News Archive

Power Games

Does the game have a power problem and, if so, what is responsible? Here we dive into the hottest debate in golf.

Reprinted with permission by Golf Monthly UK. Reporters Jeremy Ellwood/Neil Tappin/Fergus Bisset
Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, so they say. Some feel that 21st-century professional golf has become purely a power game and as a result has indeed been corrupted absolutely.

While some individual sports have long been about how fast, how high, how strong or how far, golf has always been simply about “how many”. That of course is still true but in the past decade many analysts fear the emphasis has shifted with “how far” influencing “how many” to too great a degree.

Oversize titanium drivers and high-performance multi-layer golf balls are usually cited as the root causes. In some sports the strongest may have some divine right to success, but in golf’s hitherto relatively genteel world the power game has ruffled the feathers of those concerned about integrity, tradition and the future of the game.

“If the carrying power of golf balls is to be still further increased, all our golf courses will be irretrievably ruined as a test of the game,” is the forecast of many. Yet this quote is actually from an article in Golf Illustrated in 1910 and while the debate about driving distance and the welfare of the game has rumbled on ever since, golf itself is more popular than ever.

Those railing against the power game argue that it reduces tournaments to pitch and putt – or simply putting – contests, and enables fewer people to win. Lengthening the course, as Augusta and others have done, simply plays into the hands of long hitters even more. But others feel that people find power attractive both to watch and experience. Spectators want to see pros crunching drivers and making birdies or eagles; and longer tee-shots mean more fun for club golfers, and greater scope for the game to attract and retain new devotees.

Golf has not, and never will, become a game of absolute power because power doesn’t help anyone facing a deft chip from a tricky lie requiring soft hands and a delicate touch. That’s the beauty of the game – a player who hammers it 320 yards is no match for anyone if he’s forever in the trees or unable to hole out from three feet.

On tour the stats are littered with long hitters who never quite cut it. At the time of writing, four of the six longest drivers in America – Scott Hend, Brett Wetterich, Brenden Pappas and Scott Gutschewski – were on course to lose their tour cards, while Robert Rock, Titch Moore and Louis Oosthuizen, three of the top six power-hitters on the European circuit, may be back on the Challenge Tour next season.

Despite this, and other evidence that power is not the be-all-and-end-all, many golfers are seduced into believing distance is golf’s Holy Grail to the exclusion of everything else. You won’t hear, “I can’t believe how straight I was today” echoing around the clubhouses of Britain but you will hear, “Guess what I left myself into the 14th?” or “I got up in two on the 10th again” being repeated ad infinitum.

I recently played with a chap who’d lost a bit of distance with age but was never off the fairway. Accuracy to die for. But all he could talk about was his lack of distance. And I’ve played several courses recently where distance counts for little, and accuracy virtually everything.

On tour there’s been talk of a slightly different nature. Some have expressed concern that golf’s Fab Four, and indeed top seven, are pretty long, but none is better than 132nd for driving accuracy. They’re opting to hit it miles then deal with the consequences as they’ll only have a short club in anyway.

But to infer from this that golf, and especially these players, are just one-dimensional is far from the truth as other long hitters fare less well. Mr Hend, who tops the PGA Tour’s driving distance stats, lies stone cold last for driving accuracy, 177th for putting and 188th for scrambling, suggesting a power game alone won’t make up for woeful deficiencies elsewhere.

No one doubts that driving distances have increased – the statistical evidence is there for all to see. But manufacturers are understandably keen not to be cast as villains when they’ve ploughed millions into research and development to try and make the game a bit easier for the likes of you and me.

Of course, there’s hardly a driver or ball these days that isn’t at least partially marketed on the basis of its distance-enhancing credentials. But while modern gear has undoubtedly had a considerable impact on yardages, some manufacturers are frustrated that equipment, and especially the ball, gets all the “blame” in any “distance is ruining the game” debate.

That’s not the way R&A chief executive, Peter Dawson, sees it: “Over the last 20 to 25 years we pretty much think the distance increase is about a third the ball, a third the driver and a third other factors. And the other factors are player size, conditioning, strength and athleticism; very much agronomy, especially in America where the ball is running much further than it used to do; the individual fitting of clubs and balls to suit swings; and player coaching.” Wally Uihlein, chairman and CEO of Acushnet (Titleist’s parent company), also acknowledges to this broad range of factors in the Q&A on the following page.

