The Easy Solution To Golf's Distance Problem

Golf isn’t the same sport that it used to be. Driving distances in golf have increased radically over the years, and as the graph below shows, there are three points where things really change.

In 1993, Bernhard Langer won the Masters, one of golf’s four major tournaments, using a driver made of persimmon, rather than one of the new generation of metal “woods” that had been slowly infiltrating the game. He would be the last major player to win with an actual wooden wood — by 1997, Davis Love III retired his persimmon driver and old-school woods left the tour for good.

In 2001, average driving distance leapt six yards in a single season. There was a very clear reason for that huge jump — the introduction of what might be the single most influential product in the history of any sport: the Titleist Pro V1 golf ball.

The invention of the Pro V1 started out as a little bit of an accident. The company’s engineers were just trying to combine some of the technologies in their balls for amateur golfers with the ones in their pro models, and they stumbled upon the construction of the Pro V1.

The solid core of the Pro V1 allowed engineers to tune the ball to react differently in different situations. When smashed with a driver, the ball would spin less, keeping it from hooking or slicing. When hit with a wedge, it would spin more quickly, giving the player more control to stop the ball on the green.

It took a day in which a hundred of the company’s sponsored pros used prototype ball — and gave it rave reviews — for the company to fast-track it into production. The first week the new Pro V1 model ball was available for tournament play, in October 2000, forty-seven players switched from their previous ball.

That sort of wholesale equipment change was unprecedented in the history of golf.

The final leap in driving distance took place between 2002 and 2003, when PGA pros added another seven yards to their average drive. The catalyst was the size of the drivers. The larger volume of the drivers allowed the face of the club to flex on impact with the ball and then spring back as the ball started to leave the face. This trampoline-like effect was pronounced in the larger clubheads, and another huge leap in distance was the result.

This was the final straw for the two organisations that control the rules of golf around the world, the US Golf Association and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, in Scotland. After years of inaction as players hit the ball farther and farther, the two governing bodies decided to cap the volume of a driver at 460 cubic centimeters, and set limits on what’s called the coefficient of restitution of a club face (which is that springlike effect). And, as you can see from the graph, the massive gains in driving distance have largely stopped.

But the game had been completely altered in those ten years from 1993 to 2003. The average tour player gained twenty-seven yards off the tee in that time. The result was a totally different sport. The only solution was to lengthen the course. Augusta National Golf Club, perhaps America’s best golf course and the annual home of the Masters, was stretched to 7,270 yards in 2002, and then lengthened again in 2006 to 7,445 yards. Today, Augusta plays at 7,435 yards.

“The beauty of Augusta used to be the width that was available to the golfer,” says Geoff Shackelford, an author, golf historian, and course architect. “It used to be the essence of a risk-reward course, where you could be aggressive at times, and were rewarded if you could hit the shots. But they have narrowed lots of areas and really lost some of that character.”

Now, longer drives aren’t bad in themselves. For recreational golfers like me, the ability to hit a drive more than 250 yards is pretty darn great, and makes a very difficult game easier.

Augusta National Golf ClubMike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesAugusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters.

But if we’re hoping to test the skill of players, we need to rein in the technology. The simplest answer seems to be to change the one piece of equipment that’s used on every shot: the ball. If you slowed down the golf ball, you could roll back some of the distance gains that have changed the game.

“Every other sport controls their ball,” says Shackelford. “Tennis has actually slowed down the ball over the past few years, and the game has never been better.”

Golf finds itself in an interesting technological trap. In the majority of sports, the most advanced equipment is only really of benefit to the elite performers. While pros do take advantage of tech in their drivers, metal woods, and (of course) the ball, there’s a real argument that golf technology does more to help the worst player than the best player.

Intellectually, I like that I play with the same gear that pros do, but it’s more important to me that places like Augusta and St. Andrews and Pebble Beach remain relevant tests for the best players in the game.

From Faster, Higher, Stronger: How Sports Science Is Creating a New Generation of Superathletes — and What We Can Learn from Them by Mark McClusky. Reprinted by arrangement with Hudson Street Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Mark McClusky, 2014.

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