Eye-popping tee shots by Justin Thomas and company are inspiring debate about the distance the golf ball travels. But is the answer in their drivers instead? (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Opinion: Golf equipment debates demand more nuance

If you've been plugged into the world of golf the last few weeks (which means you're a true fellow golf nerd, since it's November), you've probably heard about a debate that has long simmered in some niche corners of the game but has recently gone mainstream.

It boils down to a question:

Does the golf ball go too far?

No less a figure than Tiger Woods suggested so on November 3, when he appeared on legendary basketball coach Geno Auriemma's podcast. Woods said, "We need to do something about the golf ball…if the game keeps progressing the way it is with technology, I think the 8,000-yard golf course is not too far away. And that's pretty scary because we don't have enough property to start designing these type of golf courses and it just makes it so much more complicated."

In the weeks since those comments went live, numerous significant voices in the game have chimed in on the debate. Bridgestone CEO Angel Ilagan said, "As it relates to the Tour...there needs to be something to standardize [the golf ball] because the guys are hitting it way too long."

(For what it's worth, Tiger Woods is contracted to play Bridgestone golf balls, and Bridgestone is thought to be developing a shorter-flying "tournament ball" for future testing and, potentially, implementation.)

Earlier this week, USGA Executive Director Mike Davis suggested that a number of factors, including the golf ball, are contributing a significant increase in distance for the world's best players, and that this is causing golf courses to spend too much money trying to keep up. "The impact it has had has been horrible," Davis said.

Outgoing Titleist CEO Wally Uihlein threw another perspective into the mix in a letter to the Wall Street Journal, laying blame at the feet of course operators and developers for kowtowing to the increased power of golf equipment.

"The only people that seem to be grappling with advances in technology and physical fitness are the short-sighted golf course developers and the supporting golf course architectural community who built too many golf courses where the notion of a 'championship golf course' was brought on line primarily to sell real estate," he wrote.

Video: Where will golf ball debate land?

Uihlein has a good point: the question of obsolescence of certain courses only comes into play for an incredibly small sliver of the total golf population, and only during tournament weeks. So developers chasing the pipe dream of hosting PGA Tour golf, thereby building bigger golf courses than they should, need to reckon with their actions as well.

And Davis, Ilagan and Woods are also broadly correct in saying that if pros need 8,000 yards as a standard for championship golf courses, we won't be able to host tournaments on many of the great classic courses due to land constraints. All golf fans should agree that that would be bad for the game.

More: The longest golf courses in the world stretch to over 8,000 yards

When seemingly opposing sides of this argument have merit, it becomes even more important for golf's governing bodies to do their due diligence before embarking on potentially disruptive changes to the game.

Before considering rolling back the golf ball or bifurcating the rules (forcing pros to play a geared-down ball), the powers that be need to get definitive answers to the following question:

How far do the pros really hit it, and how much farther do they hit it now than they used to?

Much as rollback advocates seem to chant, "It's the golf ball, stupid!" the reality is not so simple.

Per the PGA Tour's Driving Distance statistic, the leading distance has been flat since 2003, when practically the entire PGA Tour adopted the Titleist ProV1 or something similar in performance.

That year, Hank Kuehne was #1 at 321.4 yards. John Daly was #2, at 314.3 yards.

In 2017, Rory McIlroy was the longest hitter on Tour, at 317.2 yards. He edged out Dustin Johnson, who averaged 315.0 yards.

Absent a conspiracy among Tour statisticians to artificially flatten these numbers, the longest drivers on Tour haven't gotten longer in almost a decade and a half.

But to be fair, this doesn't express the depth of the power of PGA Tour players, though. In 2003, just nine players averaged more than 300 yards off the tee. In 2017, 43 players cracked that number.

So while the longest players haven't gotten longer, it does look like there is more depth at the top of the tour as far as power is concerned.

What is causing this increased power parity in golf's upper echelons?

It seems likely that the golf ball is part of it, but while the Pro V1 and similar golf balls available to pros and amateurs alike have made some gains since their introduction early this century (mostly in durability, in my experience), there's been another major technological advance in the game:

Drivers have increased up to the maximum size of 460 cubic centimeters.

Back in 2003, 460-cc drivers were practically unheard-of on Tour, because the major equipment companies had not yet figured out how to make them both aerodynamically viable and relatively inexpensive to produce. The TaylorMade r7 Quad driver debuted in 2004at just 400cc in size, and traditionalists were aghast at its size.

