WSJ On The Year Of The Golf (Equipment) Free Agency

Screen Shot 2018-08-09 at 4.59.51 PM.png

This is a nice big picture consideration by Brian Costa of the Wall Street Journal following up on post-Nike trend of players playing mixed bags either by force due to the Swoosh's equipment business demise, or going that route as club companies devote more resources to stars. (Thanks reader John). 

My ShackHouse colleague Joe House has noted on the show how the first three major winners this year are playing a mixture of clubs in looking for a wagering angle headed here to Bellerive, something Costa looks into and considers whether it's a trend. With purses rising and checks from companies flatlining or shrinking, the answer appears to be yes.

The math has also changed. Purse money continues to hit record highs each year, extending a boom that dates to the debut of Tiger Woods and survived his absence in recent years. At the same time, the market for equipment deals has cooled.

Agents and officials from the manufacturers say that a handful of star players—think Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson —still earn several million dollars annually on such deals. But the offers for most other players have dropped substantially. A midlevel Tour player who made $500,000 a decade ago might make $250,000 now.

Firestone Once Again Feels The Impact Of Medicine Ball Work In Staggering (Statistical) Fashion

2018WGCDistances.jpeg

The golf at Firestone is not everyone's cup of tea but when you put wedge approaches into the 2018 PGA Tour player's hand all day, Robert Trent Jones' design becomes less compelling. However in his defense, as you'll note in today's top website quote from Jack Nicklaus, the Golden Bear found the course dull even when hitting woods and long irons into the greens.

Either way, the driving distances at the final WGC Bridgestone were even more staggering than the normally huge numbers posted there annually. Driven solely by incorporation of medicine balls that have built super-cores like the game has never seen before these tall...well some of them...strapping...some of them...super jocks hit the ball unthinkable distances at the 2018 WGC Bridgestone, averaging 318.3 yards off the tee as a field. 

Momentary pause to let that sink in.

Try designing interesting golf holes for 318 yard averages on less than 250 acres. 

At the final Bridgestone, Brooks Koepka and his guns averaged 341.3 on the two driving holes, and tied with Rory McIlroy to lead the field with a 328.9 yard average on ALL drives.  Branden Grace was 20th in distance, averaging 326.9. Here is the list of the measuring hole leaders:

Screen Shot 2018-08-05 at 7.52.37 PM.png

Justin Thomas used his power to great advantage and should be celebrated for his effort. With a 329.3 distance average on the measuring holes, he carved up Firestone when he had wedge into the greens. From the good folks at ShotLink:

Screen Shot 2018-08-05 at 7.55.53 PM.png

On a course once considered boring by Jack Nicklaus because it was all woods and long iron approaches, Thomas had 32 approach shots insider 150 yards and only 13 outside 200. 

Where does this leave us on the season?

There has been a spike in distance seen all year and that's relevant if you take the USGA and R&A at their word that action would be necessary with any significant increase, regardless of the reason. 

The 2018 PGA Tour driving distance average after Firestone is 295.8 yards. If the boys will just do a little more gym work over the final weeks, we can get a four-yard increase over 2016-17's 292.5. 

The distance average was 291.3 after the same tournament last year so I like our chances!  (The tour average was 288.7 through the 2016 WGC Bridgestone.)

Five players in 2017 averaged over 310 yards off the tee, that number is at 15 this year. 

In 2018, 67 players are averaging over 300 yards off the tee, versus 38 last year.

Of course, the PGA Tour took the position that none of this was significant last year. Will they do so again in 2018?

U.S. Open V. The Open: Green Speeds Make The Difference

CarnoustieSunday.jpeg

After playing his first Open, Luke List is wishing the USGA mimic the R&A in setup philosophy, reports Tony Jimenez for Reuters.

A similar refrain was repeated many times by players, observers and fans who enjoyed the tough-but-fair and noticeably faster golf, though as I note in this assessment of Carnoustie for Golfweek, the issue is layered but also incredibly simple: green speeds made the difference between complimenting Carnoustie's architecture, and ruining it.

