Golf Technology: Myths, Reality, and Answers

I received an e-mail the other day from the USGA — the American half of the two governing bodies in golf. The e-mail, sent to their media listserv, was entitled "Golf Equipment Myths." The message opened with a condescending greeting to those of us in the media that feel technology has gone too far: "Dear media, Can you separate fact from fiction when it comes to golf equipment performance?" Well, I think so, but okay, I'll bite.

The rest of the e-mail was a list of eight "myths" and one "truth" regarding golf technology as prepared by USGA senior technical director Dick Rugge. I wanted to highlight a few of the bullet point myths in the e-mail as they relate to the technology debate.

The first "myth" is probably the most relevant in the entire message: "Golfers with faster swing speeds get disproportionately greater distance benefits from new golf balls that have been introduced after 2000." In the subtext, Rugge explains that players of all swing speeds have gained approximately the same distance — between seven and nine yards — in the past six years. He cites a shorter hitter, Corey Pavin, who has increased his distance by 7.4 yards since 2000 to 258.7 yards, and big John Daly, who gained 8.7 yards for a total of 310.1 yards in 2005.

Rugge is right. Players are gaining distance, on the average, about the same regardless of swing speed. But that is not the main point to be drawn from this statistic. Let me use the example of Pavin and Daly to demonstrate the real point.

Golf courses are being lengthened across the board on the PGA Tour as a result of increased driving distance due in large part to better golf ball technology. These increases, though, are in reaction to the golfers who average 300 or more yards off the tee — not the Corey Pavins and Fred Funks of the world. Ten years ago, in 1996, there were no golfers that averaged 300 yards off of the tee. In 2000, there was one — John Daly. In 2005, there were 26 golfers that average 300 yards or more in driving distance.

Although the lengthening has been made in response to the longest 10% of drivers on the Tour, the changes most drastically affect the bottom 20 percent — golfers which average less than 280 yards. Let's bring Pavin and Daly back in for our hypothetical example. Say that a par 4 on a Tour stop course used to be 425 yards in 2000. Both Daly and Pavin would hit driver off of the tee then. Assume they hit their average distance. Daly would be left with about 120 yards to the hole and hit a pitching wedge into the pin. Pavin would be left with about 170 and hit a 5 or 6 iron to the green. Daly is at a huge advantage, right?

Well, say the 2005 tournament committee at this stop decides to lengthen the hole by 35 yards to 460 yards in response to increased driving distance. Again, assume both players hit their average distance (in 2005). Daly will be left with 150 yards to the hole after his drive and approach with a 9 iron. He had to up by one club. Pavin will be left with a touch over 200 yards to the hole. Corey will be hitting a 4 or 3 iron to the hole, if not a 5 wood. While the distance increase cost Daly one club, Pavin will have to up by two sticks to get home.

John Daly now has an even larger advantage over Corey Pavin than he did in 2000 on the average golf hole, despite the fact that both have gained approximately the same distance off the tee thanks to technology. While Pavin is a slightly extreme example, you could replace him with Mark O'Meara, Jay Haas, or Brad Faxon and still come up with a similar result. All of the aforementioned shorties have great short games that would allow them to excel and level out the competition without the additional distance — especially over John Daly. Now, though, that advantage is marginalized.

The discussion about distance brings us to the third myth in the message: "Driving distance on Tour is increasing rapidly." The USGA admits that driving distance has increased dramatically in the last 10 years, but feels that the increase has leveled off in the past three years to about a yard per year.

Again, the USGA is not really off base here. Driving distance increases have leveled off — after a decade in which average driving distance increased by nearly 20 yards. The damage has already been done and will continue. Even if driving distances to increase at a yard per year, the incremental growth will alarm the golfing community. It will serve as bait to continue reactionary lengthening and other course changes made by tournaments.

It was just announced this week that Medinah, the site of the 2006 PGA Championship, will be the longest major championship course in history at an absurd 7,561 yards. This comes just two years after playing the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, which will hold the record until this summer.

The USGA has insisted on ridiculously long and deep rough at the U.S. Open and its upcoming championships as a means of discouraging flogging — slang for playing a style of golf that is almost exclusively concerned with power and not with accuracy off the tee. The U.S. Open layouts in recent years have also seen fairways shrink to unrealistic widths at times — as little as 20 yards in the landing areas for bombers. This trend would not be happening if it were not for the last decade of dramatic growth in average distance.

The last point to highlight from this e-mail is actually a "truth": "Accuracy off the tee isn't as important as it used to be on the PGA Tour." Dick Rugge and the USGA recognize that putting the ball in the fairway is not as strong of an indicator of success on the Tour as it used to be. In fact, according to the e-mail, the correlation between driving accuracy and winning on Tour is at its lowest level ever. This means that a part of the game that is universally seen as a good indicator of ability to become a champion just does not count for most champions today on Tour.