Bigger drivers have bigger sweet spots, meaning it's easier to hit a ball solidly with a 460-cc driver than with a 350- or 400-cc driver. These days, a slight off-center hit from a PGA Tour pro with a max-sized Callaway Epic means a tee shot ends up in the first cut of rough. With an old TaylorMade r7 Quad, an equally mishit ball likely finds a bunker or hazard.

It follows, then, that to the best golfers in the world, the risk of wildness from swinging at 110% on almost every tee shot is well worth the potential reward of consistent longer drives. This is especially true of the Justin Thomases and Rory McIlroys of the world, who have been playing 460-cc drivers for practically their entire golfing lives. And hard-swinging amateurs, whose skill pales in comparison, seem to be blasting their tee shots farther than ever off-line. Rolling back driver head sizes, instead of the golf ball, would potentially curtail Tour driving distances while prompting the rest of us to focus on hitting more fairways.

As for fitness, back in the early-oughts, it was a stretch to consider most pro golfers "athletes." Nowadays, the pro golfer who eschews the gym is an extreme rarity. Core fitness training enables golfers to explode through the ball, and with the help of advanced statistical tracking of devices like TrackMan, they can build their swings around maximum distance as never before. Finesse has disappeared from golf because, perhaps, it's too easy for elite players to pursue a pure-power game.

The bottom line

Golfers in search of an "easy fix" almost never find one, because they don't exist. So it is with the raging distance debates. The golf ball seems like the easiest scapegoat, but it is naive to think it's the only reason why pros hit it so far – and perhaps too far. If the governing bodies like the USGA and the R&A are going to take up this question, they need to look deeper, not just for the sake of a few hundred touring pros, but for their millions-strong core constituency.

What is your take on the distance debates in golf? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

Nov 27, 2017

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Dean's avatar
Dean wrote at 2017-12-27 04:17:35+00:00:

Make more courses harder, put more sand traps and water in strategic places so the golfer has to think before bring out the driver...3 metals are easy to hit but dont go as far as a driver..at least for most players ...just a thought...

C. Thorley's avatar
C. Thorley wrote at 2017-12-10 22:44:16+00:00:

I beleve the golf industry needs to back off the distance the golf ball goes as the courses aren't long enough and many close with the backoff of people from the golf game. Many courses are becoming so expensive that the common person can't afford to play them. Jack has said this about the ball for years.

Russ Parks's avatar
Russ Parks wrote at 2017-12-07 22:23:09+00:00:

I just turned 83. Please, somebody make me a ball that goes farther!!!

Michael P's avatar
Michael P wrote at 2017-12-07 20:56:54+00:00:

It seems your point of reducing the size of the driver would be the easiest way to correct the problem rather than making the manufacture's of golf balls redesign their balls

Rich Corr's avatar
Rich Corr wrote at 2017-12-07 13:54:59+00:00:

On tour courses, firm conditions in the fairways add drastically to the distance factor. There are many reasons why this has occurred.

Robert's avatar
Robert wrote at 2017-12-07 13:42:53+00:00:

The real problem is not length. Some of the tougest holes on tour are 300 yards long. If the PGA and USGA would get together and design courses properly they could have championship style courses they are no more than 6000 yards long. It,s got to a point where the tour isno more than a long driving contest . I for one would like to see more skill and finesse than 350 yard drives.

Roger's avatar
Roger wrote at 2017-12-07 13:13:41+00:00:

This is an obvious case of overlooking the obvious. There is a golf course in St. James Plantation, Southport that you can play equal to John Daly. Hit it long if you want but past say 150 yards the fairway narrows eventually to nothing. Also the new courses have no dog legs, no fairway bunkers, etc. Rather than the architect designing FOR a 300 yard drive, design for a 160 yard 2nd shot. Make long drives more costly. Next is speed of play. In the late 60's if you missed a fairway the rough was a lost ball, now the.rough is fluffy fairway. This is good for slow play.

Bags's avatar
Bags wrote at 2017-12-07 04:06:36+00:00:

Saying this for years- narrow fairways and grow the rough up - bring some strategy back into the pro game. Rolling back golf ball I dont feel will ever happen - plus how is that fair forba guy who can hit driver 330/340 to a guy who can only hit it 280/290 thats not fair. As soon as you lengthen courses over 7,400 yards you just eliminated about 65% of that weeks field. Im 51 but its about $$$$$ TV commercials advertising $$$$$ so the young kids tune in to see these guys it driver 340. For me a purest give me a narrow fairway strategy course every day.