The difference is that equipment comes under the control of the R&A and USGA so if they deem necessary can be limited; most other factors are essentially beyond practical control. The innovators are regulated because they can be; other factors that may contribute to power are overlooked because it’s simply not possible to ban David Leadbetter, fitness studios, power bars and muesli!

So at times it has seemed that governing bodies and equipment companies are on an inevitable collision course as driving distances have threatened to exceed the parameters the governing bodies deem best for the game – hence the COR limit on driver performance.

Yet manufacturers argue where is the problem if all they’re doing is making it easier for people to get more pleasure from the game? It’s hard to disagree with that.

I for one am not grumbling about the opportunity to drive more short par 4s and reach more par 5s in two. Whether or not there’s a problem at elite levels in terms of famous courses keeping pace with driving distances, any worries for most of us are more about speed of play and safety. The more golfers who can reach 280-yard par 4s off the tee and par 5s in two, the more we either have to wait or risk hitting on the grounds that we “probably won’t reach anyway”.

The following pages examine six factors contributing to the power debate, speaking with experts and key industry figures. Does golf have a power game problem? If something is repeated often enough it sometimes becomes a universally-accepted truth. This feature seeks to re-introduce an element of challenge to the debate and provide sufficient – perhaps new – information for you to make up your own mind.

Interview with Wally Uihlein, Chairman and CEO, Acushnet Company
Wally Uihlein started working for the Acushnet Company in 1976 as a regional sales representative in the Titleist golf Division. He has since climbed the ranks and was appointed chairman and CEO of the company in 2000. Here he talks about the role of technology in the game.

Golf Monthly :
What is the most significant change you’ve seen in the 30 years you’ve worked in the golf industry?
Wally Uihlein :
The most significant change has been the growth of the game since the 1960s with the following three fundamentals providing the necessary formula to meet the game’s acceptance and popularity. (1) A growing middle class that could afford what was previously inaccessible. (2) The growth in the number of facilities providing a place for people to play. (3) The increasing number of PGA professionals to teach the game. The popularity of the game also has received a boost from the fact that golf has become one the top five spectator and entertainment sports in the market today. Finally technology has also played a very large role in the game’s present day popularity and appeal. Technology in the form of game improvement clubs, metal woods and durable balls have helped “democratise” the game while also helping keep down the costs of equipment.

Golf Monthly:
Would you agree that technology has altered the way in which the game was intended to be played?
Wally Uihlein:
The balance (and debate) between technology and tradition is as old as the game itself. One could advance the argument that yesterday’s technologies are today’s traditions. Probably the best example of this timeless debate is the fall out between Allan Robertson and Old Tom Morris in 1849. Old Tom accepted the march of progress and started playing the newly introduced gutta percha, a ball that would put Allan’s 100-year-old family featherie golf ball company out of business. Old Tom’s refusal to renounce the guttie marked the dissolution of his playing partnership with Allan. During every era there are those who resist evolution and change and those who embrace technology as part of the game’s heritage. Today, 50 million golfers worldwide play 900 million rounds on some 25,000 plus golf courses. Clearly, the game today is incredibly popular and the resulting industry is big business.

Golf Monthly:
Would you agree that the professional game today has become more of a “power game” than it was 20 years ago?
Wally Uihlein:
There’s no doubt that the professional game has experienced a shift towards the “power game” in the past two decades. Today’s “power game” players in professional golf have clubhead speeds upwards of 115-120 mph, launch it high and spin it less. In the last decade, average PGA Tour clubhead speed is up 6% prior to the ball ever being hit. It is no coincidence that most of these “bombers” are the biggest, strongest and best conditioned. Golf is much like life. Competition breeds superior performance.

Golf Monthly:
But isn’t the “power game” all about the ball? In fact, many past champions, such as Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman, claim that it’s the ball that is going too far?
Wally Uihlein:
The shift to the “power game” has resulted from six contributing variables: (a) introduction of lower-spinning, high-performance golf balls; (b) introduction of oversize, thin-face titanium drivers;(c) improved golf course conditioning and agronomy; (d) physiology of players (bigger, stronger); (e) improved techniques and instruction; (f) launch monitors and customisation of equipment. Five of these six variables have often been overlooked by the media and anti-technology pundits in the search for a cause to the industry’s so-called “problem”. To identify the ball as the sole contributor and “solution” is an over-simplification.

