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USGA & R&A Declare Distance Gains Not Happening, And Positively No One Is Taking Them Seriously At This Point

These kids today? So cynical!

I remember the good old days when the USGA and R&A would dump one of their heaping piles of horse manure on our laps and it would be me, a few architects and the late, great Frank Hannigan calling them out. Well, thankfully while I was busy chasing some fun stories around Riviera today, others gave away time they'll never get back in their lives to point out just how absurd our governing bodies' latest report appears.

Before we get there, For Immediate Release:

USGA and The R&A Publish Research on Driving Distance in Golf

FAR HILLS, N.J. and ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND (February 15, 2017) -  The USGA and The R&A have published their annual review of driving distance, a research document that reports important findings on driving distance in golf.

Introduced last year, the review examines driving distance data from seven of the major professional golf tours, based on approximately 285,000 drives per year. Data from studies of male and female amateur golfers has also been included for the first time.

Key facts noted in the paper include:

Between 2003 and the end of the 2016 season, average driving distance on five of the seven tours has increased by approximately 1.2%, around 0.2 yards per year.

For the same time period, average driving distance on the other two tours studied decreased by approximately 1.5%.

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” has not changed – for instance, since 2003 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 either longer or shorter players.

The average launch conditions on the PGA TOUR – clubhead speed, launch angle, ball speed and ball backspin – have been relatively stable since 2007. The 90th-percentile clubhead speed coupled with the average launch angle and spin rate are very close to the conditions that The R&A and the USGA, golf’s governing bodies, use to test golf balls under the Overall Distance Standard.

Mike Davis, executive director/CEO of the USGA, said, “We appreciate the collaboration we have received, industry-wide, to access and review this data to benefit the entire golf community, which can be used to both educate golfers and advance the game.”

Martin Slumbers, chief executive of The R&A, said, “In the interests of good governance and transparency it is important that we continue to provide reliable data and facts about driving distance in golf.

“Driving distance remains a topic of discussion within the game and the review provides accurate data to help inform the debate.”

Furthermore, Governor William J. Lepotomane chimed in: "Gentleman, this study is the finest of its kind ever published!"

Now, I write to you from Riviera where, when I started hitting balls on the driving range tee in the late 80s, a 10-12 foot fence was in place. Then it went to 40 or so feet in the 90s, 80 feet in the 2000's and since 2012, for the PGA Tour's annual February visit, a special extension is added to raise the driving range fence to 120 feet.

The same fence extension will be needed this August when the U.S. Amateur comes to Riviera. Here's guessing the USGA would not appreciate an invoice to cover the cost of installing a temporary addition since, after all, today's report says recent distance gains are a figment of our imagination.

Reading today's report,'s Will Gray writes more presciently than he probably realizes given that the USGA leans so hard on its outside PR firms to spin certain news:

As any PR firm can attest, statistics are a versatile tool. Choose the right data points, frame the right time period, and you can quantify support for nearly any argument. Such is the case with this study, the second in as many years released by the game’s governing bodies and one that simply continues to miss the point.

And I enjoyed this key point by Gray:

The study’s data focuses not on distance outliers, but instead on the large swath in the middle where, for the PGA Tour, the average drive reportedly lingers around 290 yards. But those top-end outliers have become increasingly noticeable in recent years as more and more marquee players launch towering drives.

A whopping 27 players cracked the 300-yard average last season on Tour, 15 more than the 2010 season and 18 more than in 2003. Individual drives over 300 yards, which made up just 26.56 percent of tee shots in 2003, accounted for 31.14 percent last season.

Then there’s Rory McIlroy tweeting out other-worldly Trackman data, Dustin Johnson bending Oakmont to his will and Henrik Stenson lifting the claret jug by relying not on his driver, but instead his trusty 3-wood.

And don’t forget about Ariya Jutanugarn, who powered her way to LPGA Player of the Year honors while barely touching her driver in 2016, mostly hitting 2-irons off the tee.

Those are data points that the study fails to address, although the findings insist that PGA Tour players hit driver on “measured” driving holes more than 95 percent of the time last year.

James Hahn even took to Twitter to agree:

Rex Hoggard talked to players and equipment reps at Riviera and noted the skepticism about the USGA/R&A launch conditions take.

According to multiple equipment representatives from various companies, the average golf ball spin for a driver on Tour is down about 500 rpm from ’03, while the average launch on drives is up between 2 and 4 degrees. Without getting lost in the science of the golf swing and new technology, lower spin and higher launch means more distance and it’s the players with the highest clubhead speed that enjoy the greatest benefit from this evolution.

Put another way, more clubhead speed is the byproduct of better athletes, not better equipment, and modern technology can be maximized for these players, which at least partially explains why the number of players averaging 300-plus yard drivers has tripled since 2003.

