The long and short of it

Is the distance the modern player hits the ball ruining our finest courses?

If, like me, your social media is filled with all things golf you may have seen videos of chaps like Joe Miller hitting golf balls up and out of the atmosphere, and over the 400-yard mark for fun over the last couple of years and wondered how it’s possible.

Nowadays drives like that are easy to find out on the PGA Tour from the likes of Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson but is it good for the game?

At The Masters there was a lot of discussion about further expansion plans for the course – including buying small retail units across the road from the club’s boundaries for upwards of $5m in order to defend the course from the game’s biggest hitting players. But is it all worth it? What would McKenzie and Jones think of what their masterpiece has become?

At St Andrews, the Home of Golf, the iconic Road Hole is now played over the hotel as the tee stretches back beyond the railway line while more extensions have taken place at the classic courses like Royal Portrush and Turnberry, and seem an annual point of pride for the host venue of the US Open.

The issue is one the game’s governing bodies, The R&A and USGA, are taking seriously. Last year they launched an annual review of driving distance data from seven of the major professional golf tours, with approximately 285,000 drives per year recorded. From 2003-16, average driving distance on five of the seven tours has increased by approximately 1.2%. On the other two tours studied distance decreased by approximately 1.5%.

Between 1980 and 1993 the average driving distance on the PGA Tour increased three yards, from 257 to 260 yards. Over the next 10 years, the average driving distance increased 27 yards, reaching 287 yards in 2003. Since then average driving distance has risen slightly to 290 yards for the 2016 season.

On the PGA and European tours the amount by which players are ‘long’ or ‘short’ has not changed. 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.

That the governing bodies are tracking this is interesting, though their findings neglect the fact many of the greatest courses played on the tours were built long before the 2000s.

When you breakdown the data from the PGA Tour you find that more players are reaching the ‘bombers’ category than ever before – those with average driving distances over 300 yards. For the four seasons 1999-2002 only John Daly averaged more than 300 yards off the tee. In 2015, 26 players hit that mark.

In 2016, one of every 14 drives was more than 320 yards (7.24%) while there were 760 drives of more than 360 yards. There were also eight drives of 400 yards or longer, including a 414-yarder from Justin Thomas.

With the number of big hitters rising, and the cost of expanding golf courses spiralling is it time for the governing bodies to step in and say enough is enough?

It is a tough decision to take, not least with pressure from manufacturers who continue to develop drivers and golf balls right on the boundaries of the equipment rules. But with so many clubs becoming short for even club golfers and county players, something must be done before we have a high proportion of obsolete golf courses.

Several solutions regularly come up – limiting the aerodynamic qualities of the golf ball is often discussed, as is decreasing the size of a driver’s clubhead and shortening the maximum shaft length. All would reduce driving distance and allow some of the finest golf courses in the world to keep their places at the top of the tree rather than being outgunned.

It’s time to get to grips with driving distance, before our best golf courses are unrecognisable, or worse, unplayable.