One only needs to look as far as the top three players on the PGA Tour money list in 2005 — Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, and Phil Mickelson – and in 1995 — Greg Norman, Billy Mayfair, and Lee Janzen. The chart below describes where all six men ranked on the money list in their respective years, and their driving distance and accuracy numbers and rankings.

Golfer Chart

Taking a look at the numbers, one can see that driving accuracy does not seem to matter in 2005 like it did in 1995. The top three on the 2005 money list average around 160th in driving accuracy statistics. While the best in '95 were not the most accurate drivers, they were in the top 20% — not the bottom 20%.

Despite the fact that the top three money winners on Tour ranked in the bottom 20% of players in driving accuracy, that did not seem to affect their ability to hit the green. Woods and Singh ranked in the top 10 in Greens in Regulation on Tour last season, and Phil was respectably in the top 20%. This is because technology allows the more powerful golfers to hit the ball as far as they can with less consideration for accuracy that the length-challenged drivers.

Even if the ball ends up in the rough off of the tee, the powerful golfers have a short iron or wedge in their hands as they approach par 4 greens. At that point, hitting from the fairway or the rough is almost inconsequential. This is not true for shorter hitters that cannot control a mid or long iron from the rough even remotely like the bombers can manage their wedges. Distance, again, creates a significant advantage.

This e-mail from the USGA really did nothing to sell anyone that technology is not as bad as a lot of people (including me) thinks it is for the professional game. In fact, I would like to thank the USGA for giving me ammunition to put several cruxes of the technology debate into proper perspective. While the e-mail is factually accurate, it misses the key points about the technology debate and touches on issues that are of little consequence to me. With a little research, though, some of the myths from the e-mail (as seen above) can be reframed to show some of the true issues at play.

The numbers help to show that the game has changed. Almost no one denies that. The most important question in this debate is what the golf world should do about it. Should golf courses continue to be lengthened, tightened, and dried out in an effort to maintain their integrity as championship courses? Or, should the governing bodies of golf step in and further regulate the golf ball and equipment materials to curb distance and spin control?

Although the USGA seems to contend that both are happening somewhat simultaneously, Hootie Johnson and the Tournament Committee at Augusta National Golf Club do not seem to agree. As is well known, since 2002, over 500 yards has been added to the home of the Masters in response to technology that Hootie Johnson "hope(s) the governing bodies ... are addressing." Additionally, trees have been planted and "rough" has been added to the golf course in an effort to make Augusta National as reputable of a test as it has always been to the best golfers in the world every April.

In essence, these changes are framed by Mr. Johnson as an effort to preserve the stature of the course and to prevent players from making Augusta National a laughing stock — an issue to which we all know the Tournament Committee is extra sensitive (see Woods, Tiger in 1997).

Mr. Johnson sees these changes as necessary for the credibility of the Masters. But at what cost do these changes happen? Augusta National was the dream course as set up by Bobby Jones and Alister Mackenzie. It was intentionally designed with few trees and no rough to provide competitors of all types the ability to play a challenging, world-class golf course that allows for a variety of styles to be successful provided they all included impeccable putting ability.

In fact, Mackenzie was against lengthening the golf course at all. He once said, "It was not practical to think of buying more and more expensive ground to keep increasing the length of holes to make them fit for championship play as the ball became more and more powerful." The original design was not to be perverted even knowing that golf technology would improve in the future. That original design produced the aura that defined the Masters — those Sunday roars, birdie charges and runs, and risk/reward holes that make the Masters a "tradition unlike any other."

With this latest slew of changes, though, that has changed. Under its current design, Augusta National plays more like a U.S. Open course than a Masters course. Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell agrees, labeling this Masters as a "U.S. Open on Magnolia Lane." This is because the course is now set up to require more strategic placement of drives and downplays creativity that was once rewarded at Augusta National. Players are discouraged to aim at pins and not given many options when they are in trouble. That sure does sound a lot like a U.S. Open to me.

The Sunday charges that defined the Masters — Jack Nicklaus in 1986 and Mark O'Meara in 1998, for example — are thought to be now extinct on this latest version of Augusta. David Toms said, "You might see somebody collapse on the back nine because the holes are more difficult, but I don't see a big charge." Orlando Sentinel columnist Steve Elling put it well: "The final round of the Masters was boring, because there weren't nearly enough red numbers." The excitement for the potential of a Sunday charge just was not possible on Sunday at the Masters. That made the event boring and so, well, not like the Masters.

But, what is Hootie Johnson to do? The USGA really has not done anything in terms of technology limitation that would compel him to stop lengthening, planting trees, growing rough, and mutilating the golf course. After all, it is done in the interest of preserving the challenge of Augusta National at the caliber of a major championship in light of the onslaught of technological breakthroughs. Columnist Frank Hannigan put the conundrum well in asking, "What was [Johnson] supposed to do: just leave it alone so that Augusta would have become a sort of toy, a museum piece?"

