be.
12.4.2012 | Unregistered CommenterTadpole
The ball technology to answer Levitt's plea is possible. Modern multi-layer balls control spin (I am told) by reacting differently as lower layers are compressed by higher swing speeds (i.e. the pro driver). If those lower layers absorbed energy (like the rubber in a recoil pad or a Tempurpedic mattress) rather than rebounded it , the pro drive could be shortened without excessive effect on a "typical" 230 yard amateur drive.
12.4.2012 | Unregistered CommenterJJ
The problem isnt that the pro's hit the ball too far... its that the fairways are too wide, the rough is too shallow and the greens are too soft....

They're pro's set the courses up alot harder... That will take the driver out of the bag.
12.4.2012 | Unregistered CommenterG Killman
Mr. Levitt has a point.
Between the ball and the equipment ( drivers), distance is the key issue.
Setting each course up like a US Open will only make the PGA unwatchable.
But many will get upset if you make the game more difficult for amateurs, you cannot scale back the driver size without two sets of rules.
So you change the ball so that a 130mph swing will not make the ball go any further than 300 yards ( for example). If you scale back driver head size to 320cc it will reduce the swing speed as well.
Amateurs go back to playing white tees instead of blues and we move on.
The game will recover just fine, but doing nothing is costing us too much.
The anchoring ban should be done, it was clearly in the rules and not enforced. The idea that people will quit playing because they can no longer anchor is bogus.
If equipment made the average amateur better, we would have seen improvements in average handicaps over the last 20 years. We have not. What we have seen is people taking their 100+ shots from the blue tees instead of the white tees.
12.4.2012 | Unregistered CommenterKG
@ No Longer Used to be Former Stack & Tilt Convert

100% correct. Nicklaus wrote that it used to be that a club pro could have a game with a top PGA tour pro. Now...forget it, the club pro has no chance.
12.4.2012 | Unregistered CommenterMatt A
@ G Killman

That would not be the best solution.

1) taking driver out of the hands of the pro's just means making the 3 wood the new driver, that will not solve much as the manufactures would just figure out how to max out the ball to travel further off a 13° 3-wood.

2) It would cost a lot of money for the courses to adjust the course this way.

Better to slow down and make the ball spin more. Lower the COR back to Persimmon level .78 vs the current COR of .83 - heck bring back persimmon!
12.4.2012 | Unregistered CommenterMatt A
Club Pros used to play a lot and in many cases were expected to play well.
Class A professionals could try to monday qualify in the 60's (maybe early 70's) also.

Now we have a PAT that when barely passed would not compete in the
championship flight of most clubs.
The PGA mas moved away from playing and teaching to profit/loss and cost of good sold.
Not saying it's bad, but to compare Nicklaus' era and this one is radically different
12.4.2012 | Unregistered CommenterPat Burke
Well here goes.... a thread with fart (jokes) and an extremely long post with simply says''grandfather the anchor'', but put an age factor in the rule.

1) Steven Levitt's father story~ my 2 youngest daughters are pure trouble together....they showed up at Tgiving wearing coonskin caps, and their little secret was the whoopee cushion blow when their grandmother sat down for Tgiving dinner...pretty funny! Leslie Nielson would have been proud! ( I was)

2) a pro ball would take away the need for any equipment bifucking- the Ams will still be playing the same stuff as the pros (yea, right...just like now)

3) Narrowing fairways. etc is what we are tryimg to QUIT doing, and put the driver BACK into the pro's hands...

4) It is OBVIOUS to ANYONE who is watching rather than counting money that the average drive is A LOT farther...irons, FW Woods, and hybrids off the tee have kept the distances flat. WAKE UP you people- You are not idiots, but you act like you are.

5) millions are being lost while ''studies'' continue. Enough.
12.4.2012 | Unregistered Commenterdigsouth
The Levitt ball- "such that someone who swings the club 100 mph still hits the ball the same distance as now, but someone who swings 130 mph hits it, say, 60 yards farther." (Or even 40-50 yards perhaps?)
I'm no expert on ball manufacture but I guess that ball could be on the market for Christmas.
If the pros played persimmon, you probably would have never heard of Bubba Watson. His involuntary 50 yard pull or slice with persimmon would leave a long iron or brassie out of the hay (if he wasn't OB), instead of the wedge flips to the green he gets today with a grossly wayward shot.

What about FIGJAM, back in his Am days? He had much better control off the tee before Big Bertha and Biggest Bigger Bertha?

We all know that we don't use the same shit as the pros (even though it has the same words on it); we're already bifurcated.
Did no one ever follow up with design and production of the 'Floater' ball that Alister MacKenzie wrote of in the 1920's?
If everyone plays the same ball and equipment, then it's all relative. They all hit 300 yard drives and 220 yard 6 irons (that aren't really 6 irons), so why not have them all hitting 250-270 yard drives and 175 yard 6 irons, and we'll still ave a chance to out drive them.

