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Stop Blaming the Ball!

What's really influencing today's long drives -- and my simple fix for them

Editor's Note: In a new biweekly, online-only column, CBS Commentator Peter Kostis will be filing dispatches for GOLFONLINE from the road. Here is his first installment.


Enough! I’ve had it with the people who are definitively preaching the golf ball is ruining the game, limiting competition, and making classic courses obsolete. Tim Petrovic, the winner of last week’s Zurich Classic in New Orleans, averages 278.9 yards off the tee, good for a 119th-place rank on the PGA Tour. Along with Fred Funk (260.8 yards, 187th on Tour) and Peter Lonard (280.2 yards, 107th), relatively short hitters have captured three of the last six Tour events.


Let’s bring this talk into perspective. As an instructor who has given lessons to more than 150,000 regular golfers, and in my role as a CBS Sports golf commentator, I’ve seen thousands of long drives being creamed down the fairway. But in my earlier years I was educated as an engineer, and that background helps me keep one rule of science close to heart: You can’t reach a logical conclusion if your equation has more than one variable. That inconsistency is plaguing these discussions about the golf ball.


Much of the reason for all the talk is, predictably, focused on Tiger Woods. He is clearly hitting the ball farther this year—as much as 30 yards farther according to a Nike engineer who “whispered” in a recent Sports Illustrated article that centered on the new Nike One Platinum ball. [In the interest of full disclosure, I have played Titleist golf balls and clubs for nearly 20 years].


However the ball is far from the only new element in Tiger’s 2005 arsenal: He increased his driver head size, switched to a longer, lighter and differently composed driver shaft, plus -- oh yeah -- changed his golf swing! So which of these is responsible for his being ranked fourth in driving distance on the PGA Tour? The answer is all of them, and probably more...but the golf ball somehow gets all the credit, or blame, depending on your viewpoint.


On the next page I’ve outlined factors in three critical areas -- equipment, players, and course conditions -- that all contribute to the increased distances that players are hitting the ball over the last 20 years.


EQUIPMENT:
•  Driver head composition (wood to metal)
•  Driver head size (more than doubling in some cases, from about 225 cc in 1984 to 460 cc today)
•  Driver length (about two inches longer on average)
•  Shaft weights (decreased by as much 50 percent – typical steel shaft was 125 grams, now 60-65 grams is common)
•  Iron lofts (two to six degrees stronger)
•  Iron shaft length (up to 1 1/2 inches longer)
•  Launch monitors (help maximize the synergy of balls, clubs and players)


Effects: Faster swing speeds and more powerful sweet spot contact; today’s 7-iron plays more like a 1980’s 5-iron; customization of equipment means players can find exactly the tools that best fit their swings. Side note: isn’t it funny that people who are doing commercials for drivers that are hitting the ball 20 yards farther are also complaining that the golf ball needs to be reined in?


PLAYERS:
•  Stronger and generally more fit
•  More technically correct golf swings
•  Average height of players (increased at least two inches since the 1980s, with 84 players 6'0" or taller on tour this year)


Effects: Players get more efficient transfer of energy from club to ball and hit shots with increased force.


COURSE CONDITIONS:
•  Record-low fairway heights (up to 3/4 of an inch shorter)
•  Firm, straight fairways that encourage players to bomb away off the tee


Effects: At the Shell Houston Open last week, I paced off the ground time of three drives hit by Jose Maria Olazabal. He averaged 54 yards of roll!


For those who feel change is required, this simple scenario about course conditions could possibly change the whole equation. Grow fairways to 3/4 of an inch like they were in the 1960s. This, coupled with today’s lower spinning balls, would create "mini-flyers" that would send players back to manufacturers begging for more spin to help control shots. The increased spin and longer fairways would arguably reduce overall distance. As well, it would almost certainly reduce maintenance budgets.


I’m by no means arguing that the golf ball hasn’t had an effect on driving distance. Manufacturers today can combine the best elements of the old Top-Flite and Pinnacle distance balls with the soft feel of a balata cover, and it’s a technological marvel that all players enjoy. But it is only one of several variables at play. Don’t believe everything you hear about the "hot" ball, because cocktail party conversation between golf’s power brokers does not equate to facts.

Reprinted with permission from Peter Kostis, Contributing Writer, GOLF MAGAZINE

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