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In early February, just six weeks prior to the country’s shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, golf’s major ruling entities reported a number of key findings from their ongoing Distance Insights Project (DIP).
The preliminary findings (now online) consist of 56 documents and thousands of pages of text. The potential for this endeavor to create monumental changes in the game of golf as we know it is huge, even though the research is barely underway. Jack Nicklaus, who has preached for years that the ball goes too far, is ecstatic.
Driving distance has increased significantly in the past 30 years, particularly for pro golfers. That translates to longer golf courses that are going to continue to get longer, making some obsolete. The United States Golf Association (USGA) has concluded that “golf will best thrive over the next decades and beyond if this continuing cycle of ever-increasing hitting distances and golf course lengths is brought to an end.”
To put the distance issue into perspective, the keepers of the game have been discussing distance for more than a century. From 1900 to 1930, elite golfers were driving the ball 220 to 260 yards. Heck, my late father made a hole-in-one in 1934 on a 250-yard hole at Lakeshore Country Club in Cleveland, Ohio, with his trusty Kroydon driver.
By 1995, the tour average driving distance was 263 yards. By 2003, it was 286 yards, and by the end of 2019 the 20 longest tour players averaged 310 yards.
Fast-forward: We’re now seeing pros like Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Tony Finau and Cameron Champ driving the ball up to 360 yards, sometimes setting up a nine iron for their second shots to the green on par-5 holes. It’s getting ridiculous.
By comparison, in 2019, male golfers with a handicap higher than 20 (nearly half the players nationally) had an average driving distance of 177 yards. Female golfers, similarly skilled, had an average of 141 yards. There is talk of changing golf club specs and rolling back the ball to a bygone era.
The fact remains that a distance rollback, especially involving balls and clubs, applied as a blanket restriction to everyone, would dramatically hurt the average short-hitting recreational golfer. The DIP report actually states that average players don’t hit their drives long enough for the tees they are playing, and that, at most courses, even the shortest tees are too long for the shortest hitters. Is the furor over distance an overreaction to what’s happening in the pro ranks?
If, on the other hand, distance reducing measures were to be imposed to professional and elite golfers only, that would raise the even bigger controversy of bifurcation. Stay tuned.
Dr. Charlie Blanchard is a licensed psychologist specializing in sports and leadership. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.