Mel Howsmon 's avatar
Mel Howsmon wrote at 2017-12-07 00:36:00+00:00:

Don’t really care how far the pros hit the ball only how far I can hit it. We all know that the pros play with modified clubs and the balls are different from those used by us amateurs. So if you must change the balls change what the pros play and leave ours alone.

Mike Krystek's avatar
Mike Krystek wrote at 2017-12-07 00:17:59+00:00:

Don't change the ball, go back to wooden drivers. Then we will see if the young bucks of today can play as well as the old guys! The PGA could host a few tournaments and see how that works, maybe invite some old timers who cut their teeth on persimmon woods. I would love to see that.

DaveT's avatar
DaveT wrote at 2017-12-06 23:55:44+00:00:

The key here is that the golf ball is "too long" only for a very few players and only on the rare occasions that one of those players (basically, pro tours and elite tournaments) play those courses. IMHO, it is not a problem if the pro players on TV amaze us with sub-60 rounds. They can do it. We can't. And we -- 99.999% of us -- would have a lot less fun if the equipment his the ball shorter. (At 76, I am now hitting the ball too short anyway.)

I understand why Mike Davis has a problem -- but it's a culture thing, not a golf nor a physics thing. The USGA forgets that its function is to protect and preserve THE GAME, not protect and preserve par. Making the game harder is not going to get new adherents and will lose some existing ones. Not what golf needs right now.

Mathieu 's avatar
Mathieu wrote at 2017-12-06 23:15:21+00:00:

If they feel like the balls go too far, they could put an insert in it which would reduce distance by +/- 10% and have that incert calculate statistics and be liked to a gps so you could find it in the woods or in the weeds.

John Cerino's avatar
John Cerino wrote at 2017-12-06 22:53:26+00:00:

I hit a ProV1 and a Lady Pinnacle the same distance off my driver (~240yds.) Most amateurs don't compress the ball enough to matter. A softer ball for the pros won't affect us much and we would love to hit it nearly as far as them. Of course, I'm 79 yrs old.

Barry Merlin's avatar
Barry Merlin wrote at 2017-12-06 22:17:22+00:00:

I do not think it is in the golf ball, alone. Pros have access to all of the best equipment, meaning launch monitors and other devises. When they get fitted for a set of clubs, they get fitted properly. Right club head, shaft,lie & the right loft. The grip is exactly what is optimal. If we had access to all of these things we would hit the ball further too. There is no doubt the pros are in much better shape than we are because they have access to the best trainers and training facilities. If you add all of that up,that adds up to more distance. Hell I can not even get fitted properly for the putter I want without travelling a thousand miles. Who can afford to do that. I go to buy a set of irons, all the sales people want to do is sell you a set off the floor. Most of them do not even know how to fit you for a set of clubs. All the more power to the pros,they work hard to be in shape, they have the resources to get what they need. I say whale away and get that distance you so desire, you've earned it.

Chris's avatar
Chris wrote at 2017-12-06 21:53:59+00:00:

Why not look at the scores on the so called “short par fours.” Typically these holes are some of the highest scores on tour.

Kinda blows a hole in the need for 8,000 yard golf courses doesn’t it?

Ron L 's avatar
Ron L wrote at 2017-12-06 21:44:59+00:00:

The numbers don't lie the ball isn't going that much further since the days of Daly but more better stronger atheles are playing now. I have been playing 40 years and as for the general golfing public they don't hit it anywhere close to the pros but we all compare ourselves to them ( it's the only sport we can because you play the course not the player ) so if you change the rules for them only ,you take that away from the recreational player and that would be a very bad move . " Hey I just hit one like DJ , oh right he is hitting a brick and I am hitting a super ball " I don't think I would even watch Pro golf if they were playing a different game . The equipment companies would not like that !!

Jan Gulden 's avatar
Jan Gulden wrote at 2017-12-06 21:36:32+00:00:

Every Pro has access to the best equipment

Ron's avatar
Ron wrote at 2017-12-06 21:33:14+00:00:

Everyone in professional golf has access to the same equipment. The person who wins in a given week is the one who uses that equipment the best. Winning scores are not getting that much lower. Instead of limiting equipment change par if the worry is the scores are getting too much under par. I don't care if a tournament is won by -20 or 2 over

Bwade43's avatar
Bwade43 wrote at 2017-12-06 21:29:07+00:00:

It's the ball Tour players need a restricted flight ball but not every day players Tour players are reaching numbers the average person can't comprehend and making themselves unrelatable

BGCurtis2nd's avatar
BGCurtis2nd wrote at 2017-12-06 21:20:21+00:00:

So why not go back to the old clubs, make the woods out of wood again hand forged the irons, seems like when somebody doesn't like how the new stuff is out doing them they want to cry foul, but they sure were happy back when the new stuff helped them win.

