Is there a distance problem in golf?


Golfers today, regardless of skill level, are able to hit the ball farther than ever before in the history of the game. That is irrefutable, unquestionable, and undeniable. But are these distance gains presenting a problem to the game? That's more difficult to determine.

Elephant in the room

The question of whether or not the modern golfer is hitting the ball "too far" has been asked for years. In 2012, Steven Levitt of Freakonomics fame opined that golf's governing bodies focus less on putter anchoring and more on golf ball flight distances. Although extreme, Levitt envisioned a golf ball technology that would allow for a smaller gap in distance variance based on swing speed.

What I’m looking for is an alteration to balls or clubs such that someone who swings the club 100 mph still hits the ball the same distance as now, but someone who swings 130 mph hits it, say, 60 yards farther than the guy who hits it 100 mph, instead of 90 yards farther.

In 2015 Business Insider reminisced on golf's rapid technology boom through the years, specifically in the driver category. While not earth shattering and excessively obvious, distance gains provided by equipment innovation remained the elephant in the room.

Even the great Jack Nicklaus got in on the distance conversation when he declared this gem in 2016:

Change the friggin' golf ball. The golf ball goes so far, Augusta National is about the only place, the only golf course in the world that financially can afford to make the changes that they have to make to keep up with the golf ball. I don't think anybody else could ever do it.

There are of course other quotes and articles predating the above that speak to the increasing length (heh) in golf shots across the board, but I'll leave that for you to research. The point remains the same: everybody is well aware that golf balls are flying farther.

So... this means there's a distance problem, right?

The data does not (totally) agree...

Golf's governing bodies have done all they can to poo-poo the idea that there is a distance "problem."

In fact, it wasn't until February 2017 when the USGA finally conceded that there was a "small uptick" in driving distance. Their report, co-published by the R&A, suggested (among other things) that between the years 2003 and 2016, the average driving distance on five of seven professional tours increased only 1.2 percent. That's about 0.2 yards per year.

Immediately the majority of golfers and internet tough guys suggested this was enough "proof" that any distance conspiracy was laughable.

Oh, but statistics are a funny thing, kids.

...or does it?

I'm not convinced about the data collection parameters used by golf's governing bodies. Anyone who works with stats daily knows that you can make numbers say whatever you want them to say. Averages have a nice tendency to hide outliers, and with a large enough sample size you can prove -- or disprove -- just about anything.

Just this week Golf Digest's Mike Stachura tweeted out the following:

Interesting stuff from an expert who deals with equipment every day.

Speaking of which, when was the last time you heard about a new driver that didn't promise more distance? Fancy PR language might wrap it in a combination of "lower CG" or "higher MOI", but at the end of the day it's all designed to help sucky golfers like you and me hit the ball longer.

But wait, there's more!

Golf equipment isn't the only segment of the industry that is literally jumping up and down screaming MORE DISTANCE. Golf architecture is also in that conversation.

On the most recent episode of the Fore Golfers Network Podcast, host Bill Hobson interviews Dana Fry, the architect of Erin Hills, the site of the 2017 US Open. In it, Fry explains how the process of building a golf course has changed over the years.

I'm paraphrasing -- so please listen to the episode for his direct quote -- but Fry basically says architects in the past would estimate a drive's landing area (where they would then build bunkers) around 260 yards. This distance has changed considerably over time where now, according to Fry, landing areas can be as long as 340 yards from the tee.

Hell, don't take my word for it. Google "golf course renovation" and see how many results come up that include lengthening golf holes in the renovation.

So is there a distance problem in golf?

The problem with distance in golf is not how far shots are flying. Instead, it's how you define the word "problem."

While it is UNDENIABLE that golf shots are flying farther (yeah, I'm not letting up on that), the scoring average of most anyone who plays the game hasn't changed much. While that is a red herring and shame on you for even considering that as an argument against, some people would chalk that up as no problem.

However, millions of dollars are being spent every year to renovate courses (Augusta National, anyone?) to account for longer shots. At some point space will run out and, with enough time, scores will drop. Some will say that is a big problem.

Then again, so what if we start scoring better? Isn't that the point? Golf equipment companies believe so and will continue selling you products in that vein.

What do you think? Is distance a problem in golf?

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