Feb 11, 2019

Golf's simmering distance debate

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Professional golfers are hitting the ball such long distances that iconic holes, and even entire courses, are being rendered obsolete.

The big picture: The sport is at a crossroads ... Should courses get longer to keep up with the modern player, or should balls be physically altered to reduce driving distances?

By the numbers: In 1990, the average PGA Tour driving distance was 262.8 yards. In 2018, it was 295.3 yards — an increase of more than 12%.

  • Bernhard Langer, who is currently dominating the 50-and-over PGA circuit, drives the ball farther at age 61 (282 yard average in 2018) than he did in his prime (269.7 yards in 1985).

What's happening: Three key factors in determining the flight of a golf ball have experienced significant advancements this century, explains Sports Illustrated's Daniel Rapaport.

  • The swing: Better, stronger athletes — many of whom were attracted to golf by Tiger Woods — generate greater swing speeds, while modern technology allows them to fine-tune their form.
  • The club: Most modern drivers are adjustable, meaning players can custom tailor them to their specific needs. Meanwhile, state-of-the-art clubface design means that even off-center mishits can travel absurd distances.
  • The ball: Since the early 1900s, pros used balls covered in a rubber called balata. Then, in 2000, Titleist introduced the Pro V1, a urethane-covered ball that traveled farther. By 2001, not a single winner of any pro tournament used a balata ball. Golf had changed forever.

The big picture: Golfers will only continue getting more athletic and club regulations are already in place (and updated frequently). That leaves the ball as the primary factor at the center of the distance debate.

  • Ideas gaining traction: Reducing the ball's maximum velocity (Jack Nicklaus has suggested a 20% reduction), outlawing certain materials and changing construction methods and dimple patterns.
  • "The loudest calls are not for a blanket rollback but a bifurcation of the rules, similar to baseball's. Just as metal bats are legal at every level except the pros, today's golf balls would be permitted for amateurs but not Tour players," writes Rapaport.

The other side: The opposition argues that it should be courses, not balls, that evolve. Why make the best players in the world ostensibly worse when you could just make the holes longer?

  • Others point out that courses don't even need to be lengthened; just designed in smarter ways. More strategically-placed bunkers, thicker rough, different fairway heights — anything that might make pros second-guess pulling out the driver.

The bottom line:

"Imagine baseball not being able to have games at Wrigley Field or Fenway Park. That's where we’re headed."
Andy Johnson, founder of The Fried Egg

P.S. Yesterday's final round of the Pebble Beach Pro-Am was suspended due to darkness. Play will resume shortly (11 am ET), with Phil Mickelson (-18) sitting on a three-stroke lead.

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