Is golf’s power-hitting era reaching a breaking point?

Golf balls are going further but courses can’t keep getting longer – something has to give

A couple of months ago when Rory McIlroy finished his pre-tournament press conference ahead of the Phoenix Open he looked around the room at the reporters in front of him and did something you'd be hard-pressed to find any other sportsperson do.

He asked for another question.

One day earlier, golf’s governing bodies – the USGA and the R&A – had released an update to their 2020 Distance Insights Report which was the clearest indication yet that they are getting serious about reining in how far the golf ball goes.

In summary, the governing bodies have sought comment from manufacturers on three proposed equipment changes which would limit the length of a driver shaft to 46 inches, update golf ball testing and update driver testing.

However, the findings also state that the USGA and the R&A are looking into “the potential use of a Local Rule that would specify the use of clubs and/or balls intended to result in shorter hitting distances,” and “a review of the overall conformance specifications for both clubs and balls”.

In short: the trend which has seen the sport’s top players hit the ball further and further as the years go on is likely to stop, or at least slow down, in the coming years.

Last year Bryson DeChambeau topped the PGA Tour driving distance stats with a 329-yard average while 72 players averaged 300 yards or more. A decade ago, in 2010, just 12 players averaged 300 yards or more. Go back another 10 years to 2000 and John Daly was the only player averaging over 300 yards off the tee.

Since then DeChambeau's big-hitting has become centre stage with his 370 yard-plus drives on Bay Hill's Par 5 sixth hole at the Arnold Palmer Invitational going viral on social media, bringing golf's power era to the attention of even the most casual fans.

McIlroy is, of course, one of the game’s biggest hitters and on that Wednesday in Phoenix he was ready to get some frustrations off his chest. He duly did just that by branding the entire exercise “a huge waste of time and money”.

Inevitably McIlroy’s “waste of time and money” comments made the headlines but what he said later on was, in fact, more important.

Not for the first time the four-time Major winner said he would be in favour of some sort of bifurcation in the game meaning that the players at the top level would use restricted equipment while the regular player who, as McIlroy said, makes up 99 per cent of the game, would continue to use current equipment.

“If they want to try to make the game more difficult for us or try to incorporate more skill to the game, I would be all for that because I think it only benefits the better player, which I feel like I am,” he said.

Local rule

While McIlroy’s headline comments may have seemed like a slap in the face for the game’s authorities, his follow-up about separating the rules around equipment for the top players and everyone else is consistent with one of the report’s “areas of interest” which sets out the idea for a local rule – which could be used only at the top level – that would specify the use of, for example, a golf ball that would only fly 80 per cent of the distance the current ball does.

Local rules in the professional game which are not used in amateur game are nothing new. For instance, there is a local rule in place which prohibits professionals from changing what model of golf ball they’re using during a round.

Next week the world's best will take to the fairways at Augusta National. Given the place the Masters holds in the world of golf, the green jackets who make the decisions at Augusta can be quite influential and it is no surprise that many wonder if they would be the first to buck the trend in years to come and tell the players they can only use a limited distance ball at the first Major of each year.

At last year’s Masters in November, DeChambeau could be seen landing drives within a few yards of the media centre which is some 380 yards from the teeing ground on the driving range at Augusta.

A number of interested green jacketed-members were sitting on the veranda watching it all unfold and there’s little doubt the distance discussion has been dominating the conversations in the Augusta National clubhouse for quite some time now.

The club is no stranger to adapting with a view to protecting their course from the ever increasing distances the top pros hit the ball. In the early 2000s the moniker of 'Tiger-proofing' was adopted to describe what the green jackets had done to the course after Tiger Woods tore it apart in 1997.

Since then the club has loaned the city council money to complete a $17 million realigning of a main road along the boundary of the course to create more space for the expansion of the fifth hole while the much-talked about lengthening of the famous Par 5 13th may soon become reality after the club bought a large portion of land from neighbouring Augusta Country Club in 2017 which gives the option to use a tee box much further back in the trees, thereby stopping players launching drives over the corner of the dogleg and leaving, at times, only a wedge for their second shots.

In a similar vein, the last time the British Open was held at St Andrews in 2015 the R&A were forced to put the tee box on the famous Road Hole (the 17th) in a field to the right of the 16th which is, technically, out of bounds.

Other tee boxes had to be positioned around the boundaries of the Old Course on the New Course, the Eden Course and even on the Himalayas putting course. In total the walks from greens to tee boxes amounts to 1,000 yards. That's a lot of walking which takes a long time and throws the issue of slow play into the mix of problems created by the ball going too far.

Meeting rooms

Even the Old Course at St Andrews, the home of golf and the home of the R&A, has become too small for the game’s best to play the way it was meant to be played.

