The R&A and USGA issued a massive Distance Insights Project Report on Tuesday and you can read a summary of conclusions here.
Anyone who has watched Dustin Johnson or any of the other PGA Tour bombers and those who came before them will not be surprised to learn that the Distance Insight Report concludes that hitting distances and the lengths of golf courses have been increasing for more than 100 years
In 2002, the two organizations issued a joint statement of principles on that issue,
“Any further significant increases in hitting distances at the highest level are undesirable. Whether these increases in distance emanate from advancing equipment technology, greater athleticism of players, improved player coaching, golf course conditioning or a combination of these or other factors, they will have the impact of seriously reducing the challenge of the game. The consequential lengthening or toughening of courses would be costly or impossible and would have a negative effect on increasingly important environmental and ecological issues. Pace of play would be slowed and playing costs would increase.”
It wasn’t until two years ago that the USGA and R&A began the study that proved what they pretty much knew all along, only now, it’s official after years of chatter and discussion on the subject and any other topic that might be related, such as rolling back the ball
Since the R&A and USGA issued their joint statement of principles in 2002, when they were seemingly aware of the problem, manufacturers have had 18 years to introduce countless game-improvement clubs and balls, most focused on distance, not to mentioned the golf courses that have adjusted for increased distance
It won’t take 18 years to move from study to the next step in the process, according to USGA executive director Mike Davis
“Within 45 days, and we anticipate sometime in mid-March, the USGA and R&A will publish a set of research topics on balls and clubs. We seek facts and perspectives from golf equipment manufacturers and others within the golf industry. We anticipate this step taking at least nine to 12 months,” said Davis
“After the research on these topics is completed and comments are evaluated, if we decide that any proposed rules changes are needed, equipment manufacturers are going to receive a formal notice of these proposed changes, including a proposed implementation plan and the opportunity to comment under the equipment rules-making procedures, otherwise known as the Vancouver Protocols,” he added
“We expect this to be a multi-year process,” said Davis.
It may seem longer than that that if manufacturers react to the USGA and R&A scaling back the equipment. Davis brings up two points on that subject.
“The first one will be we’ll review the overall equipment rules applying to all golfers to consider whether any of the existing specifications should be adjusted and whether any new specifications should be created to stop the cycle of continuing increases,” said Davis
“An important note to make here is that we do not currently intend to consider revising these overall specifications in a way that would produce substantial reductions in hitting distance at all levels,” he added
“Second topic,” he added.
“We plan to assess the potential use of an optional local rule that would specify the use of clubs and balls intended to result in shorter hitting distances. The concept is that equipment meeting a particular set of reduced distance specifications, for example, a ball that doesn’t go as far or a club that doesn’t hit the ball as far might be a defined subset of the overall equipment rules,” said Davis.
That could mean that tournament organizers, including those on the PGA Tour, could mandate the use of rolled-back clubs or balls or both, while recreational golfers who play that course every day could continue to use their regular equipment. It’s bifurcation without calling it that.
It isn’t the recreational player threatening golf courses, even to this day. According to the report, the typical distance off the tee for recreational men in 1930 was 130-180 yards, compared to 185-240 yards today. For recreational women, it was 100-150 yards in 1930 compared to 145-160 yards today.
While there have been gains, particularly with the men, it doesn’t stack up against elite players. In 1930, elite females drove it 175-225 yards, while the average LPGA Tour player now hits it 250, with the top 20 averaging over 270.
The average drive of the 20 longest hitters from the European Tour and PGA Tour is 310 yards, with the average driving distance for both tours combined increasing to 294 yards.
So what will the PGA Tour and its players say to any attempt to roll back their equipment?
“The PGA Tour has been a wonderful partner in helping provide really massive amounts of data that have been a big part of this data report. Obviously, this report goes way beyond the elite professional men’s game. It goes back certainly over a century,” said Davis.
“The PGA Tour has had some wonderful data, particularly starting in about 1980 and moving forward. They have been a tremendous help. As we look forward to solutions, I can tell you that they have a representative, just like the LPGA has and the PGA of America, on the USGA equipment standards committee,” he said.
“So they will be a big part, as will the golf equipment manufacturers, as will golf course architects, owner, operators,” said Davis.
“This is a long-term play. This is about the betterment of the game and it has to be done in a responsible, collaborative way, so the PGA Tour will absolutely be a part of this,” he added.
It took two years to get to this point and the data collection has been relatively quiet in that time, but as we’ve learned in the past, it could very well get a lot noisier and it goes into the implementation stage.