This topic seems to be an ongoing debate in the world of golf and I felt it necessary to re-post this article from May 2017 to share my thoughts on the subject. I encourage you to share your thoughts at the end of the article. FT
Is The Ball Going Too Far?
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.
Frank. Great analysis and not what you hear from other so called experts and writers. Your thoughts make much more sense and provide scientific data. I appreciate all that you do for the game of golf!!
Patrick, Thank you for your kind comments which are very much appreciated.
Frank and Valerie
I think the greatest factors in today’s top pro/amateurs distance with both woods and irons is player flexibility and technique. The current crop is bigger, stronger and technically more efficient. 50 years ago, most players played in the day and partied at night. No more. They all live in the gym now, and take care of themselves in order to maximize current ability and extend their careers to ages where most were retired in the past. Only Hogan was as focused as the current crop of stars.
The 50 year old plus guys playing the Champions Tour are certainly not bigger and stronger today than they were 20 years ago, but to a man they have all gained significant yardage. Corey Pavin is still 5’9″ and 140 pounds, and he’s 30 yards longer today than he was in the 90s.
It’s not just about the handful on the PGA Tour that we hear about living in the gym, and much of that is to their detriment as pro golf has more serious injuries today than it ever had in the past. Tiger is the one who was the first of the current crop of gym rats. Not only did his injuries prevent him from setting greater records than he managed to set, but they quite possibly have ended his career. Not just reduced him to the typical Tour Pro “retirement” of 10 or 12 events a year. Ended it altogether. Why anyone would follow his example on anything is beyond me. Careers are being ended in the gym. Not extended.
As the great Billy Casper said, “no one ever went on the disabled list because of pulled fat.”
In 1984 I won a long drive contest at a mini tournament for electrical representatives (at sea level). I hit it 267 yards with a persimmon headed steel shafted driver and a balata ball. There were others that hit it farther but who missed the fairway. The point here is that 300 yards was attainable at that time with that kind of equipment. But, now the professional male golfers are hitting it 400+ yards. Is it equipment, ball, training or better golfer? Probably a combination of all those factors. Can you roll one factor back and get the desired effect? Roll the ball back and us older golfers may suffer. Will the 6 foot 5 inch professional golfer who can bench 300 lbs suffer as much. Yes, the drives may drop back to the 300+ world but they will still be hitting it too far in the eyes of some. My solution is simple – the LPGA. Their games are great. Are they hitting it too far? No. Are they doing their best to optimize balls, equipment, technique, player? Absolutely. Actually, when golf devolves into one played exclusively at select private venues and the golf industry has collapsed then maybe the surviving clubs may mandate a change. At that point – who will care?
Good article and it’s a topic that has been going for over 100 years. An English amateur, Edward Blackwell, back in the 1890’s using hickory shafts and a guttie ball used to regularly drive the 18th green at St Andrews. Bobby Jones often drove the ball over 300 yards using “Jennie Deans”, his hickory shafted driver. Tour players today are bigger and stronger than those of 40 years ago. I agree totally with your suggestion to make the courses more strategic which would help solve the problem and possibly reduce driver usage but should Jack Nicklaus’ golf ball theory be revisited?
The ball is not going too far for me!!
At this point, I don’t think anything should be done. As Frank said, the last few years have seen miniscule increases, so things seem to have flattened out.
Years ago, NASCAR put restrictor plates on the intake systems of the race cars to slow them down a bit and increase safety. I don’t thing DJ or Rory hitting the ball a few extra yards is particularly dangerous to any of the players, other than maybe their pocket books. Let ’em fly!
I don’t consider the fact that pros were reaching the formerly unreachable 16th at Firestone with 4 irons this past summer for the very first time to be “miniscule increases.”
The Overall Distance Standard with which Frank was involved in the mid 1970s should still be the standard today. While the primary measurement involved there was Initial Velocity, there was nothing legislated when it came to spin rates. It probably couldn’t be measured then as it can be now. If the rules had been written to say that the ball must spin no less than a certain rate when certain impact factors are involved, we wouldn’t be having these problems today. The reduction in spin is the biggest factor in both the increased distance and in how much easier the game is today because the ball goes so much straighter. I would guess Frank never imagined that tour pros would be willing to accept a ball that spins so much less than the wound balata of the past, but that is the very place where this fight was lost.
Folks! I just read on Golf Channel.com that Gary Player is sad that “The Open” courses are being brought to their KNEEs. Jack & Arnie were calling for the “Golf Balls” be changed to Grand Cayman balls. As Frank pointed out, 99% of us are not bringing Open courses to their knees. I their day, Pros, probably averaged 5’9″ to 5’10”. Look at these Pros now. 6’3″ to 6’5″ and real working out athletes. My other gripe. Move to the up tees. I did and now I noticed courses I’m playing, the greens are elevated 20-40yrds above the fairway. There is no tees in front to combat that extra yardage added via height.
So how do you explain 5’2″ Korean girls driving it 280?
With this attitude, we would all be playing a featherie.
I suppose this was directed at me. I said nothing about changing “our” equipment.
If it’s about bigger stronger athletes and better technique, why aren’t we seeing these gains in other sports. We don’t have a 60 home run hitter on every (or any) MLB team. A 50 yard field goal is still a tough play (and don’t give me anything about recent long kicks. There was a 63 yarder kicked in 1970 and Tom Dempsey had half a foot). And there’s been no call to raise the rim in the NBA.
Think about it.
During a lesson 30+ years ago the local pro told me he could hit a 7 iron 200 yards and proceeded to show me. But he said he never hit it over 155 under normal conditions. And while he was good, he wasn’t the best of the best. He was also close to senior tour age. And the distance I hit the ball certainly hasn’t increased. All of which says to me that the distance today’s pros hit the ball includes a healthy dose of physical ability as well as improvements in equipment.
At the professional level, the club (meaning the driver of course) doesn’t explain the 237 yard 7 iron or reaching a 680 yard Par 5 at the US Open with two fairway woods.
That’s the ball, and nothing but the ball.
The gains are across the board. On the PGA Tour, the LPGA Tour, the Champions Tour, you name it. It has nothing to do with drivers or fitness or anything else used as an apology.
If it were drivers, the gains wouldn’t be throughout the bag. When the 60 degree wedge first became prominent in the early 1980s, a pro hit one about 70 yards. Now it’s over 100 yards, and wedges have not advanced at all technologically.
If it were fitness, only a comparative few would benefit, as fitness levels are not the same for everyone no matter how much effort is put into it. However, the gains are across the board.
But, if the ball is going too far, who’s going to stop it?
The USGA has no real authority. The only authority it has is that which it is granted. By the individual golfer, any given foursome, and any tournament or governing body at any level all the way to the highest level of the game. No one is under any obligation to follow ANYTHING the USGA says. And truth is, most of us don’t.
So it would be up to the professional game to see this as a problem and act accordingly. And since they are first and foremost in the entertainment business, they aren’t going to do anything unless people stop watching.
I’ve stopped watching. Because the miniature golf I play, with my 230 yard drives and 140 yard 7 irons, has no relationship to what I see on television. To me, 237 yard 7 irons aren’t entertaining.