This question first surfaced about the time of the invention of the Haskell Ball in 1890 – the first rubber-thread wound ball.
In 1920, the USGA became alarmed and started a blitz – which has not abated — on the ball specifications by specifying the weight and size and indicated that “It would take whatever steps they think necessary to limit the power of the ball with regard to distance should a ball of greater power be introduced.”
When I joined the USGA in 1974 I directed the development of the Overall Distance Standard (ODS) for golf balls. In 1976, the USGA introduced the ODS in the 1977 Rules of Golf book – with a note that this would not apply in international competitions – as the R&A decided not to adopt the ODS at that time.
This Standard took into account all of those properties, including COR and aerodynamics, which contributed to the distance a ball could fly, without isolating them.
The Standard was 280 yards (+ a tolerance of 8%, which was later reduced to 4% ) and set using launch conditions similar to those of an average to long hitting tour professional at that time with a head speed of 160 ft/sec (approx. 109 mph).
The ODS was upgraded to more closely represent the longest hitting pros on tour using a titanium driver and increasing the club head speed. As a result the standard of 280 yards had to be increased to make sure no balls which were then on the conforming list would be removed using the modified standard.
The ball today is similar in performance to the older two-piece ball making it easier to attain optimum launch conditions off the driver but with extra layers and a softer cover making it more acceptable for the elite golfer to control around the greens.
Maybe it is not the ball but rather the club which is the real culprit adding to the distance that the tour players are now hitting the ball.
Based on documented statistics the Average Driving Distance on Tour (ADDT), was 255 yards in 1968 and 265 yards in 1995 — which means an increasing rate of about 1ft/year for 27 years of innovations in equipment, teaching techniques and physical fitness.
However, after the introduction of spring like effect in titanium drivers in 1995 AND the optimization of launch conditions by touring players using the combination of the titanium driver and the multilayered ball, the ADDT increased to about 287 yards in 2003 — a rate of about 8ft/year.
Since 2007 (with an ADDT of 288.6yds) to 2016 (with an ADDT of 290.2yds) the total average distance increased 4.8 feet or a rate of six- inches/year. Most statisticians may consider this purely noise in the data, which would imply that the ADDT has plateaued.
For this reason there is no real need to reduce the distance the ball goes or even introduce different performing balls for different skill levels (bifurcation of the rules) which will be very difficult to implement.
Just maybe the solution to the perceived distance problem is not to change the ball but to change the club (as unpopular as this may be) OR should we change the course design – not to make it any longer but rather a more strategic set-up for the tour players and elite golfers — who make up less than 0.1% of the golfing population.
The average recreational golfer is not making a mockery of courses and there is nothing wrong with the best of the best scoring under par on a strategically well set up golf course for major championships.
For 99% of us, most courses are too long and do not need to be lengthened. In fact, according to our research, courses should probably be shortened to around 6,200 yards for men and even less for women golfers, with less rough, which would make golf more enjoyable and consume less time.
Golf course architecture is the key to improving the health of the game.
I haven’t heard of anyone leaving the game because they are hitting the ball too far, have you?
Please share your thoughts below.