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.

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!

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.
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Old school here- Tiger and Jack are exactly correct - the modern ball is making a mockery of the game. I’m 67 and hit the driver farther and my irons the same as I did while playing in college. That’s shouldn’t be. Par 5’s were designed to be 3 shot holes not driver 5 irons. It’s a joke.
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Opinion: Golf equipment debates demand more nuance
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