Pace of play was noticeably better and as a "product," The Open proved infinitely more pleasurable to watching without having to spend so much time watching players grind over short putts for four days.

While professional golfers are praising the R&A coming off the U.S. Open setup issues, there were more than a handful of silly hole locations saved only by green speeds in the high 9s when leaders reached them.  Had the USGA slowed greens at Shinnecock down to the high 9's, there would have been softer and bumpier conditions that today's spoiled-by-bent-grass players would loathe. But on a seaside links with a blend of poa, fescue and bent, with a links mindset, the players are more accepting of a bumpiness.

And really, the ball goes too far.

On another day we can continue to lament how much course setup manipulation must take place to mask regulatory mistakes and debate how vital it is for golf to slow greens down.

In the meantime, I'd prefer to celebrate a magnificent week at Carnoustie made special by Mother Nature baking out an outstanding course. As I note in the Golfweek piece, Carnoustie has had a troubled relationship with the rota at times, but brilliant maintenance management by Craig Boath's team, mostly great work by the R&A and a hot, dry summer allowed the links to remind people of its great strategic character.

Hmmmm: R&A Conducts Surprise, Random(?) Driver Test

OpenProgramCover.jpg

Thirty players were greeted with letters from the R&A ordering them to offer up their drivers for a COR test. It's not clear if the tests were random or if the players were specially chosen by their manufacturer affiliation or driving distance average.

Welcome to Scotland!

Tim Rosaforte reports for Golf Channel on what appears to be a step-up in the effort to ensure there are conforming drivers in this week's Open Championship

Keegan Bradley, Brendan Steele and Brooks Koepka all confirmed that their drivers all passed the COR test (coefficient of restitution, or spring-like effect) administered by the R&A.

This was the first time the R&A took measures that were not part of the distance insight project being done in conjunction with the USGA.

 

There are two ways of looking at this. 

The sunny side up take would believe this is just part of normal monitoring and amidst some rumblings that this year's distance increase could be fueled by hot drivers.

The cynical take says this is the act of a desperate governing body looking for something to blame this year's increases on, instead of simply anticipating that a combination of technology, athleticism, fitting and a generation of players reared on modern clubs have passed the testing procedures by. AKA, anything not to do something about the Joint Statement of Principles.

295's Within Reach! Huge Spike In Driving Distance Enters The Monster-Drive Season

As we head into the warm weather months and silly-long drives, the 2018 spike has a chance to spill well over the 295-yard driving distance average mark on the PGA Tour. 

Of course, this is noteworthy since the governing bodies said way back in the early years of the George W. Bush administration that they were drawing the line and have maintained little has changed. And while we know that the addition of extra fiber in diets, more widespread implementation of mindfulness and of course, drinking cold brew coffee, have driven this year's spike, the Statement of Principles said the reasoning would not matter in a decision to take action.

PGA Tour driving distance average through the Travelers:

2018: 294.7

2017: 289.3

2016: 288.2

2015: 288.1

2014: 287.8

2013: 286.4

2012 287.1

2011: 288.0

Through Colonial: PGA Tour's Driving Distance Average At 294.8 And Where That Number Ranks Historically

We all can see where players are hitting the ball and why--bicep curls!--so it's always fun to see where today's linebackers rank with the engineers of the past. If nothing else, the stunning increase this year theoretically means the governing bodies will have to act based on past commitments.  Theoretically.

Note the PGA Tour driving distance average through the Colonial this year versus past years if you are looking for perspective on the influence of pilates, core work and lean protein diets.

Year       Tour Average At Colonial Time

2018       294.8

2017       289.2

2016       288.1

2008      283.2

1998       269.0

So we're up five yards from where we were last year at this time, a year the USGA and R&A said showed the first spike in some time. Maybe all of the mowers on the PGA Tour have been sharpened? Lowered? Infused with special oils to make the ball run more?

Oh, and traditionally the average goes up as the weather gets warmer. 

Bomb And Gouge Is Back And Stats Support The Tactic

Screen Shot 2018-05-18 at 10.12.07 AM.png

Thanks to reader JB for the Brian Costa's WSJ look at our old pal Bomb and Gouge, the method of attacking a golf course with all power, accuracy be damned. 

