400 Yards and Counting…

Photo Courtesy of Titleist

The shock and outrage in the media in response to Bryson DeChambeau’s driving distances last Thursday and Friday was eclipsed over the weekend by Jon Rahm’s win that advanced him to the top of the world rankings. But we haven’t heard the last “what can be done to stop him?” take from just about everyone. These are the same people who predicted the end of the world as we know it when Tiger was hitting 350 yard drives around the corner at #13 at Augusta in 1997. And before that, they were freaking out when Jack won the long drive competition at the 1963 PGA Championship with a 341 yard drive (with a persimmon driver!). And I’m sure Bobby Jones caused some ruffled feathers in his day when he swung his hickory driver at 117 mph

Tournament golf has survived all of these paradigm shifts just fine, thank you. Sure, course designers for Tour-caliber courses have had to lengthen or adjust many holes over the years to keep design features like fairway bunkers and doglegs relevant, but that’s not representative of the golf industry as a whole. So when Augusta National has to throw a few million dollars at some strip mall owner to move a tee back 30 yards, forgive me if I don’t join the mob protesting outside the USGA headquarters.

Jack was in the broadcast booth several times during the Memorial broadcast, and he spoke at length about the need to dial back the golf ball. I have enormous respect for Jack Nicklaus, both for his playing record and design career, so I don’t disagree with him easily. The governing bodies have been pressured to “do something” about the distance gains over the past 40 years, and I think there’s a reason the only action they’ve taken is to limit the “trampoline effect” of drivers several years ago: longer driving distances are good for the game. 

I think limiting the distance of golf balls or creating a “tournament ball” for use in Tour events is a bad idea, for a number of reasons:

  1. The longest hitters are still going to have a relative distance advantage over the shorter hitters.
  2. The golf equipment industry is based on the idea that “you can play the same equipment the pros play”. Who’s going to want to play a ball that’s 10-15% shorter than anything else out there? What manufacturer would want to sink money into developing a ball like that, with no consumer market at all?
  3. If the USGA’s primary goal is to grow the sport, backing down the distance will make it less interesting for many fans. Who wants to hear Nick Faldo exclaiming “Un-be-LIEVable – he just hit that 260 yards!”?   

Ernie Els wasted no time making his position clear last Friday: “We need a ‘serious’ premium on accuracy. Golf courses don’t need to be longer. Make the Tour rough knee high, fairways fast and firm which is fair for all players.

There’s a reason long drive champions can’t be successful playing “real” golf – it’s damn hard to hit it super-long and straight. So if Bryson can figure that out, and putt well, he DESERVES to win tournaments. By definition, that’s what being good at golf IS. And if there are a new generation of players who hit it as far and straight as he does, I say bring it on – who doesn’t like to see records being broken? Ultimately, course designers and superintendents can stay one step ahead of the players by placing a higher premium on accuracy and putting. That was shown at Muirfield Village, where at the Workday Charity Open two weeks ago, Colin Morikawa won at -19 under softer conditions and slower greens, but then the Memorial (at the same course) featured hard, fast conditions and scores were brought back down to where only 9 players broke par for the tournament (oh, and Bryson didn’t even make the cut).     

Golf Magazine just did a story on how the average driving distance of the longest driver on the PGA Tour has increased dramatically over the past 40 years (from 274.3 yards by Dan Pohl in 1980 to Bryson today at 323.8 yards). To me, that’s only a mildly interesting story because none of the guys listed, with the exception of Dustin Johnson, were ever dominant. Guys like Bubba and John Daly blasted it, won a couple majors, and people loved it. But it’s not like the game became easy, or that the course preparation for majors couldn’t respond. 

The bottom line is that it’s actually very rare to be able to drive it long and straight. Bryson is #1 in distance, but 105th in accuracy. If you want to force him to stop bombing it, make the tradeoff more expensive – thick rough and narrow fairways are a great equalizer. Interesting side note: one of Jack Nicklaus’ more obscure records that probably will never be broken is his 1980 Total Driving stat (combination of driving distance ranking with driving accuracy ranking) of 23. Since the 2000s, nobody has come close to that figure, with the average accuracy rank of the top 10 in driving distance coming in at 152.9. 

Watching Bryson crush the ball is an interesting side show, and if he wins a lot, more power to him. In the meantime, we need to be more concerned about pants.    

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