Golf’s official annual review of driving distance is in and while some will view the results as stark, others are equally as dismissive of their importance.
The R&A and USGA overnight tabled their combined report, saying an “unusual and concerning” distance increase across the seven tours monitored warranted “closer inspection”.
Yet while the carefully worded language from the game’s governing bodies was atypically bold, both the US PGA Tour and the PGA of America dismissed their findings as largely inconsequential.
Introduced in 2015, the annual report examines driving distance data based on nearly 300,000 drives on seven global tours per year. Data from studies of male and female amateur golfers is also included.
The 2015 and 2016 editions presented the increases in driving distance since 2003 as a slow creep of around 0.2 yards per year. The 2017 data shows a deviation from this trend. The average distance gain across the seven worldwide tours was more than three yards since 2016.
“As noted in previous annual reports, variability in driving distance of four or more yards from season to season on any one tour is not uncommon,” the R&A wrote.
“However, this level of increase across so many tours in a single season is unusual and concerning and requires closer inspection and monitoring to fully understand the causes and effects.”
The report reiterated that the R&A and USGA recognise that distance impacts many aspects of golf and that any further significant increases in hitting distances at the highest level are undesirable.
“Increases in distance can contribute to demands for longer, tougher and more resource-intensive golf courses at all levels of the game,” they wrote.
“These trends can impact the costs to operate golf courses and put additional pressures on golf courses in their local environmental landscape. The effect of increasing distance on the balance between skill and technology is also a key consideration. Maintaining this balance is paramount to preserving the integrity of golf.”
The bodies, whose bosses have individually hinted at action recently, said they would “conduct a thoughtful conversation about the effects of distance prior to making any specific proposals”.
“We remain open-minded and our absolute priority is to ensure that all key stakeholders are involved in an open and inclusive process and that we move forward together in the best interests of golf at all levels.”
But US PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan and his PGA of America counterpart Pete Bevacqua clearly don’t share the same concerns.
“Having carefully reviewed the data, we do not believe the trends indicate a significant or abnormal increase in distance since 2003 or from 2016 to 2017,” Monahan said in response to today’s findings.
“Rest assured, we will continue to collaborate and share data with the USGA and the R&A — along with other industry stakeholders — in monitoring these trends, as we have since 2003, and are hopeful our perspectives will align.”
Bevacqua also questioned the need for any immediate rule changes or equipment restrictions.
“Given the recent industry discussions and media reports regarding a potential roll back of the golf ball for all players and/or a segment of elite players, our board of directors has discussed this topic at length,” Bevacqua told GolfDigest.com.
“Based on the information we have seen, we are highly skeptical that rolling back the golf ball in whole or part will be in the best interests of the sport and our collective efforts to grow the game.
“Our nearly 29,000 (American) PGA professionals would be at the forefront of implementing this potential roll back, so we will be polling them this week to fully understand their perspective, especially on what it would mean for the vast majority of the golfers they serve.”
Today’s report shows record highs in driving distance average for the PGA Tour, European Tour, Web.com Tour and PGA Tour Champions. The driving distance on the PGA Tour reached 292.5 yards for the 2016-2017 season, a 2.5-yard increase over the year before. The jump is more than 10 times the average annual rate of increase across the seven pro tours tested from 2003-16.
Interestingly, the LPGA Tour’s recorded average driving distance actually fell almost a yard in the past year.
A chart of far lower profile in the report contains average driving data for male and female amateurs, conducted at the same venue since 1996 in the Britain. The report shows the average for male golfers at 208 yards and female golfers at 146 yards. Not mentioned is that for the lowest three of the four male handicap groups, the average distance decreased from 2016, with only those with handicaps of 21+ showing average gains.
Of journalists well versed and vocal on the issue, Scotland's John Huggan was perhaps the most blunt, tweeting: "Driving average going up at pro level, down amongst hackers. Further proof that the game’s ruling bodies have, through their own mismanagement, created the bifurcation they purport to fear."
But on the other side of the argument, Acushnet, maker of the Titleist balls that, as clear market leader, are often – and sometimes unfairly – linked to the ongoing debate, was also dismissive of the impact of the new numbers.
Chief executive and president David Maher cited large distance gains measured at three of the major championship courses – Erin Hills (opposed to Oakmont the previous year), Quail Hollow (v Baltusrol) and Royal Birkdale (v Royal Troon) as key forces behind the spike. He also noted that 15 of 33 events tested at the same venues actually experienced a decrease in driving distance measured.
“In any given year there are variables that impact distance, and any movement as in 2017 is not suddenly indicative of a harmful trend,” Maher said.
“We continue to believe equipment innovation has benefitted golfers at all levels, and our analysis of the 2017 Distance Report affirms that the USGA and The R&A have effective regulations in place to ensure the game’s health and sustainability.”