Much Ado About … Something?: Our Columnist Has Some Thoughts
PATRIOTS, sound the alarm. They’re coming for your… well, we’re not really sure what, exactly.
One year after the release of the “Distance Insights Report,” the USGA and the R&A are back, moving forward with a program to potentially limit who can use what type of gear and in which situations.
To recall, the thesis is simple if not presumptively logical to all: Yearly advances in how far the best mash the golf ball have eroded some of the core values of the game, caused golf courses to be stretched so far out it would be like the NBA adding a 5-point line (and which in turn adds cost and time to play) — and rendered obsolete noble courses of yore.
In February of this year the authorities announced three potential changes relative to shaft length (other than putters) and current testing protocols for drivers and balls, and a further set of six research topics that could ultimately rein in ball performance and the cannon-like properties of modern clubs as it pertains to elite players.
That’s key, for as the USGA and R&A wrote in February’s announcement, “It is not currently intended to consider revising the overall specifications in a way that would produce substantial reductions in hitting distances at all levels of the game.”
What’s on the line is taming Rory but not Rhonda your neighbor and best golf bud.
The USGA won’t utter the concept and seems to be splitting hairs by not just saying that we’re likely headed for two sets of rules, because that’s the only place this can go, and that’s fine. There are two games of golf, and there have been for years: There is golf experienced as most of us play it; and there is what the best amateurs and professionals do.
History and economics are at work; some histrionics, too. To the pure-minded, it is a regrettable state of affairs that Riviera’s ninth can be played by some with a middling-at-longest iron on approach (even if the beguiling 10th hasn’t succumbed to modern technological skullduggery). If Riviera and other classics of that ilk are to remain germane, if the test of skills as presented to the game’s best is to remain balanced and time-inert, Riviera has only one defense — save a dry Santa Ana or one of those February-in-the-Southland deluges — and that’s moving those back tees back. (OK, you can futz with the rough or go all psycho with the greens, but messing with such stylistically apt greens would be like dropping ice in a killer Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir.)
Distance is a problem for most players … the lack of it. Despite all the marketing claims, amped-up production cycles, fitting availability and advances in agronomy, recreational golfers—from low-singles to high-doubles—are hitting their drives today, on average, as far as they did 20 years ago.”
These are legitimate concerns, notably on the cost side. By the same token, as seen in these pages last spring (“Wagging the Dog: Insight on the Distance Report”) there hasn’t been a wholesale onslaught of Pacific Crest Trail-long courses across which we are being forced to slog. Remove a handful of big tourney courses from the USGA’s test group – Golf Digest’s Top 100 list – that have experienced the most stretching, and the overall pace of yardage addition appears to be far more incremental, and not excessive, over the past 40 years.
NOT PERSONAL … YET
Can John Q. Player find an absurdly long course in the ‘hood, something out there at 7,700 or 7,800 yards? That’s likely. Paying the green fee is optional.
That’s as much a developer-ego problem as anything, not the fault of the mad scientists at Callaway and Titleist and PING. It’s also the doing of players who see yardage, slope and rating as trophies to be bagged, when few should even know about those upper lines on the scorecard. Courses do need to crack the nut; developers need to accept they aren’t likely to land a PGA Tour, USGA or PGA of America event; and we all bear some responsibility in not demanding what we can’t handle and don’t need.
Distance is a problem for most players … that is, the lack of it. Despite all the marketing claims, amped-up production cycles, fitting availability and advances in agronomy, recreational golfers—from low-singles to high-doubles—are hitting their drives today, on average, as far as they did 20 years ago. (To be fair, the study data goes back to 1996, and if we include those years there was, indeed, an average yardage gain of 16 yards from 1996 to 2019. The year 2000 is when the modern golf ball hit the market, and most of the gains came courtesy of that one act, so let’s call our growth curve static since then.)
And here’s the sad fact: 216. That’s it. Thats the driving distance for We the Golfers, on average.
Golf is hard for us, and recreational golfers lack the skills, physical acumen and dedication to practice, fitness and continuous fitting to get the oomph out of modern equipment that is there for the best, who ramp it up year after year.
What will we see from this? You can bank on the adoption of the proposal to allow a local rule (read: select events) to limit nonputter shaft length to 46 inches. (Invoke does not automatically become allow.) Checking with Cobra, who would chat on record, Rickie Fowler wields a 44.5-inch driver and Bryson DeChambeau and Jason Dufner go armed at 45.75 inches. Perennial LPGA top-5 driver Lexi Thompson — with a 270-plus-yard average year in, year out — measures in at 45 inches.
For the record, Cobra’s standard retail offering is 45.25 inches. And while DeChambeau and Phil Mickelson are two of the notables who have tinkered with drivers to the point that they would run afoul of any such ruling, this would go over with less clamor than the previously adopted rule on anchoring. As it stands, any number of teaching and fitting pros will tell you that the standard driver is too long for many of those buying them, most notably the higher handicappers who struggle with impact. Remember the mantra: Ball speed , not swing speed.
Tightening up the testing protocols is a logical tweak, since the parameters are somewhat antiquated given what a fit, elite golfer can do with body, swing, club and ball despite of the restrictions in place. Again: them, not us.
As for the next tier of study protocols on matters such as ball performance, springlike effect, driver volume and stability? This is where the dreaded “rollback” might occur. That would prove one wild rollercoaster, for sure. Please remain calm until the ride has come to a complete stop.
Are courses too long? Are classic-era tracks demeaned by the bombers? Is honing one’s body to get more out of what’s allowed than others can achieve one of the underpinnings of all sports?
No right, no wrong, all answers are personal.
The USGA wants you to know that this isn’t. Not if you’re an average person.