Shrinking fairways, but let us not forget the dead straight 340 yard RBZ "3" Woods we saw at Quail Hollow last May? Or the 400 yd drives at ???
12.4.2012 | Unregistered CommenterBalata Bob
Why are so many people concerned with the distances that the pro's hit the ball?

Surely the point (and the beauty) of golf is that it is played under a handicap system, which is there to level the playing field so that Mr 18 handicapper can go and enjoy a round of golf with Mr 3 handicapper. In general terms Mr 3 handicapper is also likely to hit the ball further than Mr 18 handicapper, just as you would expect Rory McIlroy (as world no. 1) to hit the ball further than Mr 3 handicapper (Luke Donald may ruin this argument!)

The small group of tour professionals live and play in their own little bubble at the top of the pyramid. It takes a huge amount of athletic strength and co-ordination to swing even the most technology laden club at speeds of 120+ and deliver the club head square at impact coordinating the shoulders, arms, hips to work together in-sync. These are physical gifts we all cannot posses and should admire in those that can. We should not be looking at ways to diminish these athletic gifts. It would be like saying to Usain Bolt that it is unfair he can run so fast and make him run in high heels to give the majority of amateur athletes the chance to have a close race with the world's best

Surely the best solution for limiting these distance gifts on the PGA tour would be to narrow the fairways on long par-4s and par-5s creating more risk/reward for bombing it deeper greenside bunkers and tighter pin locations. Some of the pin locations on Thursdays & Fridays are embarrassingly easy for guys that are capable of shooting low 60s. This would create a greater emphasis on short game skills.
12.5.2012 | Unregistered CommenterJarvoo
Jarvoo, agree with 100% of what you say. Good to hear some sense amid a lot of exaggeration and crazy ideas of taking us back to wood and balatas!
Matt A, speaking as a +1 player, about the one thing I could match the tour players on would be driving distance. I'm swinging around 110mph. Where the average tour player would beat me every time is short game, mental skills, course management- basically they're just better golfers. Ultimately they've more talent and work extremely hard to be as good as they are-and I admire their skills.
Mini-Tours are full of guys who swing at 120mph+ and hit super long, but are still miles away from the Furyks, Strickers, Donalds e.t.c. in the pro game.
And tour distances have plateaued in the last 10 years, just to keep things in perspective.
12.5.2012 | Unregistered Commenterandrew coop
Jarvoo ... you need to read Alistar MacKenzie's book "The Spirit of St Andrews" .... Coop .... I think what you may be missing is that golf was just plain more fun in the days of persimmon and balata, or, perhaps a better way to say it is that there were vastly more ways to have fun playing golf then. Fun now, bash the ball forever and wedge it close. Fun then, shaping shots to get to positions on the fairway to make the approach shot less problematic; deciding whether to fly it on or run it up. The ways of winning were more accessible to more players, the range of skills broader. All that began to go away in 2000 when the ProV1 came on the market. The big headed metal drivers of the 90s really didn't make that much difference. One last thing, you need to look at the distance changes since 1999, not "the last 10 years."
12.5.2012 | Unregistered CommenterF. X. Flinn
Bifurcation, trifurcation, quadfurcation. The game is already de jure segregated.

1. Course set-up. The courses the pros play are set-up so different than 99% of courses available to most golfers that its difficult to say that the same game is being played. Pros' fairways are cut so short and kept hard so that there is yards and yards more roll out. Greens are so perfect that billiard players drool. Bunkers so perfect that pros aim at them instead of trying to avoid them.

2. Equipment. The pros are able to have their euipment fitted and tweaked on a daily basis. Amateurs, even moneyed ams, don't have that opportunity.

3. Tee locations. Play it forward. There is an acknowledgment that amateurs shouldn't play the same course. They should plau similiar but shorter and, typically, less well maintained courses.

4. Reality. How many golfers actually play by the rules? A drive is hit down the side of fairway. Upon reaching the ball it is found that it must have taken a bad kick and it is a few feet out of bounds. Will you realy walk back to the tee, a couple of hundred yards away, while the next group is waiting, to play you're third stroke? Or will you move the ball into play near where it went OB and take a two shot penalty?

My point is that the game is always different for different players. The USGA and R&A should set-up rules that apply to golfers - and be less worried about the best few hundred players in the world. The best are going to excel, using the equipment available at the time and the course conditions that exist. Stop building courses for Bubba and build and mainatin courses for the rest of us. Make the pro adapt and not the amateur that fuels the economy of the game.
12.5.2012 | Unregistered CommenterH Leonard
I would suggest this is a generational argument? I would be interesting to know the age of those proposing drastic changes to the modern golf equipment.

