Big hits, big problem? Driving distance report 'concerning' to governing bodies

Ball go far.

That advertising campaign for a golf ball manufacturer could sum up the state of golf now.

Professionals are hitting the ball farther than ever. Recreational players are taking advantage of the benefits of technology to increase their enjoyment of the game.

Take Fred Ridley, for example. The new chairman of Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters Tournament, now 65, admits he is hitting the ball longer than he did decades ago when he was one of the top amateurs in the game.

For nearly two decades, gains in driving distance have been a much-debated topic. The USGA and R&A, the game’s governing bodies, began issuing an annual “distance report” in 2015 and found that increases in driving distance since 2003 were “a slow creep of around 0.2 yards per year.”

In early March, the 2017 report showed “the average distance gain across the seven worldwide tours was more than three yards since 2016.”

That, the USGA and R&A said, “is unusual and concerning.” Any further significant increases would be undesirable, they said, but no timetable for action has been set.

The Masters follows the guidelines set by the governing bodies, but the idea of requiring participants to play a “Masters ball” has been floated before.

“I think it would be difficult, frankly, to have a golf ball for one tournament, but I wouldn’t rule anything out,” Ridley said. “We’re always going to do what we think is in the best interest of the tournament.”

TEEING OFF FROM ‘DOWNTOWN’

Six-time Masters winner Jack Nicklaus has long been outspoken about how far the ball goes and how the game’s governing bodies need to take action.

In 2001, after Hootie Johnson announced that nine holes would be lengthened in time for the 2002 Masters, Nicklaus quipped that “pretty soon we’ll be teeing off from downtown somewhere. It’s absurd.”

When he came to Augusta the following year to check out the changes, Johnson had a surprise waiting for him: A brass marker on the new tee box at No. 18 was marked “Downtown.”

Nicklaus dominated Augusta National in 1965 on his way to tying the 18-hole scoring record of 64 and shattering the 72-hole record with a 271 total.

That prompted the famous quote from Bobby Jones about Nicklaus: “He plays a game with which I am not familiar.”

“I still say that was the easiest golf tournament I ever played from the standpoint of ease on me because it was just driver, wedge; driver, 9-iron; kind of stuff that Tiger (Woods) does today,” Nicklaus said in 2002.

After Woods broke the 72-hole scoring mark in his 1997 victory, Augusta National fought back with changes in the next decade that were called “Tiger-proofing.” The second cut increased in 1999, and holes were lengthened in 2002 and again in 2006.

“I think that if you are going to continue to let the golf ball do what it’s doing, you’ve got to keep lengthening the golf course,” Nicklaus said in 2001.

His tune hasn’t changed.

Before the USGA and R&A unveiled their latest report, Nicklaus said he had spoken with USGA executive director Mike Davis in late February.

“Mike’s been very optimistic about wanting to get something done but hasn’t been able to get there yet,” Nicklaus said.

Nicklaus said a longer golf ball means longer courses, and that leads to longer rounds.

“So, if the golf ball came back, it would solve I think a lot of those issues,” Nicklaus said. “I think we only have one golf course in this country, my opinion, that’s not obsolete to the golf ball, and that’s Augusta National. They are the only people that have enough money that have been able to keep the golf course and do the things you had to. They are even buying up parts of country clubs and roads and everything else to get that done.

“Not that other people couldn’t do that, but it’s just unpractical. Why, every time we have an event, do we have to keep buying more land and then making things longer? It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”

FIFTH HOLE CHANGES

Augusta National hasn’t pushed the tees to downtown, as Nicklaus suggested, but they might be moved across a road.

Preliminary site plans filed earlier this year show that the tee box for the fifth hole, a 455-yard par-4, could be pushed back across Old Berckmans Road. The new tee would alleviate congestion at the fourth green and the current fifth tee, which are just a few yards apart.

Old Berckmans Road has been closed to through traffic since 2015, but the plans call for the road to curve around the area that will be used as a tee box.

Ridley, who took over as chairman last summer, is a former U.S. Amateur champion and three-time Masters competitor who is expected to address course changes.

“Old Berckmans Road certainly gives us some opportunities and options, and we are looking at those,” Ridley said in the fall.

The hole was revamped in 2003 by moving the tees back 20 yards and extending the two fairway bunkers by 80 yards to put them in play. The hole now takes a 315-yard drive to carry the left-side bunkers, meaning most golfers could no longer shorten the hole by playing to the left.