Golf Monthly:
If any perceived problem is limited and isolated to professional golf, what about adopting a “shorter” ball for pros
and allowing amateurs to use different equipment?
Wally Uihlein:
We have never supported the position of bifurcation (to fork into two branches). Playing by one set of rules, playing the same game, playing the same course and playing the same equipment are what make golf different. It is the essence of the game. Past experiences with two sets of rules (current R&A conundrum with unlimited COR drivers but with competitive golf playing .830 maximum) have proven to be disastrous. Two sets of rules involving the ball, or the ball and clubs, would result in (a) the longer players on tour only getting longer in comparison to those who are less long and (b) it opens up Pandora’s Box with regards to the regulation and administration of equipment at the local, regional and national levels. Golf is not so clearly a professional game and a non-professional game. That is the great thing about golf. Bifurcation is only seriously advanced by those who think that the game is on some edge of ruination and thus as a result of their narrow and biased thinking feel some form of radical surgery is required.

Golf Monthly:
The USGA and R&A have embarked on a research project considering a golf ball distance “rollback”. What are your views on this?
Wally Uihlein:
The ball has been the most stringently regulated product in the history of the game. We feel that the rules in place regulating balls and clubs are more than adequate to contain any significant increases in distance caused by technological influence. The line in the sand has already been drawn. However, if the regulatory bodies determine a “rollback” is necessary and seek to change the controllable variables of ball and club, we strongly believe that you cannot “rollback” incremental distance of the past 20 years by focusing on ball alone or club alone. Based upon our testing research, the contribution of ball and club is equally weighted. It is both unfair and impractical to focus on one without the other. The ruling bodies have always been fair and practical and we expect them to be no different this time around.

FACTORS: Ball and Driver

We're only concerned here with the two most recent fundamental changes to driving – oversize, titanium drivers and multi-layer, solid-core balls both of which have got some observers hot under the collar as greater than average distance gains have coincided with their arrival.

The average PGA Tour increase from 1968 to ’95 was an unalarming “foot a year” according to Frank Thomas, former USGA technical director. But since titanium drivers appeared in ’95 it has risen to 6.84ft per year (25.1 yards over 11 years) with 2001 and ’03 showing gains of 18.69ft and 20.46ft respectively. Significant, but nowhere near the apparent 30-yard gains in early 2003 which had doom-mongers predicting the end of golf as we know it.

The arrival of these two driving technologies on tour was staggered, and while it may not be possible to quantify precisely what distance gains each brought about due to other concurrent factors, the stats do perhaps hint at their impact.

Light, strong titanium allowed bigger heads that meant greater forgiveness, and from 1994 to ’96, as it took hold on tour, average PGA Tour distance gains were just over 2.2 yards per year. As ever-bigger heads emerged, manufacturers tinkered with face thickness to redistribute weight and created “the trampoline effect” which helped the ball retain more impact energy. This effect so alarmed the rulemakers that regulations were drafted to limit energy retention to 83%.

That 0.83 COR limit applies now under USGA rules, from 2008 under R&A rules and was enforced from 2003 on the European Tour. In May 2002, Callaway’s Ron Drapeau told GolfWeek that an extra 0.010 of COR delivered about three more yards, so you might have expected distances to drop on the European Tour between 2002 and ’03. But they actually increased from 281.9 yards to 286.5 yards, so even if the high COR gains were overstated, gains from other sources appear to have countered any COR drop-off.

The tour ball revolution began with Spalding’s multi-layer, solid-core Strata in 1996. Until then nearly all tour pros played wound balls with liquid centres and soft balata covers for control, feel and workability thanks to higher spin rates. Change didn’t come straight away. In his book, The Story of the Golf Ball, Kevin McGimpsey says that in the PGA Tour’s Doral Open in 2000, 61.1% of the field used wound balls, and only 18.8% multi-layer models. The following year those figures were just 4.2% wound and 89.5% multi-layer due in no small part to the arrival of Titleist’s Pro V1 in late 2000 – the first multi-layer, solid-core tour ball from the tour’s most popular brand (118 out of 201 players in the PGA Tour’s driving stats are currently listed as Titleist users).

