By BOB GREEN
To most golfers, this seems like a rhetorical question. Personally, I wish the ball went farther, as do most non-tour professionals. Actually, I don’t hear current tour professionals calling for the golf ball to be rolled back either.
But some are leading the charge to scale back the ball, or even to have all the tour players play a scaled back version of the same ball? As you can imagine, there’s an uproar from manufacturers and players with contracts.
According to statistics on pgatour.com, in 1980, Dan Pohl was the tour leader with an average of 274.3 yards. Dustin Johnson led the tour in 2015, averaging 317.7 yards. That’s a difference of 43.4 yards. Where did those yards come from? Well, the golf ball is just one of many contributing factors. Let’s take a look!
Course conditions: Fairways on tour are cut at .5 inches, and the PGA Tour Agronomy Staff guarantees that fairways are firm enough to ensure, without heavy rain, that no tee balls come up with mud on them. Thus, the balls tend to roll up to 30 yards after tee shots land. This is contrary to how most clubs prepare their courses for the 35 or so weeks (hopefully) of New England golf. Most of our best-conditioned courses are kept green with a healthy practice of watering.
Members tend to judge playing conditions by the color of the grass: The “Augusta Syndrome” dictates that every blade of grass must be green, and there are questions when they aren’t.
PGA Tour players fitness: Today’s tour players throughout the world are fitness fanatics, regularly visiting the Tour Fitness Trailer, watching their diet, practicing stretching routines and having personal trainers. Up until about 25 to 30 years ago, “working out” was not recommended; a golfer needed flexibility and lifting weights would tighten the muscles. The players today work out constantly, are in incredible shape and still maintain amazing flexibility.
More great players: Today there are so many very good players, capable of winning any given week. The game has attracted more and better athletes in the past 15 to 20 years. These numbers create more competition, which keeps moving the bar higher. There are also tours throughout the world, providing opportunity for players to develop their skills to the point where they can compete on the PGA Tour. Look at the large number of players on our tour who were born in countries other than the U.S.
The clubs: The improvement in golf equipment during the past 35 years might exceed the gains the golf ball has made. In the ‘70s, a persimmon or laminated woodheaded driver had a 43 inch steel shaft that weighed 145 grams. Today’s Titanium drivers are 460 cubic centimeters, are 45-45.75 inches long and have a graphite shaft that can weigh as little as 45 grams.
In 1980, the tour average for driver club head speed was 104 mph; in 2016 it was 113 mph.
In 1980, the standard loft for a pitching wedge was 52 degrees; today it’s 44 or 45 degrees.
In the ‘60s, a 7 iron was 40 degrees; in 2016, the Titleist AP1 7 iron is 31 degrees and 1 inch longer than its ancestor.
Club fitting: Today’s tour professionals have total access to launch monitors. Most, in fact, own one themselves. These incredible pieces of technology (for $30,000!) allow the tour player to optimize launch conditions with the fine tuning of launch angle and ball spin rate among other things, and pinpoint for them, the most efficient club head, loft, shaft and golf ball to maximize carry and roll.
No guessing for them.
Still wonder why the ball goes farther?
And now, back to the star of the show: the golf ball. The Titleist Pro V1, a solid core ball, debuted in late 2000.
Take a look at the average driving distances on tour:
2000 •••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••• 272.8
2001 •••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••• 278.8
2002 •••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••• 279.5
2003 •••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••• 285.9
2004 •••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••• 286.5
2005 •••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••• 289.7
In 5 years, driving distance went up 17 yards.
The equipment, including the ball, has actually served to level the playing field on the tour.
During 2000 to 2002 there was only one PGA Tour player averaging more than 300 yards: John Daly. I
n 2014, there were 25 players who averaged 300 yards; and 26 in 2015.
What have improvements done to scoring? We keep hearing the ball is making the great courses obsolete, or major redesigns are necessary to lengthen courses and keep them challenging.
Well, let’s look at the numbers. In 1947, Jimmy Demaret won the PGA Tour’s Vardon Trophy, presented to the tour player each year who has the lowest stroke average for a certain number of rounds. His average was 69.90. Check out the list of others:
1948 > Ben Hogan – 69.30
1979 > Tom Watson – 70.27
1980 > Lee Trevino – 69.73
2002 > Tiger Woods – 67.79 (a record)
2016 > Dustin Johnson – 69.17
Yes, courses have been lengthened and green speeds have increased — factors that somewhat neutralize the gains in distance. But the statistics don’t seem to indicate any major changes are needed to anything.
In 1963, Jack Nicklaus won the PGA Championship’s Long Drive Competition with a measured drive of 341 yards. That was with a persimmon headed, 43 inch steel shaft and a wound golf ball. Today, Jack is one of the leaders of “the ball goes to far” brigade. Really, Jack? It didn’t go too far when you were flying it past most of your fellow competitors from 1962 to 1980 or so.
As long as the cup stays the same size, the game will continue to be a challenge to everyone who plays the game, from Jason Day to the beginner.
I’ve been teaching golf for 47 years, and the equipment improvements since 1970 have enabled so many more golfers to hit the ball a little more consistently, possibly straighter, and a little longer than with the old-school ball and clubs. Because of that, they derive more enjoyment from playing and will hopefully want to play more.
As for the PGA Tour Players, I’d rather see bombs than bunts, and more birdies than bogeys.
In 2002, my then-21-year-old son went to the Greater Hartford Open with some friends. It was a decent field. Phil Mickelson was playing. When he got home that night I asked him who they had followed. I was waiting for him to say “Mickelson”, but that’s not who they followed. Along with about 20,000 other spectators, they watched John Daly.
I go to the Honda Classic in Florida every March with three or four other pros. We are always in search of the “bombers” in the field. We’re not much different than my son and his friends were in 2002.
He talked about Daly’s drives that whole summer. As you read in the stats above how many players averaged 300-plus yards on tour, more of today’s pros hit it like John Daly today, providing a real show for golf fans.
The stats also show that courses are still a challenge. There really isn’t a significant scoring difference from 1947 through 2016, so where’s the harm?
The USGA is the governing body of golf in North America. In the past 8 to 10 years it has implemented strict controls and limits regarding equipment. Driver heads can not exceed 460 cubic centimeters.
The ball is limited to a certain speed off the club head when swung by the modern-day Iron Byron at the incredibly advanced testing facility.
So now, manufacturers design and research teams have to find new ways to increase performance of the next generation of clubs, things like head and shaft materials, and moving weight around the head as we’ve seen recently in adjustable drivers. Good things for every golfer to help them play better.
As I get older and shorter off the tee every year, I really wish the ball went farther.
Speak up if you feel differently. The silence is deafening. Now if they can just do something about putting…
Bob Green is the head PGA professional at Tedesco Country Club in Marblehead. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.