In the 2002 and 2006 renovations, which lengthened the course to more than 7,400 yards, Augusta National sought to restore shot values by making players use longer clubs for their approach to holes and have them play as they did when course designers Alister MacKenzie and Bobby Jones laid out the course in the early 1930s.

Ridley said that Jones “believed that strategy and skill were equal components in how the golf course should be played.”

“What I think we should do, and what we have done over the years, is to go back to that philosophy and think about what do we need to do to make sure that we are true to the principles that Jones and MacKenzie established at the beginning,” Ridley said.

13TH HOLE NEXT?

A land deal with neighboring Augusta Country Club has opened up the possibility of Augusta National lengthening its par-5 13th hole.

The acquisition for an undisclosed sum last summer gives the Masters flexibility to push back the tees on the 510-yard hole that bends to the left. For some players, the second shot has been a short iron depending on how much of the dogleg they choose to bite off.

The 13th hole is one of the most iconic holes in golf but consistently ranks as one of the easiest holes on the course. With the newly acquired land, Augusta National could stretch the tee back as it did in 2002 after a previous land deal with Augusta Country Club.

COUNTERPOINT

Acushnet, maker of the popular Titleist Pro V1 ball, issued its own take on the distance report.

The manufacturer said its analysis of the data shows that equipment regulations are working.

“There were several contributing variables in 2017, including course selection and setup, agronomical conditions and weather, which need to be considered when assessing the data,” said David Maher, the CEO and president of Acushnet.

Their findings included:

The 2017 Masters average driving distance declined 0.4 yards.

The major championships conducted at new venues represented one-third of the total average driving distance gained in 2017: U.S. Open (Erin Hills, 20.4 yards), British Open (Royal Birkdale, 8.1 yards) and PGA Championship (Quail Hollow, 7.0 yards).

At the 33 PGA Tour events conducted at the same venue in 2016 and 2017, where data was collected, the average driving distance increased 0.5 yards. At the eight events held at new venues in 2017, the average distance increased 8.0 yards.

HOW DRIVES ARE MEASURED

According to the report, driving distance data are typically collected on two holes that are selected based on three criteria:

1. The holes should be oriented in opposing directions (to minimize the impact of the wind on the average distance).

2. The holes should preferably both be selected such that the landing area for the drives is flat. Where this is not feasible, the holes would preferably have opposing topography to minimize the effect of slopes on the average driving distance.

3. The holes should be selected to maximize the potential that the golfers will choose to hit their driver (ensuring that the data most closely reflects the distance hit by players using drivers).

AVERAGE DRIVING DISTANCES FOR MASTERS CHAMPIONS

2017: Sergio Garcia, 291.5

2016: Danny Willett, 278.13

2015: Jordan Spieth, 282.63

2014: Bubba Watson, 305.63

2013: Adam Scott, 293.75

2012: Bubba Watson, 290.38

2011: Charl Schwartzel, 288.5

2010: Phil Mickelson, 297.13

2009: Angel Cabrera, 284.5

2008: Trevor Immelman, 287.5

2007: Zach Johnson, 265

2006: Phil Mickelson, 299.25

2005: Tiger Woods, 292.38

2004: Phil Mickelson, 290.38

2003: Mike Weir, 271.25

2002: Tiger Woods, 293.75

2001: Tiger Woods, 305.5

2000: Vijay Singh, 273

1999: Jose Maria Olazabal, 239.75

1998: Mark O’Meara, 266.63

1997: Tiger Woods, 323.13

DRIVING DATA FOR SEVEN TOURS

Tour/2003/2016/2017

European Tour/286.3/288.1/291.7

PGA Tour/285.9/290/292.5

Japan Golf Tour/279/276.7/282.6

Web.com Tour/292.3/296/302.9

Champions Tour/269.9/274.7/275.4

Ladies European Tour (2004)/245.3/239.7/246.1

LPGA/249.6/253.4/252.6

Site plans show proposed changes for fifth hole at Augusta National
Masters Chairman Fred Ridley: A pro off the course

More

Michaux: A tribute to Australian great Peter Thomson

Peter Thomson’s death at age 88 on Wednesday, coupled with fellow Hall of Famer Hubert Green's passing the same day, are more huge losses for golf.  Read more