Talk of playing golf that way had subsided in recent years after the craze began a decade ago, but as we've seen in subtle ways and in blatant ones, the practice is validated by stats. 

“It’s still easier to hit from the fairway than it is to hit out of the rough,” said Tony Finau, who is driving the ball 317 yards while hitting just 52% of fairways. “But I would rather hit a pitching wedge out of the rough than a 6-iron from the fairway.”

Mark Broadie, a Columbia University business professor who pioneered modern statistical analysis in golf, said it’s not as if today’s bombers are wild. More power simply makes misses look bigger, he said, and his analysis has proven the added yardage to be more valuable than the accuracy lost. “Players are intuitively optimizing their score by making good tradeoffs there,” Broadie said.

 

Intuitively optimizing!

Or, just overpowering courses thanks to their improved diets and astute use of medicine balls.

I Guess We Have To: Governing Bodies Launch "Multi-Pronged" Distance Insights Project

Here goes another year in the distance discussion, all because the two PGA's have decided they want to be in the rules business. I'm pretty sure we know what the input will look like ("Don't blame the ball! "-Wally, Fairhaven, MA). 

Anyway, if they must, but Senator you can have my answer now: do something.

The USGA and The R&A Launch Golf's Global Distance Insights Project

LIBERTY CORNER, N.J. USA AND ST ANDREWS, SCOTLAND (May 15, 2018) - The United States Golf Association (USGA) and The R&A have launched a comprehensive project to analyze distance in golf and gather perspectives from the worldwide golf community.  

The Distance Insights project will examine distance through a multi-pronged approach that includes global stakeholder engagement, third-party data review and primary research. Focus groups and discussion forums will play an important role in the project, to secure a broad range of perspectives throughout golf.

Beginning today, anyone interested in the topic can provide feedback by visiting usga.org/distanceinsights or randa.org/distanceinsights or by emailing either association directly.

“The topic of increased distance and its effects on the game have been discussed for well over a century. We believe that now is the time to examine this topic through a very wide and long lens, knowing it is critical to the future of the game,” said Mike Davis, CEO of the USGA. “We look forward to delving deeply into this topic and learning more, led by doing right by golf, first and foremost.”

Martin Slumbers, Chief Executive of The R&A, said, “Distance in golf is a complex issue which is widely debated at all levels of the sport. It is important that we collate all of the relevant data and hear the many different perspectives on this issue that exist in the international golf community. We intend to conduct this process openly, comprehensively and promptly and will work with all of the key stakeholders to ensure we have a fully rounded view of distance and its implications.”   

Stakeholder groups invited to participate in the project include amateur and professional golfers, worldwide professional golf tours, golf course owners and operators, golf equipment manufacturers, golf course architects, golf course superintendents and others. 

Among the many topics to be explored, the organizations will seek distance-related data on pace of play, golf course construction and maintenance practices, the evolution of equipment, golf course design and player enjoyment and participation.

The USGA and The R&A will engage various golf industry stakeholders through 2018, with plans to deliver a report in 2019.

Bob Ford On The Ball: "I would be very surprised if it doesn’t roll back."

Thanks to reader Chuck for spotting Robert Blumenthal's Golf Conversation with longtime Oakmont and Seminole professional Bob Ford, who covers a range of topics.

But given that he's been associated with two classic courses, the comments by Ford related to distance and the ball stand out.

GC: Speaking of Jack, Tiger has come out for scaling back the distance of the golf ball for the pros. The head of Bridgestone Golf said the same thing yesterday.

BF: For the elite game? I would tell you that in the last three months, I’ve never heard more comments about it and more people are getting on the bandwagon to do it. Mike Davis is a member here. He’s like, “My goal [by the end of] my career here is to get the ball rolled back.” So I would be very surprised if it doesn’t roll back.

So there's that. And more.

GC: Do you think anyone understands what “bifurcation” means?

