KINGSBARNS, Scotland – Golf’s governing bodies finally have pulled their heads out of the sand and realized what the rest of us have known for about 20 years: There’s a problem with hitting distance in the modern game.
R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers said the R&A and U.S. Golf Association intend action on the prodigious distances produced by today’s tour pros. The two bodies will produce a report next month outlining increases in hitting distance, with an indication of what action they’re contemplating.
“Hitting distance is very important to focus in on,” Slumbers said. “It’s not just about the ball, it’s about the hitting distance.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that the technology has made this quite-difficult game just a little bit easier, and at a time when we want more people to play the game, I think that’s a good thing. But we do also think that golf is a game of skill and should be reflective of skill.”
USGA head Mike Davis made similar comments last week.
Distance isn’t always good
“We do not think that distance is necessarily good for the game,” Davis said.
Slumbers made his comments in Allan Robertson House, the R&A’s impressive new multimillion-dollar testing facility at Kingsbarns. Robertson (1815–1859) is credited with being the game’s first professional. His death inspired the British Open to identify the player who took over his mantle as champion golfer.
You have to wonder what Robertson would think of the distances modern pros are achieving. He played with feathery balls in an age when 360 yards was a good par 4, not a Rory McIlroy tee shot.
For years golf’s leaders have turned their heads to the vast hitting distances of Robertson’s successors. Former R&A CEO Peter Dawson remained defiant during his tenure that hitting distances had plateaued. Ditto the USGA. No problem with hitting distances they said, even though most par 5s had been rendered extinct on the pro tours, classic golf courses were obsolete or being extended to try to keep up and greens-keeping costs were rising to cater to the extra real estate.
The ultimate irony came at R&A headquarters in St Andrews. The R&A increased the length of the Old Course for British Opens by moving tees back onto other golf courses, such as the 14th on the Old using a tee situated on the nearby Eden Course. It and other Open venues were lengthened between 2002 to 2012 as part of a modernization process to upgrade Open venues (i.e. lengthen holes and courses to make them more relevant to modern professionals).
Last year, Slumbers said there wasn’t a problem with distance. The R&A and USGA produced their annual driving distance report in February 2017, which made the following claim: “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.”
Long drives cause concern
The obvious question is this: What’s happened in the last year to change Slumbers’ mind?
“There has been a significant move up across all tours,” he said. “We’re looking at the longest on-record average driving distance. It’s caused us as well as our colleagues at the USGA serious concern. We had talked for a number of years about slow creep. This is a little bit more than slow creep. It’s actually quite a big jump.”
“Our 2002 joint statement of principles put a line in the sand, or purported to put a line in the sand. Our view is when you start to look at this data now, that we have probably crossed that line in the sand and that a serious discussion is now needed.”
The Allan Robertson testing facility seems ideally suited to get on top of hitting distance. A tour of this facility is like entering a new, high-tech world. Clubs and balls can be tested to the limit under the watchful eye of professor Steve Otto, the R&A’s director of equipment standards and chief technology officer. There doesn’t seem to be anything about golf equipment the former NASA employee doesn’t know.
The problem is trying to please all facets of the game. No avid amateur golfer wants to hit the ball shorter. The manufacturers have worked within the governing bodies’ guidelines and will feel miffed if the two bodies take drastic action. Many tour pros obviously won’t welcome a rollback.
It’s a big job, but long overdue. It’ll be interesting to see what the two bodies propose next. Gwk