Golf just like every other facet of life is and will evolve. For example there was nothing wrong with tv when you had 4 or 5 channels as there were no other options. Would I want to go back to that now I have 1000s of channel options and can record, rewind etc at the touch of a button? Of course not.

I appreciate golfers skills of the past and the way Nicklaus etal. would shape the ball around a golf course. However it's not part of my generation. I would much rather aspire to bomb it like McIlroy have the deft touch of a Mickelson and the putting skills of Woods

Reminiscing the past is fine, but just like an old car, with narrow tyres, no power steering and no air-con some things should stay in the past like a glorious memory
12.5.2012 | Unregistered CommenterJarvoo
F.X. Flynn, yes fair point on my selective use of the 2003 stats. That was the time when things really did go crazy and the R and A and USGA kind of messed up-although they did limit the high COR, ERC era trampoline clubs, they should have gone further, with the benefit of hindsight admittedly.
But from that point on distances have plateaued. I think that more or less the game is still in pretty healthy shape, although you may well be right that it was more fun and skill demanding playing with balatas, blades and wooden woods.
I'm with Jarvoo on this one though, I think there's a lot of nostalgia here and don't think we need to be going back in time to someome's idea of a golden era of how the game should be played.
12.5.2012 | Unregistered Commenterandrew coop

Why, in the 21st century of human progress, with all the technology we've invented that allows for instantaneous communication across the universe, does mankind think change requires endless "waiting periods...?"


Give all the pros one controlled ball to play with -- like in ALL OTHER PROFESSIONAL SPORTS -- and move on!!
12.5.2012 | Unregistered CommenterRLL
@Jarvoo, that's why bifurication is the answer. Let amateurs use whatever equipment they like, and let the pros play the great courses the way they were meant to play - neither overpowered nor tricked-up.
12.5.2012 | Unregistered CommenterHawkeye
RLL, one of the great features of golf is that we all play, more or less, the same game. The best players in the world shoot great scores playing under the same equipment and playing rules as amateurs do. This allows the club golfer to compare themselves to the guys they see on T.V. This would be lost with bifurcation and I think that would be a bad move.
The gap between the distance the average tour guy hits and the good scratch amateur hits really isn't that big anyhow. Golf remains, first and foremost, a game of skill.
12.5.2012 | Unregistered Commenterandrew coop
Andrew: re: <<one of the great features of golf is that we all play, more or less, the same game...>>

Actually this could be said about baseball, football, soccer, tennis, etc... And yet in those sports, professionals are handed the ball they will play with at the time of play by officials. And it is not always the same ball that Mr or Ms Amateur buys off the rack of choices at their local sporting goods store. But for an entire season it will be the same ball played in every official competition. And it is regulated by the governing authority of each sport.

And then for those of you who actually believe you "play the same game as the pros," nothing would stop you from choosing the "official" ball from its designated spot on the rack in the sporting goods aisle. You could be just like the playground hoop players who think they play the "same game" as the NBA guys, too...
12.5.2012 | Unregistered CommenterRLL
RLL, The balls played on tour may have different markings, but they're all more or less the same. No pro is gaining an advantage over the field by using a much better ball. The ball is at the limits allowed, and all manufacturers premium balls are there. The balls used on tour have changed little since the early 2000s.
And we do all play the same game, just that some are better at it than others.
12.5.2012 | Unregistered Commenterandrew coop

re: <<No pro is gaining an advantage over the field by using a much better ball>>

This is why nothing ever gets done -- "straw man" arguments are set up and then talked into stasis...

No one that I know of said any pro was "gaining an advantage by using a much better ball." The point is that a new "Pro ball" that is dialed back should be created and used by all pros in all tournaments. The rest of the golf world can be left as is. Length problem solved.
12.5.2012 | Unregistered CommenterRLL
RLL, Sorry for misunderstanding your point on the ball.
I think bifurcation would be a bad and unnecessary move for the game.
12.5.2012 | Unregistered Commenterandrew coop
@Coop and Jarvoo

Do you think there should be any restrictions on equipment?
12.5.2012 | Unregistered CommenterIan McAllister
It appears Coop and Jarvoo are angling for a job as equipment editors somewhere while RLL is arguing for some modern day common sense. I'd like to think that I'm somewhere in the middle but I 110% believe that the game needs it's own set of rules for the Pros.

Bifircation has been around in a sense for a long time anyways. The old argument that "Amateurs play the same game as the pros" doesn't hold water anymore. If you don't believe me, then get your game in shape and qualify for big pro event. You WILL notice that in the local rules/hard card has some VERY interesting stuff. Things like the one-ball rule, TIO's, pace of play guidelines and fines, groove rule for the next few years, professional codes of conduct, caddy rules, etc..

