USGA and R&A say pros aren’t hitting it much further, but no one really believes them

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The R&A and the USGA have released a review saying that the golf ball isn’t being hit any further than it was 13 years ago. But it’s all a little misleading.

Golf’s governing bodies, the R&A and the USGA released their annual review of driving distance last week, and came to the conclusion that there has been very little increase in driving distance over the last 13 years.

The review was designed to investigate whether professional golfers are driving the golf ball substantially further and if so, to make sure “the fundamental notion that skill, not technology, should be the primary determinant of success in the game”.

But the report indicates that there hasn’t been a marked increase in driving distance at all, so in essence, there is nothing to worry about.

The problem is the statistics they have selected are a little, well, selective and overall a little misleading.

You can read the full report here, and the summary that landed last Tuesday is outlined below but we wanted to highlight a few writers who have pointed towards the misleading aspects of the data the R&A and USGA provided and encourage you to read them in full if you’re interested.

The main statistic that everyone is taking issue with is the one that says that between the years of 2003 and 2016, and one seven of the world’s major professional golf tours, “the average driving distance on five of the seven tours has increased about 1.2%, or 0.2 yards per year”. It decreased by about 1.5% on the other two tours.

It’s hard to believe, especially since many courses including St. Andrews Old Course and Augusta have been adding distance to their golf course for years to ensure the pros are at least using long irons for their approach shots – the way the original course designers intended the course be played.

As Bob Harig at ESPN pointed out, while the ‘average distance’ has only slightly increased, there are more golfers averaging more than 300 yards off the tee in 2016 than there were in 2003.

According to PGA Tour statistics, 27 players averaged more than 300 yards per drive last season, 15 more than in 2010 and 18 more than in 2003. Individual drives over 300 yards made up 26.56 percent of tee shots in 2003 but comprised 31.14 percent of tee shots in 2016.

Will Gray at GolfChannel.com has a great piece with more than just a hint of skepticism and summed up what almost everyone is thinking:

The 24-page findings featured plenty of snazzy charts and graphs, and it boasted a healthy sample size. It also raised a single question: who, exactly, are we trying to fool?

But it was Rex Hoggard, also at GolfChannel.com who gives a great insight into the problem with the stats in the report and focuses down on launch angle, spin and clubhead speed;

Without getting lost in the science of the golf swing and new technology, lower spin and higher launch means more distance and it’s the players with the highest clubhead speed that enjoy the greatest benefit from this evolution.

Put another way, more clubhead speed is the byproduct of better athletes, not better equipment, and modern technology can be maximized for these players, which at least partially explains why the number of players averaging 300-plus yard drivers has tripled since 2003.

Here is the summary of the report from the USGA and R&A:

The USGA and The R&A have published the annual review of driving distance, a research document that reports important findings on driving distance in golf.

Introduced last year, the review examines driving distance data from seven of the major professional golf tours, based on approximately 285,000 drives per year. Data from studies of male and female amateur golfers has also been included for the first time.

Key facts noted in the paper include:

Between 2003 and the end of the 2016 season, average driving distance on five of the seven tours has increased by approximately 1.2%, around 0.2 yards per year.

For the same time period, average driving distance on the other two tours studied decreased by approximately 1.5%.

Looking at all of the players who are ranked for distance on the PGA TOUR and PGA European Tour, the amount by which players are “long” or “short” has not changed – for instance, since 2003 the 10 shortest players in that group are about 6% shorter than average, while the 10 longest players in the group are about 7% longer than average. The statistics are not skewed toward either longer or shorter players.

The average launch conditions on the PGA TOUR – clubhead speed, launch angle, ball speed and ball backspin – have been relatively stable since 2007. The 90th-percentile clubhead speed coupled with the average launch angle and spin rate are very close to the conditions that The R&A and the USGA, golf’s governing bodies, use to test golf balls under the Overall Distance Standard.

Mike Davis, executive director/CEO of the USGA, said, “We appreciate the collaboration we have received, industry-wide, to access and review this data to benefit the entire golf community, which can be used to both educate golfers and advance the game.”

Martin Slumbers, chief executive of The R&A, said, “In the interests of good governance and transparency it is important that we continue to provide reliable data and facts about driving distance in golf.

“Driving distance remains a topic of discussion within the game and the review provides accurate data to help inform the debate.”

The USGA and The R&A published the Joint Statement of Principles in May 2002, which confirmed their commitment to the fundamental notion that skill, not technology, should be the primary determinant of success in the game. The Joint Statement acknowledged the benefits of equipment technology for golf, but noted that any further significant increases in hitting distances at the highest level were undesirable.

Since then, the USGA and The R&A have continued to monitor equipment technology’s effect on the game, and considered the effects of other factors, such as course setup, athleticism and coaching. When appropriate, new Rules have been introduced after discussions with equipment manufacturers and other stakeholders, in accordance with the Equipment Rulemaking Procedures produced in 2011.