Analysis: Don't expect changes after USGA, R&A distance report

USA TODAY Sports/Brian Spurlock

Analysis: Don't expect changes after USGA, R&A distance report

Professional

Analysis: Don't expect changes after USGA, R&A distance report

Think professional golfers are hitting the ball farther than ever? Think again.

The United States Golf Association and the R&A released a second joint report Wednesday that provided driver distance information from seven professional tours. Their data shows that distance is basically capped and that gains over the past 13 years have been nominal … less than 0.2 yards per year.

Critics – particularly those who think the modern ball goes too far and that classic courses have been outgunned by technology – will find little to love in the report, as the governing bodies are unlikely to make any changes to equipment based on their findings.

The second report – the first came last June – does not make judgments and does not say that the game’s governing bodies should plan to change golf’s rules or equipment limitations. It’s simply a collection of data.

The report is 24 pages long, filled with graphs and tables, and shows that since 2003 the average driving distance on the PGA Tour, European Tour, Web.com Tour, Champions Tour and LPGA Tour has increased approximately 1.2 percent. That translates to 0.2 yards per year over the 13-year period.

At the same time, the Japan Golf Tour and Ladies European Tour’s average has decreased approximately 1.5 percent over the same period.

The trouble is the report seems disconnected from what fans and TV viewers see. If you watch golf on TV, it looks like everyone hits it miles. Golfers such as Dustin Johnson, J.B. Holmes, Bubba Watson and Rory McIlroy eviscerate tee shots on the PGA Tour. Thomas Pieters and Nicolas Colsaerts do the same in Europe.

But what many people fail to realize is that those players are outliers, and there always have been outliers. Jack Nicklaus, who famously hit a tee shot 341 yards using a persimmon driver, steel shaft and wound ball in a long-drive contest before the 1963 PGA Championship, was an outlier too.

Since the USGA and R&A started collecting data together in 2003 after adopting their Joint Statement of Principles that govern equipment and rules, one thing has remained consistent: The 10 longest hitters on the PGA Tour hit their drives about 7 percent farther than Tour average every year. Similarly, the 10 shortest hitters have remained about six percent shorter than the Tour average over the same period.

The PGA Tour has average driving distance numbers available to the public going back to 1980. Dan Pohl led the PGA Tour with a driving distance average of 273.3 yards in 1980, which was 6.46 percent longer than the Tour’s average that year (256.7 yards). Micheal Brannan had the shortest driving distance that year at 238.7 yards, which was 7.02 percent shorter than the Tour average, and the 10 shortest hitters in 1980 were 5.38 percent shorter than average. So numbers from 37 years ago are in-line with what the USGA and R&A are reporting from 2003 to 2016. Today’s numbers are larger, but the percentages are nearly the same.

The report also shows that average scores have not been affected much by the changes in driving distance. Since 2003, the average score on the seven tours studied has decreased .04 strokes per year. In 2016 the average score on the PGA Tour, European Tour and Japan Golf Tour increased from the previous year.

Obviously, there have been some very low scores recently, but low scores are not based on long drives alone. Jim Furyk averaged 291.5 yards per drive when he shot 58 in the final round at the Travelers Championship. Justin Thomas averaged 300.9 at a nearly windless Sony Open for his 59, and Adam Hadwin averaged 304 in the desert at the CareerBuilder Challenge for his 59. It could be argued that course conditions and weather had a lot more to do with those low scores than long tee shots.

What is curious to see in the report, however, is that more than a decade ago there were players whose average drive was longer than last season’s driving distance king, J.B. Holmes, who averaged 314.5 yards. Scott Hend averaged 318.9 yards in 2005, and Bubba Watson averaged 319.6 in 2006. With advancements in drivers, shafts and golf balls, shouldn’t we have seen a player average 330 yards (or more) off the tee by now?

The answer could be that while some guys have proved they can hit the ball over 330, 340 or even 350 yards under the right conditions, courses are not getting significantly longer, so beyond a certain distance, there is less benefit to extra yards.

For example, on a straight 470-yard hole, driving the ball as far as you can is ideal, but if a 470-yard hole doglegs to the left and the turn occurs at the 300-yard point in the fairway, an ideal drive would go about 310 yards and stop at the turn. A tee shot that goes 340 will go through the fairway.

This week the PGA Tour is at Riviera Country Club, where during last year’s Northern Trust Open the field’s average driving distance was 289.9 yards and Tony Finau led with an average of 318.1. In 2015, the field average was 289.8, and Dustin Johnson had the longest average at 315.5. Bubba Watson won in 2014 with an event-leading 320.8 yards, and the field average was 288.2.

It’s just a theory, but the PGA Tour tends to visit the same courses year after year, and courses have not been lengthened significantly since the mid-2000s, so it’s possible the game’s longest drivers have reached the “ideal length” to match those courses. It’s a theory that deserves more research.

After reading the report, don’t anticipate that golf’s governing bodies plan any changes regarding golf balls, drivers or the rules that govern technology. The data shows driving averages on the global tours are still within the ranges established over the past decade.

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