ROLLING BACK ON DISTANCE
Thoughts on concerns over how far people can hit a golf ball.
His 372-yard drive simply took the little protection the hole has completely out of play, bombing it over the fairway bunkers that guard the corner of the slight dogleg. He wasn't alone, with many players facing relatively short second shots into the 511-yard hole.
While this display of power is undoubtedly impressive, this style of golf has become the standard on Tour, and golf course designers are struggling to keep up with the distances players are hitting the ball. This is hardly a new phenomenon, with the famous period of “Tiger-proofing” that many courses underwent in an attempt to combat the long drives and towering approaches of the new generation of golfers that began to take over the game. Technology has helped immensely, with the 460cc titanium driver heads and multilayer performance golf balls bearing little resemblance to the persimmon heads and balata balls of decades gone by.
Jack Nicklaus claimed recently that he went to the USGA with concerns over the distance the ball travels as early as 1977, and he remains a supporter of recent discussions around placing restrictions on the maximum distance a golf ball can fly. Distance, Nicklaus claims, is the reason golf is taking so long. He believes that rolling back on distance would allow designers to stop stretching courses to their maximum distances, speeding up play and helping make the game more accessible to those who don't have four and a half hours to spend on the course.
While I understand the Golden Bear's concerns over distance, I don't feel that reducing the distance amateurs hit the ball is going to speed up play or encourage people to take up the sport. If anything, a 20% reduction in distance off the tee is more likely to put new players off the game. After all, everyone enjoys the feeling of catching a driver sweetly and watching it soar into the distance. That feeling is what keeps people coming back week after week, and helps the golf bug to fully sink in.
Where I do think a roll back on distance could be beneficial is as a way of protecting historic courses that have become much easier in the modern era. Courses like The Old Course or many other traditional Open venues are simply too short to pose a real challenge for todays pros. While lightning greens and punishing rough may offer some protection, things like strategically placed fairway bunkers and hazards are no longer in play off the tee. Reducing the distance players hit the ball would make it possible for these courses to be presented in a way that reflects the challenges the original architects intended all those years ago.
However, almost all of the debate is centred around restrictions on the golf ball. Other technologies and the sheer athleticism of modern golfers has had a huge impact, and the increase in average swing speed of Tour players from 104 mph in 1980 to 113 mph in 2016 is proof. The amount of analysis that is available has also made players and coaches alike much more aware of the optimal conditions for distance, namely launch angle and spin rates. I feel that focusing only on the ball isn't addressing the whole issue.
Manufacturers are likely to be against any attempt to reduce distance. After all, it's how they market almost every latest and greatest product they bring to the market. Whether the answer lies in separating pros from everyone else and placing limitations on their equipment is highly debatable, and I'm sure the argument will continue to build in the coming months. The outcome could potentially bring about a new era in professional golf, for better or for worse.