It’s a safe bet that 90% wouldn’t use a new kind of ball if it didn’t offer distinct advantages – typically reduced spin rates and solid-core distance, but with a softer feel than previous solid-core balls thanks to thin, urethane covers. The number of players averaging 280+ yards from the tee rose from 29 to 89 between 2000 and ’01. Occasional peaks in otherwise steady charts point to one key underlining factor, and in the case of the 2000 to ’01 increase that was almost certainly the new breed of tour ball.

A similar gain in 2003 coincided with the launch of the Pro V1x, designed to reduce spin rates further off the driver for the strongest players. But around this time, in-depth launch monitor club-fitting was also taking off in a big way, and though much was made of the Pro V1x’s effect on Ernie Els’ early 2003 distance gains, it’s widely acknowledged he’d also had a major club-fitting experience to optimise crucial launch conditions.

The stats certainly back this up as Els picked up nearly 22 yards between 2002 and ’03 – way up on the 6.82-yard PGA Tour average. And he’s struggled to make further distance inroads since. The table (below left) shows just how driver launch conditions on tour have been evolving to deliver a better distance-enhancing blend of high launch and low spin.

Some analysts now feel the distance limits under current regulations have essentially been reached. The stats seem to support this and in an article on his website, Thomas suggests, “the only way Ernie and others will be able to increase their distance in the future is to increase clubhead speed by getting stronger, and no rule can prevent that.”

It’s hard to accurately accredit distance gains to specific causes with several factors at work. But if players across the driving distance spectrum experienced similar average yardage gains when tour ball usage changed almost wholesale from one type to another, new balls must have had a large part to play in those two periods of six-plus yard annual gains.

But that means at least 50% of the 25.1-yard gains over the last 11 years are most likely due to factors other than the ball.
What is apparent from Ernie Els’ stats is that dramatic gains in one season are more likely than not the fruits of other factors like specific fitting sessions that allow players to tailor driving equipment precisely to swing, build and game. We’ll have to wait and see what the future holds. In the meantime, with PGA Tour averages increasing by less than a yard a year for the last two years perhaps regulations have had the desired effect?

FACTOR: The Golf Swing
Attacking par 5s and short par 4s is widely seen as the best modern-day scoring strategy and to do this players need to be long off the tee. Vijay Singh, for example, is 149 under par for the par 5s this season compared to 45 under on par 4s and 17 over for the par 3s. Six of the world’s top 10 average over 300 yards off the tee so without a powerful driving game it seems that players are handing their opponents a considerable advantage.

According to Golf Monthly Top 25 Coach Denis Pugh the need for extra distance has made a significant impact on teaching methods. “I think that the main change over the last few years is that the idea of swinging the club easily has gone out of the window. To hit the ball a long way you have to swing hard and correctly,” he says. “Golf tuition has also become a lot more consistent. There are very few pros talking about power coming from the hands. You need strong core muscles and a flexible body to hit the ball a long way.”

The difference between coaches now lies not in their ideas about what makes a good swing but in the way they communicate these ideas. Ian Poulter’s former swing guru Lee Scarbrow pinpoints technological advancement as the most important factor behind a better, more consistent quality of coaching. “Ten or 15 years ago coaches didn’t have the ability to slow the swing down,” he says. “It was impossible to hone in on certain areas and see what was working and what wasn’t. The simple fact is that it’s easier to teach with modern computer and video technology helping the coach and player to identify then rectify any problems.”

So it appears that recent technological advances have contributed to a rise in the standard of teaching but does this translate into extra distance? David Howell’s coach Clive Tucker believes it does.

“If you enhance the pure mechanics of your swing, the dynamics will also improve and it’s inevitable that you’ll hit the ball further. Over the last 10 or 15 years technique has got cleaner because instruction has improved and people are understanding how to swing the club faster,” he says.