“You have kids like Justin Thomas who are using their bodies in ways that we weren’t taught and they swing for pure distance with their drivers,” said Johnson Wagner, who only half-jokingly refers to himself as a “dinosaur.”

“I think it’s working out, it’s launch monitors, it’s coaching. I don’t think it’s equipment; the clubs are what they are and have been for the last 10 years. It’s just everything and there’s nothing you can do.”

Oh don't be so sure!

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Reader Comments (49)

The USGA and R&A followed up today's announcement on distance by also announcing further bans on putter styles... you know, to save the game
02.15.2017 | Unregistered CommenterDrBunsenHoneydew
It's all going to end in tears for the R&A, USGA and the game. Gone too far down the wrong road to find a way back. Who knows where it will end? The ET's Pelley is making an effort but he is focusing on the absurd instead of the essentials.
02.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterIvan Morris
Note to equipment reps: Never disturb the gullible when it comes to product release cycles. If the marketing boys hear you talking about equipment technology being static for the last 10 years, start looking for a new job.
02.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterD. maculata
It's a refrain well known to this website, but it seems that limits on the ball might be the easiest way to reign in that 30+ percent averaging > 300 yards.
Geoff, thanks for the nod to my former mentor and hero, the Honorable Gov. Wm. J. Le Petomane.
What is the average age of the various tours players? Was there a breakdown of drives for those in their twenties, thirties, forties, and senior tour players? Do older players (such asmTiger) with special exemtions dilute distance stats.
02.16.2017 | Unregistered Commenterpanco
Davis Love III is a hundred years old and averages 302 yards in driving distance; Vijay Singh is twice as old and is at 294 yards.

There's nothing wrong with the game if your cup of tea is watching par 5s being played with driver/6-iron.
02.16.2017 | Unregistered Commenterrgw
Bet the ruling bodies of golf are also gonna tell us that climate change is a hoax and human released
carbon emmissions arent on the rise!
02.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterAmen Coroner
What about the course conditions for tour events baked into the distance stats? They firm the fairways to play fast. When is the last time you got two huge hops and 40 yards of rollout on your drives at your home course?
02.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterSwoosh
Never one to miss a chance to speak, Gary Player was mocked for envisioning regular 400 yard drives. At the current rate, I would assume his prediction should come to pass sometime around 2025. Of course, the USGA and R&A will propose alternative stats...
02.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterBDF
as someone once said ' there are lies, damn lies, and statistics".

It's ok that the ball goes farther and straighter than ever before. I'm amazed at the resistance on the part of the USGA and R&A to admit it. it's reason 914 why I just can't write a check for $50 to these guys anymore
02.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterBSP
The USGA avoids mandating limits because if they did, equipment makers and the general golfing public might simply ignore the rules, causing USGA to lose control of the rules & game.
02.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterBud

Very astute. Something I really hadn't previously thought about.
Has there been any equipment regulation implemented recently(last 10 years) other than grooves in irons?
02.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterLynn S.
Ye gods! Some people do drive it 400 yards ... in long drive contests.
The last ten versions of the TaylorMade driver all said they hit it longer than the previous version. So based on the stats everyone plonked down $500 each time for an extra 0.02 yards?
02.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterJT
Sorry, 0.2 yards
02.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterJT
At the root of the discussion is what kind of test the ruling bodies want for the game at the highest level. And their answer has been they want a game that emphasizes length off the tee over other skills. Due to the physics and ball properties the length advantage is magnified for a select few with high enough swing speeds. This is golf's equivalent of Baseball's steroid love affair that made it into an ESPN highlight show vs. the more nuanced skill game it was. Eventually the fundamental nature of the game is changed to the point where it is a different game. But the contests at the highest level should be more interesting not less. At some point the idea of hitting a ball over all the hazards with brute force doesn't maintain its appeal- just like home run derbies become monotonous.
02.16.2017 | Unregistered Commentermunihack
And the Lord said unto Moses let there be Light upon the subject of Distance with that all the lights in Heaven and Earth were turned off.

Proving that yet again the R&A with the USGA have missed not just the point but are still stumbling around in the dark when it comes to the Royal & Ancient Game of Golf.

Forgive them Old Tom for they still do not know what they are doing.

Only good point coming out of this is that we are another stage closer to seeing the R&A being forced to reformed or getting the Hell out of Dodge (St Andrews & Golf).

Enough to make grown Golfers cry!
02.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterTom Morris
The ball. The ball. Change the ball.
It's all about the ball. Let them play with all these high tech clubs and give them the old balata. Have fun boys!
02.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterViz
This may not be a popular opinion, but lengthen tees (if possible) to account for this. The equipment manufacturers are not going to allow the ball or clubs to be rolled back. There is only one other option.

