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In defense of the ball, Although driving distances on the PGA Tour are up, the culprit may not be what you think it is.

If you follow golf, you've heard television announcers, golf writers and tour players talk about increased distance ruining the game of golf.

Watching golf balls fly like rocket ships has some of the game's biggest names, including Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Nick Price, pointing their fingers at the supposedly souped-up spheres -- chiefly Titleist's Pro V1x. And having identified the "culprit," they have voiced opinions that for the good of the game, golf needs a "rolled-back ball." Even Ernie Els, early on the poster boy for distance gains in 2003, said something had to be done.

"The new ball has made a huge difference for me," said Els. "The stats don't lie."

Or do they? By deciphering this year's driving distance stats with the tenacity of CSI's Gil Grissom, a case can be made that things are just fine as they are. Let the defense of the golf ball begin.

Argument: The distance threat is real. Els' driving distance averaged 319.6 yards in winning the first two events in Hawaii, while 40 players who made the cut in Phoenix topped the 300-yard mark.

Defense: With nearly half the PGA Tour schedule completed, the numbers are less skewed and reveal the average is currently 285.4 -- a little more than five yards longer than last year's average. That may seem like a lot. But get up from your chair and take five steps -- that's all it is.

Argument: Scoring records have become as fragile as glass.

Defense: Through 19 events just two scoring records have fallen -- at the Mercedes, where a surprising lack of wind left the course defenseless, and at the Honda on a stop-gap course that will never be used again for the event. In the other 16 events (not counting the new Wachovia tourney), the winner was an average of 5.9 strokes off the scoring record.

Argument: People will be turned off by the game becoming one of pitch-and-putt.

Defense: Go to any tour event and listen closely. Big drives and balls hit close to the stick are what bring cheers. Sure, there's something to be said for watching Old Man Par put up a good fight. But like a pitcher's duel in baseball or a defensive struggle in football, it loses its appeal after a while. People tune in to watch professionals do what they cannot -- and part of that is seeing the pros hit the ball a long way and go low. They sure aren't watching John Daly for his prowess with the irons.

Argument: Only the bombers have a chance to win -- or even contend.

Defense: Hearsay. A number of players in 2003 have done just fine hitting the ball under 290 yards -- and in many instances under 280. In fact, of the top 10 players in driving distance (all at 299.9 yards or more), only four have used their length effectively. And three of them, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh, are among the best in the game. Only Hank Kuehne has played long ball and truly surprised. The other six (Daly, James McLean, Mike Heinen, Brendan Pappas, Andrew Magee and Todd Barranger) have combined to make just 35 cuts in 73 starts -- less than half. Additionally, none of those players rank higher than 54th on the money list and four of them rank 123rd or lower.


Need more proof? Of the 106 players who have posted a top-five finish this year (not counting the Match Play), just 23 averaged more than 300 yards off the tee in the week they posted that lofty finish. And 11 of those came in four events -- Mercedes, Sony, Phoenix and Houston -- where drives appeared to be landing on granite instead of grass. More than half (55 of 106) of the top-five finishers this year have averaged under 290 yards. And more than 25 percent (29 of 106) have averaged less than 280. In the 12 events since Nissan, only 12 of 67 top-five finishers have passed the 300-yard mark for that week. Just two -- Fred Couples and Singh -- have won while an equal number of champions (Justin Leonard at the Honda and Mike Weir at the Masters) averaged less than 274 yards.


Argument: But it's the ball!

Defense: It's not just the ball. Look at Els. The South African is averaging 297.6 yards since the two Hawaiian events, where he averaged 319.6 yards -- a 22-yard difference. Did the Titleist tour rep suddenly forget to put the Pro V1x in his locker? Or Mike Weir. In the Canadian's three wins his driving average was 300.8 (Nissan), 286.3 (Hope) and 271.3 (Masters). And he used the same ball model in all three events. There are plenty of similar examples.

Closing statement: Are golf balls better than ever? You bet. Are some players hitting the ball obscene distances? At times. But to blame it all on the golf ball is to make it a convenient scapegoat. Distance gains have been caused by a "perfect storm" of equipment where launch monitors have allowed players to precisely marry clubhead, shaft and ball to their swings. Further, agronomy and course conditions cannot be overlooked. Just look at some of the wild swings in driving average on a week-to-week basis as evidence of the role course conditions play. Finally, take into consideration the almost maniacal fitness regimens of some players and they should be hitting it farther. Should the PGA Tour and the USGA be keeping a watchful eye on what's happening with distance? Of course. But is a "roll back" of the ball necessary right now? Well, the evidence appears to suggest otherwise.


The defense rests.


Article reprinted with permission from E. Michael Johnson, Golf World.

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