Future of Golf: Research into evolution of distance likely to alter equipment

JACKSON, MS - OCTOBER 27: Cameron Champ plays his shot from the 16th tee during the third round of the Sanderson Farms Championship at The Country Club of Jackson on October 27, 2018 in Jackson, Mississippi. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images) Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

Future of Golf: Research into evolution of distance likely to alter equipment

Equipment

Future of Golf: Research into evolution of distance likely to alter equipment

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Golf prognosticators can make educated guesses about star players, Ryder Cups and changes to storied courses such as Augusta National. But there is an 800-pound gorilla in the equipment world that makes guessing the future
of gear almost impossible: the results of the U.S. Golf Association and R&A’s research into the effects of distance.

“We’re closely listening to the entire golf community and recognize just how important an issue this is for golf, worthy of a very thoughtful and thorough review,” said Rand Jerris, the USGA’s senior managing director of public services.

The USGA has told Golfweek the next annual Distance Report will be released earlier than in previous years, likely in early February instead of March. But information, data and opinions are still being submitted to the USGA and R&A for consideration in the Distance Insights project.

That process ended Dec. 20, but sorting through all of the collected data and feedback could take months.

“We look forward to informing, through data and research, some of the big questions on everyone’s minds,” Jerris said. “How, if at all, is distance impacting the game and what can we anticipate with respect to distance looking into the future.”

With the publication of the Distance Insights project, will the game’s governing bodies judge there is a distance problem or not? And if there is
a problem, what will the USGA and R&A say needs to be done?

Throughout much of 2018, there was a sense among many industry insiders that the USGA and R&A want to reduce distance to decrease the game’s environmental footprint, put greater emphasis on skill instead of power and retain shot values on historically significant courses. Last season’s PGA Tour driving distance average, 296.1 yards, was 4 yards greater than 2017’s average.

Average PGA Tour Driving Distance

Golf Driving Distance Graphic

(Golfweek)

If it is deemed that distance is a problem, several things could be changed without altering the rules that govern equipment. For instance, increasing the height of the grass in fairways would reduce roll, while mowing rough less often would save money on fuel and put a greater emphasis on accuracy.

Bifurcation – the development of a set of rules to govern professional golfers and elite amateurs and another set of rules for recreational and non competitive players – is an option too, but the USGA and R&A strongly have opposed that idea in the past. Many equipment makers, such as Titleist, also have opposed the idea.

The most hotly debated potential equipment changes have been slowing drivers and “rolling back” golf balls.

Tom Olsavsky, Cobra’s vice president of research and development, said there is no one thing the USGA and R&A could change that would bring about a massive reduction in distance.

“I think everybody who is not on the technical side of the industry does not totally understand that you are going to have to make huge changes in these products to slow them down a lot,” Olsavsky said. “[Engineers] say to ourselves, ‘OK, are you going to make us go back to 0.8 from 0.82 in COR (coefficient of restitution, a measure of the spring-like effect in the face). OK, that’s going to cost the Tour guys about 6 yards and the amateurs about 4 yards. Is that really what you want to do?’”

How about making driver heads smaller, dropping the maximum size from 460cc to 350cc, or shortening the maximum length from 48 inches to 42 inches, the length of a typical 3-wood?

Again, Olsavsky said, that won’t solve the problem.

“Today, as an industry, we can make a 3-wood that has a very high COR, and if you look at some guys out there, like Henrik Stenson, they can hit a 3 wood about 300 yards,” he said. “Remember, most 3-woods are between 12 and 15 degrees on Tour. So imagine if [the rules stated] you could only play a club with a volume of 200cc that was made of steel. How would it perform? Think of a 3-wood that goes far now, but now instead of having it at 13 degrees (of loft) I made it with 8 degrees. Do you think that will go far? Of course, because it will have a (springy face) and efficient weight structures and pros are going to hit it solid every time. We don’t think any solution by changing driver specs is going to reduce (distance) a big amount.”

Un-engineering modern golf balls, by reducing some of their aerodynamic benefits and making them less efficient in flight, also has been debated.

Golf Driving Distance Graphic

The golf balls of the future may not travel as far as the ones in use today. (Getty Images)

“We definitely respect the USGA, their rules, and we are always going to abide by their rules,” said Adam Rehberg, Bridgestone’s golf ball fitting manager. “If there was a rollback, based on the data they found and the distances, then it would be something we could easily address, work around and then build a ball that would best work in those conditions.”

However, Rehberg notes, there is already a distance limit on golf balls. Using a test driver swung by a robot at 120 mph (which would be considered fast
on the PGA Tour) in the USGA’s equipment-testing lab, the overall distance of a ball cannot exceed 317 yards. A reduction in that number would necessitate companies to tinker with dimple patterns, core designs or both.

“As a golf ball company, you are already trying to innovate inside those rules,” Rehberg said. “If they did roll the ball back, then companies like us would have an advantage, because we are a technological company. We don’t just buy a spec from a manufacturer. We’re an OEM (original equipment maker). We make golf balls and design them, so we’d look at what we needed to do to optimize the ball within this space where ball velocity went down, or the aerodynamics had to change.”

He noted that if the USGA and R&A mandated that golf balls spin more off the tee, accomplished players would adapt their swings and hit up more off the tee. Hitting tee shots with a positive attack angle, so the clubhead is swinging up as it contacts the ball, reduces spin and creates a higher launch angle that can maximize carry distance.

If reading all this makes you think twice about buying new gear, fear not. Any equipment changes suggested in 2019’s Distance Project likely would not go into effect for several years. And like the groove rule changes that went into effect in 2010, it’s possible recreational players might be allowed to use old equipment under a grandfather clause long after pros and elite amateurs are mandated to switch.

A year from now we might have a clearer picture of what the future of golf equipment holds, but right now, all we know is that we’ve got to wait to find out. Gwk

(Note: This story appears in the December 2018 issue of Golfweek.)

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