Imagine in baseball if they started letting the batters use aluminum as they do in college. Balls would go farther, duh. What would they do? Put the fence back to make it fair.

The cat is already out of the bag. Keep whining and see where that gets you.
Has anyone ever offered a statistic supporting the notion that 3 woods and 2 irons are creating the distances drivers did 13 years ago?
02.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterJS
"This may not be a popular opinion, but lengthen tees (if possible) to account for this. The equipment manufacturers are not going to allow the ball or clubs to be rolled back...."

I'm not sure what "allow" means in this context. The equipment manufacturers do not write the rules of golf. It would take a few keystrokes to roll back the ball. And contrary to what some think, manufacturers do not have a legally protected right to insist that the game of golf accept their products. They absolutely have the right to sell those products, just as I could manufacture and try to sell a "baseball" with an explosive core that would double the number of home runs. But MLB doesn't have to accept my ball, and the USGA (or the PGA or the LPGA) don't have to allow competitors to use whatever ball they choose in their tournaments. Of course manufacturers would fight like hell, but if the USGA stood it's ground, they would lose.

Here are two problems with the "lengthen tees" solution: (1) "if possible." I know you added that as a parenthetical, but that is literally an insurmountable restraint for some of the best courses in the world; and (2) even if you can lengthen tees, you create more maintained turf, requiring more water and chemicals, which in turn raises costs, which in turn either makes the game more expensive for golfers or less financially viable for courses, and longer courses mean longer rounds -- something the game can ill afford right now.
02.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterJeff
Golf is a boring game to watch for most people. The emphasis on driving distance is one of the only areas of the game that provide some kind of excitement , other than reports on Tiger's health. Every equipment commercial touts distance as the measure of the game. The television guys marvel at 350 yard drives and 180 yard nine irons . ( So do we ! ) Distance has been sold for as long as I have played the game. The general public has no understanding of a little knock down 8 iron , into the wind , that catches that brow in the green and stops 4 feet from the hole. But they DO understand Rory lashing one with 325 yards of carry over the corner of a water hazard on a long par four , and then hitting one of those 180 yard nine irons. The "grow the game" folks are marketing to the masses. Distance is their mantra. They don't know how to convey the complexity of the game , but "ball goes far" is an easy concept. Changing the format before the cut is like adding a dried up pickle slice to your in and out burger.
02.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterJJBeck
@Jeff - apples and oranges comparing MLB to the Tour. Name me the last time you saw a baseball equipment commercial when watching a game? You can't. The golf manufacturers are heavily invested in the tour. Too much money in play and too much at stake to go backwards.

I don't suggest lengthening tees for every golf course in the world. Only those that are hosting Tour tournaments. Set a "PGA Tee" farther back than the tips and don't allow anyone to play from there unless it's to prep or play an official tournament. You'd just have to maintain another set of tees for a small portion of the year. Why do we need lush fairway between tees?
This may be a case where 'the cover-up is worse than the crime" .......they seem to be making extraordinary efforts to convince us that our eyes are deceiving us.
02.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterKeith - NYC
"Golf is a boring game to watch for most people. The emphasis on driving distance is one of the only areas of the game that provide some kind of excitement , other than reports on Tiger's health. Every equipment commercial touts distance as the measure of the game. The television guys marvel at 350 yard drives and 180 yard nine irons . ( So do we ! )"

No we don't. This idea that 350 drives that make hazards and shotmaking all but obsolete are what makes golf exciting really makes it bland. It takes away more than half the field until everyone with time becomes a 350 driver. Then we just have golfing clones who all play the same way. The golfers who really excited fans were people like Arnold Palmer, Seve Ballesteros and the like. It wasn't Tiger's booming drives that grabbed people as much as his outrageous recoveries. Same with Phil. Shotmakers. That is what golfing fans really identify with, because most of us miss the fairway more than we would care to mention. The man in the street who never plays golf never stays around long enough to " grow the game", they just latch on to a winner like Tiger until he is done, then fall off again.

It's time to roll back the ball 10%, tennis did it before every player had to serve like Sampras to win. Stretching to tees back even further will only ruin golf for good. If long drives thrill you, watch long drive contests, fantasic power, but like watching paint dry after 20 minutes.
02.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterEasingwold
Make 'em teeoff with no tee.
02.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterMouthful
Would be interesting to know where The Gimmick King stands on rolling back the golf ball. If he truly wants to shake things up he should mandate an official event be played with a "tournament ball".
02.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterXFL

10% roll back will I believe just not do it - we have to introduce a far larger % circa 30-40%, however that has to be in line with changes in golf course design. To offer just 10% will through technology and course maintenance be disappear within a year or so.