Ball improvement is just like anything else it is an improvement, so why limit one part and not the other or are we just afraid some new upstart company is going to do something that the established ones have not and upset their little cart?

Randell Trueblood 's avatar
Randell Trueblood wrote at 2017-12-06 21:15:08+00:00:

Agree everyone and thing has gotten better but a big plus is the physical condition of the golfer. It is much better today. I have not found a ball that can give me 30 more yards but I can tell you I am a better golfer today then I was 30 years ago. More consistently with my game as a result of all the above.

david mclean's avatar
david mclean wrote at 2017-12-06 20:57:56+00:00:

grow 6 inches of rough , were needed, or plant some tree's , risk reward shots ?

Griff's avatar
Griff wrote at 2017-12-06 20:55:04+00:00:

Why does anything need to be changed? At the end of the day the lowest score wins. The days of -4 will win a tournament are gone. So what if someone can beat the course, cut the corner, out drive his competition. Maybe we should not have any winners and just give everybody a trophy.

JRobt's avatar
JRobt wrote at 2017-12-06 20:53:19+00:00:

Yes, the ball is better & more consistent due to technology, however, compare the physique of the top ten players today, especially their waist lines and abs, to golfers of the 70s & 80s. They were, for the most part, overweight, rarely if ever did any fitness training, and spent a lot of time at leisure rather than practice and fitness. I think Tiger Woods can be credited with raising the bar on the tour. To compete, the other pros had to step up their conditioning and accuracyl

Guy Martin's avatar
Guy Martin wrote at 2017-12-06 20:36:19+00:00:

I feel that we need to put limits on the ball, say 2 pieces and 80 compression as well as Driver shaft lengths ( 45") and head size ( 360 cc).

John's avatar
John wrote at 2017-12-06 20:22:21+00:00:

Every par4 and par5 hole should have a HUGE crater type bunker in the middle of the fairway at 295 yards off the tee (complete width of fairway, and 40 yards from entry to exit and at least 30 feet deep).

Bob P.'s avatar
Bob P. wrote at 2017-12-06 20:17:25+00:00:

Ok, I get it the ball, the drivers, current course design and fitness are all part of the problem. That said, it is still a huge problem when Augusta National decides it has to buy property to lengthen #13 to keep the big hitters (like Bubba Watson) from flying over the trees at the left side of the dogleg. If Augusta National becomes obsolete at any point in the future the problem is out of control and needs to be addressed. Both Tiger and Jack know what they are talking about. Stats aside the ball goes to far.

C Hoy's avatar
C Hoy wrote at 2017-12-06 20:16:50+00:00:

As a former PGA Tour site, Northview Golf Club's Ridge course is now far to short for the men's tour or Champions tour. The LPGA would be a much better fit and we would not have to make any alterations to the course. Our tournament ran from 1996 to 2002 and at the end of its run, we were already short at 7000 yards. If a 300 yard drive was the magic mark for the longest hitters and 275 for a tour average, we would be back in business! As it is, we would have to narrow fairways and water them down to prevent extra roll out, grow the rough up to put pressure on accuracy and make our bunkers more dangerous. All of those changes are the things Tour players dislike so, we would run the risk of players passing our event by.

Bill's avatar
Bill wrote at 2017-12-06 20:12:45+00:00:

One of my biggest pet peeves! There is no such thing as 110%.

Larry's avatar
Larry wrote at 2017-11-27 21:07:44+00:00:

Golfers are not going to stop working out and technology will not go backwards. The answer may be for the USGA to insist that if a course wants a major, then it must toughen up to the point that driver off the tee is a much higher risk/reward shot. Club members at the Winged Foots and Oakmonts can decide if a tougher course for them is worth the bragging rights of having a major on their layout.

Bobby Hull's avatar
Bobby Hull wrote at 2017-12-06 22:01:07+00:00:

I think the guys have it right who said “toughen up the courses”. Grow the rough longer from 300 yards in so it is just a tough a shot with a wedge as it is a 7 iron from the rough.

Also If your long and in the fairway you should get rewarded. One person mentioned the 13th at Augusta. If you move that tee to the left a bit guys wouldn’t be able to hit it over the trees but have to work it around the corner. Bring shot making back into the game and a premium on accuracy.

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Tim Gavrich

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Tim Gavrich is a Senior Writer for Golf Advisor and the Managing Editor of the Golf Vacation Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @TimGavrich and on Instagram @TimGavrich.