Then, after reading thru the rules as every pro should do, simply wander/mosey on over to the range and you can get fitted/kitted/bling'd-out in 100% Tour stock quality golf ball whacking instruments that will never see retail stores. After all the exertion, time to go get a free buffet lunch, full massage, and a nap before some more practicing with new ProV1s on the range whilst under the eyes of the latest swing guru celeb teacher who's hanging around the range.

Fact is that there are very few similarities to Pros and Ams these days...and the easiest way to narrow the gap again is to bring in a common spec ball that everyone is issued when they register for a tournament. as well as lowering the CC and MOI of all drivers by at least 40%. Ball wise... I'm thinking Tour Balata's for Harbor Town and then they can use Pinnacles on 8200 yard courses like Whistling Straits and perhaps even re-introduce the classic Spalding TourEdition for Augusta....IF the TDs so wish of course. the soapbox for a bit.

@Digs: LOL about Mr Nieilson being proud. I heard he used to ALWAYS carry a flatulence machine in his pocket to "break" the dreaded silence of public elevators or whatever social situation he deemed too comfortable. He was a classic!
12.6.2012 | Unregistered Commenterjohnnnycz
Ian, yes definitely should be restrictions. The current R&A and USGA limits on the ball and drivers have certainly tied the hands of manufacturers in recent years. The ProV1 gets tweak every couple of years and put into a different sleeve, but it's essentially the same ball as 10 years ago.
Drivers from 2003 or so on have changed little too-except for adjustability and cosmetics. Lighter and longer shafts work to the point at which the club becomes impossible to control with any consistency-so that's going nowhere for now.
The governing bodies maybe should have done more ten years ago though.
12.6.2012 | Unregistered Commenterandrew coop
If you believe there should be restrictions on I &B, then why is the current period the best period? Why not roll back the ball to a point when there was more strategy and not every par four was driver wedge?
12.6.2012 | Unregistered CommenterIan McAllister
Ian, not every par 4 is driver wedge! Yes the tour guys hit a long way but this "distance out of control" argument is full of unhelpful exaggeration. I definitely think we have to be careful on new equipment, but I haven't seen anything new in the last few years that's radically better. I just don't see that golf is at some crisis point, as others do.

I grew up playing the tour balata, with persimmon woods and blade irons, and for sure the golfer in me sometimes thinks what we've got now has taken a lot of the craft out of the game. But ultimately it's just natural progress and it's still the greatest game there is!
12.6.2012 | Unregistered Commenterandrew coop
I think a lot of us would agree on "the greatest gemme" part, Andrew. And as I pointed out similarly with regard to the ball, no one is suggesting that natural progress is a bad thing and that we should go back to persimmon and balata.

But surely you'd agree that the continuing lengthening of courses -- sometimes by moving tees OB on grounds that are centuries old and which hosted the game's greats as part of their history -- is evidence of distance being somewhat "out of control" and not merely "unhelpful exaggeration."

Again, setting up straw man arguments distracts from thoughtful discussion of the reality here.
12.6.2012 | Unregistered CommenterRLL
RLL, I'm certainly against lengthening courses. But continually exaggerating how far good players hit only encourages them. Here's an example: I've played a 72 hole pro event the last few years on a par70 and, from the tips, 7000+yard course. The owners put in back tees no doubt because it gives them "Championship" credibility but, and here's the irony, when they have their big pro event, the PGA push the tees up because they don't want us to look bad.

The media and the manufacturers all want to talk up how far everyone hits it now. Course owners and committees respond and think they need to add length-that's what I have a problem with. Talking about 300 yard 3 woods, 180 yard 8 irons e.t.c.-that's just not the reality.
12.6.2012 | Unregistered Commenterandrew coop
We do seem to have something we can agree on here, Andrew -- namely, that we both seem to be "against lengthening courses" further. So I guess I'll just have to accept the contradictions that I still find laced through your examples.

i.e., I watched Phil Mickelson overseas last month hit a blacked out RBZ 3-wood more than 300 yards just about every time he used it in a tournament, often followed by 180-yd 8-irons. And yet you're telling me my eyes are not seeing that...

OTOH, I am NOT seeing the PGA "pushing tees up because they don't want pros to look bad."

Also it's easy to talk about Bubba Watson type length (even though the pros and most knowledgable observers highlight his skill in shaping shots -- like the winner at the Masters -- as the real key to his successes, but how about a more relevant length example to the "more average" hitter like Luke Donald. Since switching to the TaylorMade driver, he's now hitting his ProV1 close to 300 yds on most of his drives, and often more.

I will grant you that there's a feedback loop with the media, OEM's, etc, obsessing about length that then causes a sheep mentality among course owners to lengthen. But this, too, I feel could be broken by the one suggestion that seems to offer an easy, direct, and immediate solution: dial back the ball for pros and have all pros using the same ball -- same as every other professional sport does. One mo' time: simple, problem solved, end of story.
12.7.2012 | Unregistered CommenterRLL

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