So if length is the by-product of a technically-sound swing then it seems fair to conclude that better standards of teaching have helped players to hit the ball further. Then there is the Tiger Woods effect. When a player dominates his sport as Tiger has, other young hopefuls are bound to mimic his style in search of success. The swings of Adam Scott, Trevor Immelman and Michelle Wie, for example, are copies of Tiger’s. By reproducing Woods’ technique they combine a similar blend of power and athleticism.

Pugh readily admits Tiger has had an impact on the way he teaches. “I look for more width in the swing now than five or 10 years ago. That is definitely Tiger’s influence,” he says. “There was a time when coaches told players to set the club early but now there’s more width in the swing – the old method has proven less powerful.”

Extra width is a key contributor to Tiger’s great power – as the clubhead moves further it generates extra momentum. It may be stretching the point too far to say that Woods’ influence has been to create a blueprint for a more powerful, new generation swing but elements of his style are certainly being copied and coached.

FACTOR: Fitness and Physique
Back in the 20th century the stereotypical pro didn’t take golf fitness and nutrition too seriously: think Brian Barnes drinking beer on the course, Sam Torrance smoking every few holes. The end of an average day on tour for many was often a session in the hotel bar. How things have changed. In 2005 you’re more likely to see the pros sipping energy drinks, eating PowerBars and finishing the day with a workout.

This shift was influenced by strong, fit players like Greg Norman and Nick Faldo. And with the arrival of the ultimate golfing athlete, Tiger Woods, more pros have felt the need to work on conditioning. Guy de la Cave, director of the Red Bull Physio Unit on the European Tour, has noted a change in players’ attitudes over the past 15 years. “They are much more conscious now of their physical condition,” he says. “When we began, the pros generally came to us because they needed therapy. Now they understand that prevention is better than cure.”
“Players today, in comparison to when we began on tour, are more flexible, they are in better cardiovascular condition and they are stronger,” he adds. “This has undoubtedly helped them gain distance.” De la Cave estimates that 30% of European Tour players regularly visit the Red Bull unit to work out and most have personal trainers.
Padraig Harrington believe in the importance of good physical conditioning.

"A guy who’s really worked on fitness and strength is Michael Campbell,” says de la Cave. “When Michael first came on the tour he was a gifted young player and his physical condition was not something he worried about. Now he puts in hours of cardiovascular fitness and strength work.” As a point of interest the US Open winner has added 20 yards off the tee in the past five years (the average driving distance on the PGA Tour has risen by about 25 yards over the past 11 years).

Annika Sorenstam also made a bid to gain distance and is 25 yards longer than she was in 2000. According to Swedish coach Pia Nilsson, Annika does hours of daily strength training, as well as Pilates and yoga for flexibility.

One physical feature that can add power is height. The taller the player the wider the potential swing arc and the greater the possible clubhead speed. In 1990 just one player in the top 10 on the European Tour was over 6ft (Mike Harwood). Now six of the top 10 measure more than 6ft. Golf Monthly Top 25 Coach Clive Tucker notes this trend. “A lot of top tour pros are taller and stronger now. Players often look to copy the width that Tiger gets in his swing,” he says.

So it appears fitness and size contribute to extra length. There are, of course, exceptions. John Daly has never been the “ideal” physical specimen for golf but since he arrived on tour in 1991 his average driving distance has increased by 21 yards. And Emanuele Canonica has finished every season since 1998 in Europe’s top three for driving distance and is only 5ft 4in tall.

FACTOR: Agronomy

At the Open at St Andrews this July the fairways were so hard and fast that, in places, they matched the pace of the greens. Watching the colossal amounts of run players were achieving it would have been difficult to counter the argument that the condition of a fairway affects how far the ball travels. What can be questioned, however, is whether the speed of fairways can be controlled. And, have they become faster in the past 10 or 15 years?

Andy Campbell is course manager at Carden Park and was chairman of the British and International Golf Greenkeepers Association (BIGGA) in 2004. He believes there have been significant recent advances in the conditioning of fairways. “Things have unquestionably moved on,” he says. “Height of cut is one of the factors. Owing to advances in equipment technology we can now take the grass on the fairways much lower without causing damage.”

