Last March, the U.S. Golf Association and R&A released a joint report on distance. The 2017 edition showed that the pros on tours all over the world hit their tee shots farther than they did a season prior.
The next distance report likely will be published in February or March 2019, but we already know some of the numbers because the PGA Tour works on a wrap-around calendar. The 2017-18 season ended when Tiger Woods won the Tour Championship a few weeks ago, and the 2018-19 season started at the Safeway Open, just a week after the Europeans won the Ryder Cup. So now we can see how last season’s numbers compare to the data used by the game’s governing bodies to form previous distance reports.
As you can see in the chart below, the average driving distance on the PGA Tour last season was 296.1 yards, up 1.23 percent from the previous season’s 292.5. The average on the Web.com Tour also went up, from 302.9 yards to 304.9 yards.
Distance has an impact on many aspects of golf, from pace of play to resource management, decreasing shot values on classic courses to claims there is a decrease in skill needed by big hitters to be successful.
Every player would agree that being able to hit tee shots farther than their competition provides an advantage, but does being longer off the tee ensure success on the PGA Tour?
The chart below shows every player who had an official driving-distance average last season on the PGA Tour and his season-ending prize money.
The average PGA Tour player last season won $1,329,295, but the chart shows some of the biggest hitters – such as Rory McIlroy, Tony Finau, Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas – earned significantly more. At the same time, other players who have high driving-distance averages — such as Trey Mullinax, Harold Varner and Robert Garrigus — earned less. As a group, the 20 longest hitters on the PGA Tour averaged more than $3.5 million in prize money last season, which was 164 percent more than the Tour average.
As massive as that percentage may seem, it falls within a range that goes several years. In 2017, the 20 longest hitters on the PGA Tour averaged 123 percent more prize money than the PGA Tour average. In the three seasons before that, they earned about 150 percent more, which tells us that as distance off the tee has increased over the last few years, the longest hitters have maintained an edge in terms of earnings.
Looking at the Official World Golf Ranking, the average rank for a player who was among the 20 longest hitters on the PGA Tour last season was 85, with the range being from No. 1 (Dustin Johnson) to No. 310 (Tom Lovelady). In 2017, the range was from No. 1 (Johnson) to No. 496 (Andrew Loupe), with the average being 113. In the three seasons before that, the average was 83, 85 and 126.
While many of the longest hitters – such as Johnson, McIlroy, Thomas and Jason Day — are highly ranked on the OWGR, every year there are lots of long hitters ranked well above 100 on the list.
The data from the 2017-18 PGA Tour season shows that pros are getting even longer off the tee, and the USGA and R&A are probably very concerned about that. But it does not appear that the longest hitters in professional golf are getting a more significant edge over their competition. The ability to hit the ball a long way with driver always has given players an edge, and that edge seems to be holding steady as yardages increase. Gwk