Perspective: Driving Distance Report teases with figures, but ruling bodies’ take on distance is yet to be revealed

Justin Thomas Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Perspective: Driving Distance Report teases with figures, but ruling bodies’ take on distance is yet to be revealed

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Perspective: Driving Distance Report teases with figures, but ruling bodies’ take on distance is yet to be revealed

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A few minutes after being seated in a fine restaurant, a tiny bowl holding a single, delicate bite of something wonderful to eat may be presented. Literally translated, an amuse-bouche is a mouth pleaser, a tasty creation meant to show off the chef’s skills and prepare the diner for what is to come.

The ruling bodies’ 2018 Annual Driving Distance Report released Tuesday serves the same purpose. It is not going to completely satisfy while waiting for the U.S. Golf Association and R&A’s more complete Distance Insights report to come later in the year, but it will get us thinking about what might be on the way.

There is no reason for the golf world to be buzzing at the release of the USGA and R&A’s fourth Annual Driving Distance Report because it has been known for a while much of what it would include. It has been known since September the average driving distance on the PGA Tour was up almost 4 yards last season, rising from 292.5 yards in 2017 to 296.1 in 2018. It also has been known that players on the Web.com Tour averaged 304.9 yards per drive in 2018, up from the previous season’s 302.9.

What is not known is how the folks in Far Hills, N.J., and St. Andrews, Scotland, feel about these distance gains or the 1.7-yard increase in driving distance average across the seven major global tours last year.

Speaking with Mike Davis, the USGA’s executive director, and other USGA officials last year in the men’s locker room at Shinnecock Hills on the eve of the U.S. Open, it was impossible to come away with the feeling that they were happy about where golf might be heading. However, Davis kept downplaying the role of elite competitions in the distance debate.

“Despite what some think, and despite what some write and what you hear, we have no preconceived notions about what the outcome is going to be,” Davis said that morning. “This is not just about the male elite game. So many people think this is just about the PGA Tour. It’s not.”

Yet that is the perception the USGA and R&A are fighting, because most golfers believe that the distance debate revolves around the concept that pros hit the ball so far that historically significant courses have become obsolete. What the game’s governing bodies want to talk about is the game’s environmental footprint, the cost of water, the increasing use of chemicals and fertilizers and the long-term sustainability of the game.

Dustin Johnson

Dustin Johnson at the 2019 Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii. (Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports)

Some fans see Dustin Johnson hitting 350-yard drives and want to argue that big hitters avoid too many challenges created by course designers, but the USGA and R&A want golf lovers to envision how hard it will be to operate a golf course in 30 years when resources are scarce.

I am not swayed by the arguments that shot values need to be maintained and the historic courses can’t be made obsolete and removed from the rotation of elite tournaments. Golf, like other sports, naturally evolves.

For example, Larry Bird was one of the greatest shooters in NBA history, and the most 3-point shots he ever attempted in a season was 237 during his team’s 1987-88 campaign. During the 2015-16 season, Steph Curry tried 886 for Golden State Warriors. This season through Jan. 25, the Houston Rockets’ James Harden attempted 608 3-pointers in 46 games. If Hardon maintains that pace, he will shoot 1,083 3-pointers this year.

Larry Bird and James Harden

The most 3-point shots Larry Bird attempted in a season was 237 in 1987-88. James Harden is on pace this season to shoot over 1,000. (Bird: Dick Raphael-USA TODAY Sports/ Harden: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports)

Curry and Harden’s NBA is a lot different than the league Bird knew. The emphasis on 3-point shooting, spacing the floor, pushing the pace and improved player fitness has revolutionized the sport. The way basketball is played has evolved.

Golf is undergoing the same type of evolution, seemingly to the dismay of people who believe that power and the ability to hit the ball a long way is taking skill out of the game. They want more finesse, more shotmaking. They want Justin Thomas to face the same challenges at Riviera that Ben Hogan faced, even though Thomas is fitter, the course conditions are better, the greens are smoother and modern equipment is better suited to the Kentuckian’s swing.

There were no answers or clarity Tuesday from the USGA and R&A, just figures showing distance gains. It’s not known if the Distance Insights report will recommend rolling back golf ball performance, mandate that fairway heights be raised or recommend that nothing needs to change and distance is not a problem in golf.

Right now, all we can do is savor what we have and wait for the next course to arrive.

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