At European Tour venues today the fairways can be as low as 8mm with 11mm being the standard. Ten years ago a fairway length of 15mm would have been closer to the norm. In many cases grass type has allowed the fairway to be cut closer. “In the last 10 years more courses are using creeping bent grass on the fairways,” says Campbell. “This can be cut shorter, thereby making the fairway run faster.”
Greenkeepers now have better knowledge of how to control growth and how best to use sand and top dressing, and Campbell says that the top courses today treat their fairways in the same way as the greens. “At Carden Park we hollow tine the fairways. It’s something that wouldn’t have been done 10 years ago.”
New courses have better drainage and, even at the older clubs, improved cultivation practices allow wet fairways to dry more quickly. This should mean that, in general, fairways are harder now than 10-15 years ago.
However, weather is the one variable that cannot be controlled. Euan Grant, head greenkeeper at St Andrews, cites weather as the key element contributing to the speed of the fairways at the Open. “We had good growth through May and June but they really burned and firmed up in July,” he says. “The weather dictates everything. If it’s dry and windy it’s impossible to keep the fairways soft.”

Greenkeeping expertise and technology have moved on in the past decade, enabling fairways to be cut shorter. This should equate to more run and distance. But the weather is unpredictable so the speed of fairways is difficult to control or keep constant. One week the pros could be competing on sun-baked, wind-burned turf where the ball chases over 100 yards, the next they might be aiming at fairways that have been rained on solidly for three days.

FACTOR: Custom Fitting
The birth of custom fitting in the 1960s marked an important progression for equipment manufacturers. Early fitting processes involved taking static calculations (height and wrist to floor measurements) and applying tape to the clubface to determine where players were striking the ball. Those procedures are still used today but technology has changed the face of custom fitting in recent years via the introduction of hi-tech launch monitors.

All the top manufacturers now use rapid response cameras and computers which can quantify the effect of an adjustment to a player’s equipment. “We can read the ball flight far more accurately and look at a player’s clubhead speed, launch angle and the amount of backspin and sidespin they impart on the ball,” says Mark Duncombe, Mizuno’s custom-fit specialist.

“For each individual there is an ideal set of readings we’d like to see. We work through the fitting to produce measurements that we are happy with.”
The motion analysis system used by TaylorMade, called MATT, even produces a three-dimensional, computer-animated image of your swing – the information it generates is used to make further equipment adjustments.

Combining static measurements with dynamic swing readings, the custom fitter is now arguably better equipped to find a club set-up that suits a player’s physique and athleticism. But does the process improve your yardage?

According to Duncombe extra distance is a natural consequence of perfectly-fitted clubs. “We fit people with clubs that allow them to hit the middle more often,” he says. “We can also help to optimise the launch angle and reduce backspin. The result is that you’ll get the best possible yardage for your swing.”

On tour, players consult their custom- fit technicians in an effort to meet important personal requirements and for many players this is to maximise their yardages off the tee. “Miguel Angel Jiménez is a classic example,” says Dominic Griffiths, Ping’s European player manager.
“He doesn’t miss many fairways and asked us to find him a driver that would travel the furthest. We fitted him with a low-lofted driver and a very stiff shaft. When he strikes it from the middle of the clubface the ball goes a very long way – other players would have real problems hitting it straight.”

So for pros who possess swings that repeat almost identically, it seems custom fitting makes perfect sense. But can the same process benefit the average amateur who ventures out once a week and brings a slightly different swing to the course each time he plays? Well, according to Griffiths custom fitting can improve the quality of any golfer’s ball striking and that means more distance. “It is difficult to put an exact figure on it but I think if we pulled an average amateur off the street who did not have custom-fitted clubs, we could probably add 15 yards to their drives.”

Putting Theory Into Practice

To test out the claim that custom fitting can add yards to an amateur’s game, I paid a visit to the new Mizuno National Fitting Centre at Pachesham Park in Leatherhead. My driver had previously been custom fitted so we looked instead at my irons. After I hit a few shots to warm up, the fitters took an initial set of readings as I hit a number of balls with my own Mizuno MP30 6-iron. Using the data they received they gave me a few identically-lofted 6-iron models to try in a variety of lengths and lie angles. Eventually they produced a club which they believed was perfect for my physique and swing – the results for this club and my original 6-iron can be seen in the chart opposite. Neil Tappin (6-handicapper)