What we are talking about is not a minor change but major in both playing and designing golf courses to try to claw back the game to that which gave enjoyment and made people think. Rollback alone just will not cut it

On the subject of courses they have become too easy, players expect too much and offer little in effort, because they aid the players instead of being the challenge they are meant to be - Courses are not meant to be the railway lines for the game but the actual combat zone that requires developing skills to play - we seem to have forgotten that and regard the degree of difficulty of a course in terms of how hard or easy it was to get around instead of how challenging it was on our game.

To beat the illness of golfing apathy we have to be challenging - shorter courses with more hazards is what the golfing doctors of old recommended - plus they will curtail the aerial game to acceptable levels.
02.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterTom Morris
@ Tom Morris- you make some good points, but a roll back 30-40% ? Golf has to still be seen to represent a game from 1930 onwards. A 40% roll back would see some pros hitting a driver under 200 yards, would it not? Sam Snead could get it out there 250 yards back in the 30's. Who can forget Ben Hogan's famous 1 ( or 2 ) iron at Merion ?

I'm reminded of the story of the gutty, once it was nicked, it flew further. Balls have come a long way but it has gotten out of control. It would be simple to roll it back to pre 1990 levels. there isn't any need to take it back 100 years, golf has enjoyed fantastic skills from Bobby Jones time up to the Pro v 1.
02.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterEasingwold
10-12% roll back on a competition ball.
Slight increase in spin off the driver so (competition) ball doesn't fly so straight.
Done. Problem solved.
Pro golf is more exciting to watch when they hit the odd bad shot. Watching guys crank it out 340 straight down the middle is like paint drying. Only complete newbies are entertained by long drives.
02.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterPress Agent
They're pounding more nails in their own coffins as they approach irrelevance. RIP
02.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterGhost of Old Tom
The USGA goes back to Groucho - Who are you going to believe, me or your own lying eyes? I don't believe the USGA.

And why not make courses par 66? The pros hit the par 5's in two and drive close to if not on a couple par 4's.

02.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterJim Beckner
Forget about data, ask the players. Or ask the kids who work on the range at Tour events. I seriously cannot believe the USGA thinks because they say something it makes it fact. It's an insult to think that they can throw out something so absurd and expect everyone to say "oh my, I really thought the ball was going farther, but I was wrong." Another poor leadership decision by Mr. Davis.
02.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterLema's Ghost

To stop ball rollback becoming an annual event we need to control technology and also course design - one must be connected to the other. 10% will just not hack it.

Then again it depends the reason for such major changes - my hope would be for the survival of Golf and enjoyment of watching the development of skill

Time the R&A, Clubs and Designers thought outside the box - as for the industry that eclipses the game i.e. equipment manufacturers, well the R&A need to get some balls and deal with them.

Anyway the sound of the modern club hitting the ball is worse than the sound of FI cars i.e. exhaust note. Its just not golf.

Perhaps its time the R&A & the USGA started to drink Heineken - that's the beer that refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach.
PS that also applies to some architects too!!
02.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterTom Morris
@ Tom Morris, they could start with the driver head, shrink it to 350 from the 460 limit might do the trick. But I wouldn't want things to go too far back, just enough to make shot making return to the game. Put spin on the ball, as others have said. Then a 20 mph wind at the Old Course would mean something again, yes ?
02.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterEasingwold
Sure, the distance has only increased 1.2% during the time measured because the really long hitters hare hitting 3-wood off of a lot of the holes that are measured.

It is the ball, the size of the driver, and the COR. They need to change all three to make the game more about getting from the tee to the green, and less about the putting part of it.

If you are a great putter, you don't give a damn about my last sentence. If you enjoy practicing hitting balls, you might get it.
02.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterSilly Bodkins
Haven't golf balls and clubs had limits in place for the last 10+ years? If so, any increases are due to the players and course conditions, not equipment. It's not like there are balls that are exceeding the overall distance/initial velocity test or drivers exceeding the COR limits being released as conforming equipment.

No doubt there are more bombers than there was 10 years ago, as the players in general are stronger, more flexible and match the equipment to their swing.

I do agree however if they would reduce the max size of the driver to say 200cc, it would have a pretty dramatic effect as many players would need to slow down their swings a bit to make sure to hit the sweet spot.
02.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterRoger
I'm guessing a wholesale change like rolling the ball back 10% will not happen. What might be useful would be to gather some reasonable data without relatively low risk. For example, in an event like whatever Tiger's invitational is called now, use one, non-branded ball, standard for all players (in this case there are only about 30) rolled back 10%. See what happens in an event where top players play, but the "stakes" are silly-season like.
02.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterPops
"without relatively low risk"...sorry, meant WITH low risk
02.16.2017 | Unregistered CommenterPops

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