(laughter)

BF: I hope so. It’s been a bad word. I don’t quite know how they’re gonna do it. You and I don’t want our ball to go shorter, we know that. Believe it or not, they have developed a golf ball that at our speed, it doesn’t change. At the speed of 108 or more miles an hour, it starts to go down.

I just want to see this supposed ball in action. In our lifetimes. Once.

Or, maybe roll them out at the Crump Cup or the Hugh Wilson or some other old school event and get some feedback? 

Nobilo: "The professional game has never been more divorced from the amateur game. I think that is extremely dangerous."

Screen Shot 2018-04-29 at 9.02.30 PM.png

Frank Nobilo talks to Golf Australia's John Huggan about a range of topics, but his comments about fearing for the health of golf due to cost, length and a growing divide between professional and amateur games. He wants to slow down the ball.

That sense of connection is always mentioned by anti-bifurcation types looking to protect the golf ball, yet all playing the same ball the divide is growing. Nobilo sees and doesn't like the lost connection, which he even sees between the most recent generation of greats and today's major winners.

We have equipment that is really designed for the recreational player, but which produces unhealthy distance for the elite players. I remember playing in pro-ams and occasionally being out-driven by an amateur. Now that never happens. Now the pros hit their 5-irons past the amateur’s drives.

The professional game has never been more divorced from the amateur game. I think that is extremely dangerous. I’m not one for bifurcation though. One of the beauties of the game should be that everyone can play. But if we went to different equipment we would lose that. The game wouldn’t be what it is supposed to be.

As with most people, it all goes back to the Old Course...

When they started messing with the Old Course at St. Andrews and adding yardage, the R&A lost me. Can you imagine if the All England Club did that to Wimbledon and made the centre court smaller so that the game would be more difficult? In tennis they slowed the ball down. I think we need to do the same in golf.

I know many people do not place value on this, though it's never for a reason beyond personal financial gain:

I am amazed when I go to Wentworth now for the BMW PGA Championship. It isn’t the course I remember playing. So any comparison between now and then has been lost. Martin Kaymer, for example, should be able to compare himself with Bernhard Langer. But he can’t. He isn’t playing the same game or the same courses.

Arccos: Average Golfers Declining In Driving Distance

GolfDigest.com's Mike Stachura reports on Arccos data of more than 10 million drives suggesting that average golfers have seen flat or declining distances since 2015.

Screen Shot 2018-04-17 at 9.44.23 PM.png

Stachura queries some industry types to understand why all of the Hot List winners might not be delivering distance. There is Nick Clearwater at Golftec, who naturally wants more people to get better fittings from places like...Golftec. But Clearwater also says this about lightweight clubs actually working against the average golfer:

“The average golfer uses too much spin loft with all of their clubs, so increases in tech still show minimal improvement in the quality of the shot,” he said. “The shots still start to the right, spin too much, and are mishit.

“There is not much equipment/ball can help with. Also, as much as clubhead tech has improved, shafts are getting lighter and longer from the OEMs and the consistency of the strike is compromised as a result.”

This regarding the disparity between pros and amateurs would be fun to contrast with twenty years ago:

The Arccos research also provided data on average 7-iron distance across age groups and handicaps. The overall 7-iron average was 143.3 yards, compared to 172 yards for a PGA Tour player as measured by Trackman. That data suggests average golfers are playing a dramatically different game than elite tour players. Combining the average golfer’s driver and 7-iron you get a 364-yard par 4. That might be 120 yards or more shorter than how a PGA Tour player might play a driver, 7-iron hole.

Having made the case that today's equipment rules are being circumvented by elite players via fitting, while making clear the data is pointing to little game improvement for average players, it's hardly a call to go out and shop. A good fitting yes, but shopping?

So long story short, average golfers might not be getting better, but they clearly have the potential.

Click on the following links to shop the latest drivers Dick's Sporting Goods and Golf Galaxy.

It's not often you get hard data telling you what you've bought is failing you, followed by links to buy clubs. 

Ironically the piece is a fantastic case for bifurcation where equipment rules can be adjusted to help the average golfer, while making clear we need to tighten up a few loose bolts for the pros. 