Essentially, the Masters is now in an identity crisis. It cannot decide what kind of major championship it wants to be and should be. Should it be more like the other U.S. majors that are moving to layouts that seek to punish golfers constantly and stunt imagination in an effort to combat technology? Or, should the Masters remain more like the Open Championship as a major that is susceptible to low scores, promotes looser play, and is actually fun to watch?

I cannot make that decision. That is obviously left up to the Masters Tournament Committee. Some players and media have remarked that the changes were validated by the leaderboard and final results. Others have remarked that the changes are visually intimidating and what Augusta National needed. There is a noticeable faction that is just as much in favor of the changes over the years as there are a vocal group of those who wish Hootie Johnson never had to perceive these alterations as necessary.

It would make the situation a little easier, though, if the USGA would step in with more proposals to regulate the golf ball and technology instead of sending out e-mails defending their policy of inaction. Although the USGA has adjusted how it tests golf equipment with robots to reflect modern swing speeds and abilities, they have failed to maintain caps on golf technology. The distance limit was changed in 2003 from the original number of 296.8 yards to a whopping 320 yards to account for new technology. Driver head size caps have finally been held at 460cc after several years of increasing the maximum size of the driver head.

Still, other areas need to be regulated, but for the reader (and writer) who is not a physicist or engineer, I won't continue. The bottom line is this: Augusta National, Medinah, and majors across the board would not be (as) compelled to employ their current design tactics if the governing body would be more compelled to regulate technology.

Since the USGA does not appear to be definitively acting in any fashion to curb technology, others are offering up suggestions as complements or alternatives to what has been done across the Tour. Frank Thomas, former USGA technical director, filed a ridiculous suggestion for regulating the impact of technology. He suggested in an April 6 op-ed piece in the New York Times that Tour players should be forced to use 10 clubs instead of the 14 that us peon amateurs are allotted. He says this is fairer to all golfers rather than scaling back the golf ball's maximum distance or imposing limits on club twisting resistance, which he claims would have an adverse effect on amateurs. Further, he advocates for increased narrowing of fairways and growing of rough.

With respect to Mr. Thomas, did you watch the Masters at all? Have you watched any major championship played on U.S. soil in the last three years? Narrowing fairways and growing ridiculously penal rough create boring and painful golf for the player and fan. As proof, the ratings for this year's Masters were down, despite having the top five players in the world ranking in contention on Sunday.

In an effort to prevent players from dominating over major championship layouts, tournament presenters are forced to reshape the name of the game. Aggression is curbed in almost all forms, not just hyper-aggression like flogging. The short game is not tested, but rather a means of massacring a field. Opportunities for scoring are incredibly limited and final rounds turn into a battle to see who cannot play poorly. Further, equipment companies would be as adversely affected by limiting the number of clubs a player can carry as they would be if the clubs and balls were more stringently regulated. Quite honestly, the manufacturers do not seem too thrilled about the latter, so what would make the former more appealing?

The debate about golf technology and what to do about it will come to a head in the next few years. The data shows that the game has changed and that the golf world is reacting to it in a seemingly endless circle of action and reaction. This year's Masters only serves as a perfect example of how tournaments are forced to make decisions between playability and tradition, and credibility and difficulty. Further, the event showed a clear delineation between individuals that feel the current path is not destructive to the game and those who are claiming it may be the apocalypse.

Without a creative third set of options, it seems that the resolution will all depend on what is valued more in golf — technological advancement or the grand tradition that makes this game special. For me, at least, no loud ping of the latest driver can ever replace the quieted roars at Augusta National.

Comments and Conversation

April 20, 2006


I stopped reading after this…..”In the subtext, Rugge explains that players of all swing speeds have gained approximately the same distance — between seven and seven yards — in the past six years”

What’s between 7 and 7?

April 20, 2006

Marc James:


The error has been fixed, should have said seven and nine … that was my bad.

But are you serious? You’re going to disregard the entire article because of a trivial typo? Try putting down your grammar police badge and having an open mind.

It’s people like you who seem to take joy in pointing out errors … do you have any other intention than that? How about your take on the actual point of the article? Or maybe there weren’t enough pictures to keep you reading, that’s okay. Maybe you just need a Cliff Notes version. Seriously, get off your high horse. People who get hung up on one word out of a thousand have issues.

November 4, 2006

Alan Michelson:

I am curious if you have done any research on the % of golfers who do not break 100. Also I am interested in statistics for the pros from about 20 years ago like GIR, ave. score, putts per round. Do you know where I can get these? Thought your article was interesting and informative. Thanks for any help you can be.

Leave a Comment

Featured Site