By Steve Eubanks

The USGA and R&A have published the conclusions of their extensive joint Distance Insights Project. To the surprise of almost no one, the report states: “The research in the Distance Insights Report shows that hitting distances and the lengths of golf courses have been increasing for more than 100 years.”

However, the very next line of the report is likely to be viewed as controversial. The organizations state: “We believe that this continuing cycle of increases is undesirable and detrimental to golf’s long-term future.”

The two reasons cited for this belief are: “First, the inherent strategic challenge presented by many golf courses can be compromised, especially when those courses have not or cannot become long enough to keep up with increases in the hitting distances of the golfers who play from their longest tees. Second, the overall trend of golf courses becoming longer has its own adverse consequences that ultimately affect golfers at all levels and the game as a whole.

“In our view, these continuing trends have also helped create an unnecessary degree of emphasis on distance, with a seeming expectation that each new generation of golfers will hit a golf ball farther than before. We believe that a golfer’s hitting distance is fundamentally relative to hole length and the distance of those he or she competes against; golf’s essential character and skill challenge do not depend on the absolute length of a golf shot or a golf course, and golf does not become a better game each time distances and course lengths increase.”

“Other sports aren’t having to change their arenas. You’re not seeing swimming pools expand; you’re not seeing tennis courts expand. But you are seeing golf courses expand and it’s expensive. That’s the difference.” – Mike Davis, USGA CEO

The summary of the report subdivides into two distinct and seemingly contradictory parts. The first, as stated right away, is that players hit the ball farther they used to. But the second says average golfers need to play from shorter distances. The dichotomy of those two conclusions have not been reconciled, although USGA officials passionately stood by both.

“This report is a look at distance over the last 100 years,” USGA CEO Mike Davis told GGP+. “It’s about the impact of distance and the stakeholders’ perspectives on it.

“Distance has increased for more than 100 years and followed very closely behind that (increase), the length of golf courses has increased during that same 100-year period. And it’s not just at top-tier, elite golf courses. Median golf-course length has increased, not just courses that host elite male events. It’s happened for years and it will continue to happen if some action is not taken. What we’re saying in the conclusion is that this continued cycle of distance increases is detrimental to the long-term future of the game.”

In the very next breath, Davis said: “One of the other things that popped out was that at the other end of the game, the short hitters, we could make the game more enjoyable for everyone by exposing that courses do not have short enough forward tees. For beginners, seniors and some women, it’s just too long and golfers don’t have the opportunity to hit greens in regulation. Many golfers on a recreational level are playing tees that are too long for them.”

According to the report, elite players are hitting the ball too far and average players need to play shorter courses. So, how many golfers are hitting it far enough to be a detriment to the long-term future of the game?

According to USGA president Mark Newell, “We don’t have data on the number of those people. What we do understand is that at many different-length courses, from the most elite play, to highly skilled play, to club play, there are people who hit the ball a long way and play from the longest tees. That level of play, even if it’s from a relatively small number of players, puts pressure on golf courses, whether they want to host elite events or host state, regional, interclub or even just to attract all golfers. It affects the course’s attractiveness.”

Davis said, “Yes, people will say, ‘Hey, I don’t hit the ball far enough.’ But the data is very clear that (distance adjustments are) not just at golf courses where the elite professional game is played. We don’t know what percentage (of people) play from the back teeing ground, but when those golf courses expand by adding length, it has an effect on all golfers because those costs have to be absorbed by somebody. Additional length adds ongoing operational expense of the clubs, additional capital cost, added maintenance: That’s the ongoing chase for length. And it is a cycle we’d like to see broken.

“We don’t necessarily think golf is a better game when each generation hits it farther than the last. Other sports aren’t having to change their arenas. You’re not seeing swimming pools expand; you’re not seeing tennis courts expand. But you are seeing golf courses expand and it’s expensive. That’s the difference. Yes, the marathon is run in less time than it was years ago. Yes, the world-record time for the 200-meter is faster than it was a generation ago. That’s all fine. We in golf welcome that kind of improvement. But we don’t want that to jeopardize the game.”

Why golf is poorer when the next generation hits it farther than the last is debatable. But the data is clear that they do. And, certainly, courses like Merion and Riviera have changed as the top 100 players blast drives well past Ben Hogan’s best pop or that spot where Arnold Palmer used to hit it.

But is the game worse because a thousand players bomb and gouge it farther than ever before?

“There are golf courses that just can’t expand anymore,” Davis said. “In those cases, for golfers that tend to play the back teeing ground, there is a reduced need to play different types of shots. We see compromises with the inherent strategic challenges of the courses. Sometimes the drive zones are not what they were intended to be; sometimes bunkers have been moved. Golf courses as a whole may become less desirable for certain elements within the game.

“Then there are those courses that have lengthened. In those cases, there are economic consequences; there are environmental consequences; there is consideration about the time it takes to play. So, that is the gist of our findings.”

There are hints at a solution. Rand Jerris, the senior managing director of public services at the USGA, admitted the data could not pinpoint the causes of distance increases. The 1970s, for example, were colder than the 1990s, but data was not adjusted for air temperature.

“The point is that distance has increased for a variety of reasons,” Jerris said. “Some had to do with the athletes; some had to do with equipment; some had to do with course maintenance practices. None of those reasons are fundamental to the argument. What we’re saying is that hitting distance has increased and courses have lengthened for a variety of reasons. The combined impact of that is what is creating challenges for the game.”

How those challenges are addressed is the next big question. In its report, the USGA and R&A floated the idea of a local rule allowing bodies to use specific types of rolled-back equipment – a bifurcation of the game in the parlance of those intimately engaged in the debate. But as Davis said, “This is a multiyear, collaborative process. Within 45 days, we’re going to be providing a list of research topics on this. There won’t be any specificity or suggested rules changes. We’re too early in the process.

“To date, we’ve tried to be true to what we set out to do in the beginning – gathering and analyzing the data on distance, knowing what the impact (of that data) is, and how stakeholders feel about where we are. The next step is (looking at) areas of interest. We will put topics out about balls and about clubs. We anticipate it will take nine to 12 months to get feedback from manufacturers and constituencies within the industry. After that, we will sit down and decide what kind of specifications we want to put forth for balls and clubs.

“To be clear, we’re not at that stage. The whole purpose is to present that we do have a problem here that we want to serve for the long term. We felt that the way to handle this is to have the most comprehensive set of data possible and make decisions from there.”

In addition to their 15-page conclusions report, the USGA and R&A have published a 102-page summary of Distance Insights Project research.


Top photo: Distance markers on the 3rd hole fairway at The Centurion Club in St Albans, England. (Photo: Andrew Redington/Getty Images)