“If there is a problem in golf – and I stress if – and if it’s decided something needs to be done about it, it is unrealistic to think this will be entirely done by consensus. There are too many stakeholders and vested interests. It is the governing bodies’ role to lead in this but we have to lead responsibly and address as many of the stakeholders’ concerns as we can. At the moment I think we’re watching and waiting very responsibly. We’re not panicking. The game is not in disarray. So despite what you may read from time to time, we don’t actually have a crisis but we do have something to watch very closely. And we have the time to do that in a measured fashion which is exactly what we’re trying to do.”
Peter Dawson, R&A chief executive

“Our primary responsibility is to regulate the game and make sure it remains a sufficient challenge at all levels. Our joint statement of principles [with the USGA] said exactly that – that skill must play its part. There must come a point where equipment improvements go across a line that says the game has lost too much of its challenge. The $64,000 question is where is that line? The joint statement of principles did say that further significant increases in driving distance would be undesirable and that is our view.”
Peter Dawson, R&A chief executive.

“We know technology helps – we can prove it by putting products on robots or giving them to golfers. The big question is, if there is a threshold, have we stepped over it and made things too easy? Definitely not in my view – you still have to get the ball in the hole. We think it’s made the game a little bit easier for many. If you have time pressure, can’t spend much time on the range and then also have a poor-performing product, you’ll end up losing the will to play.”
Ryan Lauder, product marketing, TaylorMade

“I certainly work out in a different way than I did six or seven years ago because I realise now that if I can’t beat them I’ve got to join them. I’ve got to become much more of a power player. I don’t really blame technology to a large extent. I think course set-up is something the powers-that-be could take a look at. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. We don’t have to make the golf course 8,000 yards long; we don’t have to bring back the ball. Let’s play around with course set-up; let’s try and get the greens really firm; let’s hide the pins; let’s reward the guy whose course management is good.”
Paul McGinley, two-time Ryder Cup winner

“I’ve never been a long hitter. I always felt hard work and a good short game could compensate. But the differential now is just too big. I had a couple of good head-to-heads with Ernie Els back in the early 1990s and if I hit my best tee shot then and he hit his best he was probably 30 yards past me. If I hit my best now he’s 70 yards past me – and I’ve put on 10 yards! Nick Price says that the game has passed him by. There’s a guy that is among the best strikers on the planet, and if he thinks the game has passed him by there’s definitely something wrong.”
Tony Johnstone, 1992 Volvo PGA champion

“Distance has always been a key and I realise that so I’ve worked on everything that can help me hit it longer. Certainly technology has closed the gap and I think it’s good to have a tighter bunch. But the cream will always rise to the top.”
Padraig Harrington, two-time winner on the PGA Tour in 2005

“Back in the early 1990s I was about 265 yards with a wooden club and I was first or second for distance. But I never realised how much of an advantage distance gave me until now when I’m on the other side of the equation. It’s a massive difference if you’re 30 yards ahead of anyone else.”
Ian Woosnam, 1991 Masters winner and current Ryder Cup captain

Distance has been debated throughout golf’s evolution and there’ll never be 100% consensus as to whether or not it poses a problem. The most recent strides in equipment technology have coincided with some of the biggest distance gains in golf’s modern era. But as we’ve seen, many other factors have also had roles to play. Easier, longer drives bring amateurs more enjoyment, make driving less daunting for newcomers and help older players stay competitive. All good, but with no evidence of sharp handicap drops it seems we still find golf’s other elements suitably challenging. Safety and pace of play are perhaps of more concern to club golfers. The goldfish bowl that tour players inhabit inevitably puts their distance gains under greater scrutiny. But the stats show that the advantage of hitting the ball a long way can still be seriously undermined if other aspects of their games are found wanting.

The PGA Tour’s Shotlink data shows that 50% of par-4 approach shots are now played with a 9-iron or wedge. So those whose mid to long-iron play was a trump card have probably had that particular advantage eroded. Is it right that one skill should effectively devalue the currency of others? Probably not.
Innovation must not be stifled gratuitously, but it would be remiss of the rulemakers not to act when they see the need to. Distance stats currently show a levelling off that perhaps suggests effective regulation, but the monitoring must go on. Power is a big factor in today’s game, but still not everything. We need to keep it that way.

Reprinted with permission by Golf Monthly UK.

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