Horschel Wants More "Great-Designed Courses" Like Harbour Town

Titleist ambassador and former FedExCup champion Billy Horschel repeatedly takes the company talking points on the distance issue, so it was no surprise to see him call on architects to do more "great-designed" work instead of changing equipment to breathe new (old) life into architecture.

Screen Shot 2018-04-15 at 8.58.44 PM.png

From this week's After Further Review from Rex Hoggard, which is incidentally followed by an item on how fun it is to watch Brooke Henderson drive the ball despite her small frame. 

First, in Horschel's world, he's hoping we get driver-killing "great-designed" courses so the golf ball is not restricted, ensuring on-going payments to his and other golf pro accounts:

"I think the architects in today's game should come here and understand what this course is and why it's still challenging,” Billy Horschel said. “ Too much nowadays we're playing big, wide-open courses that really aren't great designed golf courses.”

If architects could import massive overhanging trees that restrict ball flight they might, but it's kind of hard to do that these days. Nor advisable on a number of levels, most notably because there is a desire by many to see the driver remain an important weapon. And even better, to see width presented to provide options off the tee.

All of this makes the second After Further Review item by Ryan Lavner more fun. He writes about the joys of LPGA winner Brooke Henderson and the skill on display as she uses a 48-inch driver.

Or perhaps it’s because she uses a 48-inch driver, drawing every little bit of distance out of her 5-foot-4 frame. She swings freely and aggressively, aims at flags even when she’s nursing a narrow lead and rolls in enough putts to contend in all of the big events.

The 20-year-old Canadian smashes every conceivable stereotype about the LPGA – in no ways a dink-and-dunker who relies on a hot putter. There’s no one in the women’s game I’d rather watch play. 

Sadly, the folks who want to combat distance through Harbour Town-style architecture do not appreciate how the ability to use driver in separating fields has been a cornerstone of the sport for a few centuries now.

Harbour Town is swell and all once a year, but narrow plod-fests that minimize the driver are not the model for the game. Particularly when the message is driven by corporate talking points from folks who've already made millions. "Great-designed" courses are not narrow, tree-lined and light on strategic decisions.  

Players Somehow Survive Masters And Its Low-Tech Course Data

Just a reminder that the world's best somehow managed to play The Masters without green reading books and yardage books feature grade-adjusted yardages.

Sun did the whole rise from the east, set in the west thing each day.

Players had to play by the club's rules and all still showed up. File that away.

As Karen Crouse writes for the New York Times, some of today's best even prefer the freedom to play

Away from Augusta, competitors typically use two books, one with tee-to-green details for each hole and the other, which often has a price tag, focused solely on the greens. The Masters provides a single one, at no cost, that covers both elements, offering rudimentary information. It is left to the caddies and the players to do their own legwork and fill in the blanks. In that respect, the Augusta National book is like the course itself, designed to reward those with the most creativity, imagination and discipline.

“I like it that way,” said Michael Greller, who caddies for Jordan Spieth, the 2015 champion. “It rewards people who put the work in.”

Fred Ridley's Momentous Comments On The Distance Issue

Here are the nuts and bolts of Chairman Fred Ridley's comments on the distance issue, which included some prepared remarks and some responses to questions.

As I write for Golfweek, however, this was a momentous day for new chairman Ridley and Augusta National. Because while other chairmen have invoked the words and philosophy of Jones and MacKenzie as a barometer, Ridley took things to another level in saying that the best hole in tournament golf and the best par-5 on the planet, no longer functions as the architects intended. 

The entirety of his most detailed comments in response to a question from Golf World's Ryan Herrington.

Q. You mentioned that you've had -- you've got encouragement from the governing bodies and other golf organizations about the feedback you've provided to them -- or on the distance issue. What has that feedback been, and have you asked them specifically to explore any certain aspects of the distance issue as it pertains to the play of the tournament here?

CHAIRMAN FRED S. RIDLEY: Well, as I mentioned, we do have an open dialog. I'm very familiar with the public statements that have been made recently. You know, our focus initially is on our golf course. We are intent on making sure that we maintain the design philosophy that Mr. Jones and Alister MacKenzie devised. And with the shot values that they thought were important, we have done what we felt was appropriate through the years to maintain that philosophy and that design, those design parameters.

