After years of viewing golf swings through the trusty Konica Minolta BizHub Swing Vision camera, I have learned to see things differently from most people. So with the distance debate raging once again, it’s no surprise that I see it differently from a lot of people.
About a year ago, the US Golf Association and the R&A announced that they believe distance and the trend toward larger golf courses to be a long-term issue for the game, and they want to take some steps now to reduce the impact of distance on golf.
I live and teach in Scottsdale, Arizona, so I understand that water is a precious resource, and no one would say that using more fertilizers, chemicals, and water and increasing costs of he maintenance of golf courses is a good thing. Still, I think one of the central tenets of the USGA and R&A argument for reducing the distance is completely backwards.
Most people think golf courses in the United States have grown longer in recent years because technology has advanced and equipment has improved which has allowed players to hit further. The courses had to lengthen to keep the shooting values and the challenge, right? I think it’s the other way around: the equipment was forced to improve and allow golfers to hit longer shots because the courses were getting longer.
The third hole at Pinehurst # 2 (courtesy Pinehurst Resort)
Consider this: Pine Valley, Cypress Point, Augusta National, Shinnecock Hills, Pinehurst No. 2, Oakmont, Pebble Beach, Winged Foot, and Merion were all built before 1932 during the heyday of golf course design. They require creativity, the ability to hit shots in different directions, and require golfers to maintain control of the ball at all times. Their designers, men like Alister MacKenzie, Donald Ross, Charles Blair Macdonald, Seth Raynor, George Crump and Harry S. Colt, have strived to get amateur golfers to problem-solve and think. This is why these layouts can be so difficult. The Riveria Country Club, which last week hosted the Genesis Invitational, is another example of a classic venue with an original and unique style. The players loved it again this year, as they do every year.
Unfortunately, from the mid-1960s, when courses began to be classified by publications based on difficulty, things changed. Golf course architects felt that to make courses harder, and therefore more prestigious, they needed to lengthen them. The people who drafted the checks for these courses have also started to covet these rankings and the opportunity to host elite events. They also wanted bigger and longer courtyards, and by the 1970s developers came to like bigger rooms because they created more room for houses.
But one of the main reasons golf courses grew longer in the 80s, 90s and 2000s, which is seldom discussed, is the rise of “player architects”. In the golden age, designers created courses to challenge amateur players like them and members of local clubs. When big-name players and former pros started designing courses, they usually prefer to build things that challenge the best players in the world. In their minds, this means that the course should be lengthened to ‘championship length’. This all happened while we were using khaki antlers and balata golf balls.
For years I have said that if you want golfers to learn how to hit the ball farther then put them on bigger courses. They will learn, they will understand. This is precisely what happened. As the courses grew longer, players began to place more emphasis on length than on form and precision of shots. Like the Formula 1 racing teams modifying their cars to suit this week’s track, golfers have developed swings and manufacturers have made equipment that throws the ball higher and spins it less, maximizing the distance to attack long straight holes.
So, in my opinion, that’s the root of this problem, and understanding it is critical if we’re going to consider potentially game-changing.
Bryson DeChambeau (Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports)
Putting all the blame on manufacturers and technological advancements is a mistake. Consider this: In 2019, Bryson DeChambeau had an average driving distance of 302 yards. Last season he shot up to 322 yards, and before last week’s Genesis Invitational his average driving distance was 329 yards. Now, with all due respect to the companies that make Bryson’s pilot and golf ball, there hasn’t been any groundbreaking technological advancement over the past two years that can account for his 27-yard increase on the tee in 24 months.
So while the technology is better, it’s just one thing elite golfers now rely on to hit the ball further. Improvements in fitness and nutrition, better coaching, throwing monitors, and a better custom fit also help pros hit the ball further. Do the USGA and R&A also plan to govern these things?
While I don’t have a problem changing the maximum club length from 48 inches to 46 inches, I don’t understand why the USGA and R&A want to change the way they test golf balls. They recently proposed optimal tests between launch angles of 7.5 degrees and 15 degrees with varying amounts of backspin (2,200 to 2,500 rpm).
No one, not even Bryson, Rory or Bubba, can hit a ball with a 15-degree launch angle and only 2200 rpm of spin, but, under the proposed test conditions, if a robot can and the ball goes too away, the bullet will. be considered non-compliant. Personally, I think this is a way for the USGA and the R&A to lay the groundwork for a step backwards.
It is also proposed to adopt a local rule which would allow tournaments to force elite golfers to use distance reduction equipment in specific tournaments. Ultimately, it would come at a cost to brands and hobbyists alike. Think about it, pros like Adam Scott, Jon Rahm, and Tiger Woods wouldn’t have to pay for distance reduction gear, but manufacturers would have to spend a lot of money researching, developing, and manufacturing these clubs and balls. In over 45 years of teaching, I’ve never seen a student say he or she wanted to hit the ball shorter, so I can’t imagine the weekend players will buy this stuff. This means that brands will pass on to consumers the additional costs associated with short range equipment in the form of higher prices on the clubs and balls that amateurs want to play.
By the way, if the ball is pushed back or changes are made that reduce the distance for everyone and golfers all move to more forward tees, what should local clubs do in the abandoned areas? I haven’t heard any thoughts from the USGA or R&A on this yet. There are approximately 40,000 golf courses in the world, and I guess all of them would still need to water, mow and maintain these areas to some extent, so that the golf’s “footprint” would not diminish. not a lot.
Listen, for obvious and terrible reasons, golf has attracted a lot of new players in 2020. A lot of people have also returned to the game because it’s fun, safe, challenging, and a great way to hang out with your friends. Why on earth would we want to make it harder just to keep the pros challenging the 50-75 courses around the world?
If the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, European Tour and all the other professional tours ceased to exist because the style of golf was boring and fans didn’t want to watch it anymore, the “golf” would continue. Sport is in a great place. Be careful not to spoil everything.