USGA says driving distance isn’t increasing on tour, but nobody believes them

The USGA and R&A have released their annual driving distance study. And frankly, nobody is buying their findings.

First, here’s a bit of what the professional PR firm that is the blue blazers had to say.

“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.”

But as ESPN’s Bob Harig writes, “A joint study looking at gains in driving distance in professional golf will do little to quell the notion among many in the game that the golf ball travels too far and that many revered courses are being rendered obsolete for the best players.”

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The USGA’s findings, collected from the major pro tours from 2003 through 2016, seem to suggest average driving distance is up only 1.2 percent. However, in an environment in which classic venues are dropping out of tour rotations and length is being added seemingly everywhere, it’s tough to buy what the USGA is selling.

Harig was also spot on with this remark:

“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.”

In other words, the USGA focuses both on the middle tier of golfers, not the exploding distance at the top end, as well as ignoring the reality that “driving distance” figures don’t account for when players hit 3-wood or iron off the tee, which drives the average figures down.

I mean, how do the governing bodies account for the fact that Augusta National has added more than 500 yards since Tiger Woods won the 1997 Masters? By their logic, the course would only need to add ~10 yards to remain similarly challenging.

GolfChannel.com’s Will Gray hits the nail on the head with regard to statistics and spin:

“As any PR firm can attest, statistics are a versatile tool. Choose the right data points, frame the right time period, and you can quantify support for nearly any argument. Such is the case with this study, the second in as many years released by the game’s governing bodies and one that simply continues to miss the point.”

And the point is: In order to truly hold the line on distance, the ball must be rolled back, as Jack Nicklaus suggests. Otherwise, courses will continue to need to add length and ludicrous attempts to grow rough and speed up greens to protect par (such as the U.S. Open) will need to continue. And nobody (certainly not Dustin Johnson!) wants to see that.

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