There's a great quote from Bobby Jones dealing specifically with the 13th hole, which has been lengthened over time, and he said that the decision to go for the green in two should be a momentous one. And I would have to say that our

observations of these great players hitting middle and even short irons into that hole is not a momentous decision.

And so we think there is an issue, not only there, but in the game generally, that needs to be addressed. The ultimate decision is going to be, I'm confident, a collective one. It's going to be one where all of the stakeholders sit down and come to some agreement.

From our perspective, we will always do what's necessary to maintain the integrity of our golf course. But as I said in my comments, I don't think that's the only approach to this. So my hope is that every organization, every stakeholder involved will look at this issue from a holistic basis and not only what might be in the best interests of their own organization.

We fully appreciate and want-- do not want any action to be taken that's going to make golf harder. We have an obligation to grow the game, and so we're sensitive to that. So these issues don't always coincide. And like any difficult question, it requires compromise and debate. So as long as we're all talking to one another and looking out for what's in the best interest of the game, I'm confident that there's going to be a solution that's going to work for everyone.

“Augusta can always be defended. St Andrews is in trouble.”

A wise friend says the distance discussion should only be predicated on one barometer: the Old Course. If it is obsolete for the elite player, distance limits or something should be done to keep it relevant. 

So it was enlightening to see Paul Azinger suggest the Old Course at St. Andrews is in trouble within this Steve DiMeglio piece about Augusta National and distance. 

There is of course the usual shallow stuff from golf pros looking to protect their corporate interests over how the game is played, with Billy Horschel reinforcing his steadfast ignorance and Brandt Snedeker suggesting Augusta just plant a tree, ramp up the Sub-Air and call it a day.  

But Azinger's comments stood out since the R&A might actually feel the same way.

“The Old Course at St Andrews, the home of golf, is different, because the course isn’t as long and the greens are pretty easy to putt and don’t have nearly as much slope,” Azinger said. “Augusta’s greens are frightfully fast, and they can stick the pins two paces from the edge.
“Augusta can always be defended. St Andrews is in trouble.”

489 Yards: Dustin's Drive Won't Count As Tour's Longest Drive Ever

Dustin Johnson hit a 489-yard driving during his round 3, 2018 WGC Dell Match Play face-off with Kevin Kisner (eventually losing the match 4&3). 

As Rex Hoggard explains for GolfChannel.com, the drive does not count as the longest in PGA Tour history because the Match Play records are not included. But remember, the numbers at non-major venues, and non-match play venues are flat so these more athletic players today are not hitting it longer except when they are.

PGA Distance Survey Is In And The Results Will Not Shock!

The PGA of America's survey on distance is in and they are against a rollback that has not been proposed. The votes mirror the PGA board's position, as outlined prior to the vote by PGA of America CEO Pete Bevacqua.

As the process makes taking the results seriously almost impossible, you do have to wonder about all of the PGA members who voted about the joys of distance as their dues are used to fund aggressive grow-the-game campaigns. You know, campaigns deemed necessary because the technology era has not grown the game and the PGA of America is pursuing a long list of growth initiatives.

Here is the letter from current PGA President Paul Levy (of no actual golf facility) telling the members how they voted and how the PGA board will protect their wishes:

Screen Shot 2018-03-13 at 7.04.40 PM.png

Taylor Made CEO: "We stand with Titleist."

It's fascinating on several fronts to hear that the CEO of Taylor Made is anti-bifurcation, oddly joining him with Titleist and...by the people he's imploring not to bifurcate: the anti-bifurcation USGA and R&A.

The potential for splitting the rules or playing tour-only specs prompted Taylor Made's David Abeles to issue a statement both reinforcing the importance of the rules while declaring that they should not change. 

"The TaylorMade Golf Company opposes any potential roll back of product performance or bifurcation of the rules in any form as we believe these movements will be detrimental to the game at every level," Abeles said. "Any separation from the rules or any step backward in performance would be disadvantageous to the growth of the game."

The full statement: