It’s the existential crisis that golf has been having for almost a decade and a half. When it comes to equipment distance, have we gone too far?
As a gauge, when driving distance was first measured consistently in 1980 – Dan Pohl was the PGA Tour leader, with an average of 274.3 yards off the tee. Today? This season’s leader is Rory McIlroy, averaging 317.2 yards. That’s a difference of nearly 44 yards!
It doesn’t stop there. Back in August, Dustin Johnson set the golf world alight with a 439-yard thunderbolt drive during the first round at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. The only thing that was more astonishing was that it broke the season’s record he himself had set back in January, with a screaming 428-yarder on the 18th at the SBS Tournament of Champions back in January.
So, what is behind such unsustainable yardage?
Simply put, it’s a combination of clubs, balls and player fitness.
Comparing clubs from previous eras to today seems like a whole different game. Back in the 70s and 80s, the majority of golfers used persimmon woods – which were far more solid than the materials used today. Your average Tour wood back then would have had a steel shaft weighing at least 140 grams.
Fast forward to the early 90’s, when Callaway in particular took the emerging trend of graphite shaft clubs and metal heads to an entirely new level with their iconic ‘Big Bertha’ stainless-steel headed driver. The weight had also dropped dramatically to around 70 grams. Instantly, the equipment’s advancements meant golfers required far less power to hit the club hard, while the metal face and carbon fibre kept the club steadier.
Today’s clubs have seen ever more marginal gains since Callaway’s leap forward, with woods dropping to around 45 grams, along with driver club head speed reaching an average of 113mph across the PGA Tour by the end of last year. Compare that with the wooden woods of the 80s, where it was just 104mph!
With the latest clubs fine-tuned to within an inch of their life, built with ever-lighter metals and carbon fibre hybrid shafts, players are able to swing harder and further. But what about the ball they’re hitting?
The development of graphite clubs was one major step in the arms race that golf equipment has become. But undoubtedly the biggest improvement of the last 20 years appeared on Monday 9th October, 2000. It was on this day that the Titleist Pro V1 was used on the PGA Tour for the first time.
Within three months, 47 Tour players were using the Pro V1, signalling the biggest shift in equipment usage in Tour history. That season, the average driving distance leapt six yards, a seismic shift that led to the USPGA having to release a statement: “any further significant increases in hitting distances at the highest level are undesirable.”
But of course, the yardage has crept up and up, albeit at nowhere near such a dramatic rate – ultimately improving 25 yards in the past 20 years. Other balls and manufacturers have followed suit with evolving their balls, but the Pro V1 is still by far the most played ball on Tour.
So now we know why the clubs are improving distance, and the balls too. But what about the players themselves?
Image credit: Nike
Without wishing to open up a whole new can of worms, the ‘are professional golfers athletes?’ debate has been raging almost as long as the distance debate. To me, it’s perhaps easier to answer it simply. If professional golfers aren’t athletes, then they sure as hell train like them.
Started by Gary Player, it was Tiger Woods’ fitness regime that really provided modern players with the motivation and drive to look less like John Daly and more like Rory McIlroy. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the statistics back it up either.
Clearly, if players are seeking power in their drives – along with the twists, stretches and crouches that all rounds of golf demand, then having a strong level of general fitness is essential to be at your best. As Kevin Duffy, Lee Westwood’s golf fitness coach, puts it “McIlroy can now hit the ball well over 330 yards because he can swing at a higher pace but maintain control as well.”
Duffy continues, “Golfers need a strong core – partly for energy transfer but also for injury-prevention.” That’s not forgetting the most important body part for golfers, legs. “With strong legs you can create a lot of coil. As the club moves upwards the legs provide resistance at the bottom of the swing, and then when the club is on the way down the legs hold and maintain the correct position in the lower body to allow your upper-body to unwind faster. Squats and deadlifts are great for enhancing leg power.”
So, when discussing the distance that players can now hit the ball, we now know why the club, ball and player themselves are all responsible for the extreme lengths. But how can golf combat it, and should they?
While no one wants to see a 10,000-yard course, not to mention how expensive it would be to lengthen so many, golf course architects still have plenty of ways to make a round harder without adding yards – whether narrowing the fairways, adding more hazards or making surfaces faster.
Besides, despite driving distances getting longer, there’s no indication that the so-called ‘big hitters’ are winning more tournaments than shorter drivers. Golf is a game of consummate skill, it’s not simply a long-drive contest.
We’ll leave the last word to our Golf Care Ambassador and three-time Ryder Cup captain, Bernard Gallacher.
“I never see why people get so upset about low scores in tournaments, I find it great to watch. Spectators come to see pros hitting good shots and sinking putts. If every game saw golfers struggling and winning by single scores, it’s not much fun – double-digit winning scores is where the spectacle is.
When I was 14-years-old, going to watch tournaments, I wanted to see the pros hitting great shots. No-one enjoys seeing the courses set up so strongly that everyone is chipping out of the rough. What’s good for the golfers is good for the fans.”
We couldn’t have put it better ourselves.