With the 150th staging of the British Open set for the old links in 2022 there is a real fear that, if the weather is benign for four days, the players will tear the most famous course in the world to shreds. It’s safe to say such a thought doesn’t go down too well in the meeting rooms at R&A headquarters.

At Bay Hill – where DeChambeau reduced the Par 5 sixth to a drive and an 80-yard wedge shot – there was a classic example of what has to be done to courses to make them playable for the game’s top level where, on the Par 4 15th, players were hitting over a row of hedges and a road from a tee box on the resort’s other course.

Golf course architect and former West of Ireland, East of Ireland and Irish Close champion Ken Kearney is firmly of the view that distance needs to limited to stop courses expanding and manage golf's footprint on the environment.

“I always talk about the rhythm of the walk-back and how the rhythm of the game is disturbed when you get to a green and you have to walk back 30, 50 or 80 yards to a tee,” he says.

“It completely grinds the game to a halt and people maybe don’t get it until they’ve been on a good golf course and they continually walk forward and keep moving forward on the routing. It creates such a disconnect to have to walk back and that’s just a result of technology and golf balls going further.”

Bifurcation is nothing new in a lot of sports. For instance, in baseball players use aluminium bats at amateur level while only wooden bats are allowed in professional leagues because, otherwise, the ballpark is just too small for the sport’s best. When they become the norm, home runs just aren’t that exciting anymore.

However, the idea of bringing in different regulations for professionals and amateurs inevitably throws up questions of where do you draw the line? Is it only professionals who use limited equipment? What about elite amateurs? Would it make more sense to just limit equipment across the board?

According to the report from the USGA and R&A, golf courses opened since 1980 occupy, on average, 205 acres of land in comparison to courses opened before then which average 150 acres. Not only does it cost much more to maintain a 205-acre course but it also requires more water and more fertilisation at a time when the UN predicts that the world’s water supplies will fall 40 per cent short of demand by 2030.

Added to that, Kearney says that the majority of work his company carries out these days is resolving safety issues on golf courses because, with the ball flying so far and high, houses along the boundaries and people on the course are in danger.

Land banks

“We’re going around fixing stuff like that and trying to render it safe and it’s just compromising golf courses everywhere. While we’re not building any more golf courses really, when we talk about land banks we mean the area that’s required to play the game so to make it from 350 yards to 450 yards the space has to come from somewhere and all of that stuff has to be maintained and so on,” he says.

“Who pays the machinery bills? Who pays for the men to drive these machines on these bigger areas and the wear and tear on the machines and the diesel bills and the carbon footprint, if you want to go down that road, is just becoming so big. It’s unsustainable and ultimately it’s the golfers who pay.

“Wherever the golf club is, if they have a safety issue it always ends up costing money to remodel a green or remodel a tee – a green complex is anything from €30,000 to €50,000, a tee complex anything from €10,000 to €15,000 so somebody pays to keep those golf balls within the confines of our land banks.

I see at so many clubs the seniors are playing off the medal tees and they can't reach the fairways

“You try to keep people playing golf for longer. I see at so many clubs the seniors are playing off the medal tees and they can’t reach the fairways and it’s three or four shots to try and get on a Par 4 and you say to them ‘well why don’t you play off the red tees? Or we’ll build a set of silver tees for you and you can play it at 5,000 yards,’ but there’s a little bit of it in us all that we’re a little bit macho and we say ‘no I’m not playing off those tees’ but when they get there they love it. It’s great that people are starting to realise that golf is not about beating yourself up, it’s about getting out for a walk in a nice landscape and enjoying it.”

Many, including McIlroy, believe that increasing distance is only becoming a problem at the very top level of the game and, ultimately, that’s the main decision the authorities will need to make – whether to split the game at professional and amateur level or roll everything back across the board.

After missing the cut at the Players Championship, McIlroy admitted that seeing what DeChambeau had done in winning the US Open at Winged Foot had caused him to go chasing more speed in his swing – something Dustin Johnson and Tony Finau have also said they experimented with.

The fact is, as well, that a rollback would be all relative. DeChambeau would still be the longest hitter and would still reap the huge benefits he has gained from the hard work he has put in, if not even gaining more of an advantage.

The Californian has got other players, fans and the authorities thinking and he is just the first to do so. Rest assured a long line of aspiring young pros are looking to emulate the US Open champion and reduce golf courses to drives and wedges.

The toothpaste may well be out of the tube already and the next question is whether the authorities are willing to put it back in. The one certainty is that courses simply can’t continue to get longer and longer. Something has to give.

Average Driving Distance on the PGA Tour

2020

DeChambeau 322 yards

* 72 players averaged more than 300 yards

2010

Robert Garrigus 315 yards

* 12 players averaged more than 300 yards

2000

John Daly 301 yards

* No-one else averaged over 300 yards

1990

Tom Purtzer 279 yards

1980

Dan Pohl 274 yards

1970

Jack Nicklaus 270 yards