Drilling Down On Distance

The argument is all wrong. The anti-modernists screech at the top of their lungs that today’s golf equipment is wrecking the game, particularly at the highest level. They couldn’t be more misled.

In fact, there are some areas that today’s PGA Tour players are worse at than they were 20 years ago. We know that there are lies, perfect lies, buried lies, damned lies and statistics. We utilize the latter to throw some light onto some hitherto dark areas. We look at six statistical categories from last year, 10 years ago and 20 years ago. And we take the No. 1 player and the No. 70 player in each category (see chart). The numbers speak for themselves.


Let’s get the distance issue on the table and out of the way. Today’s drivers, with their super-engineered clubheads, along with advances in shaft technology and the distance the modern ball travels, make players longer off the tee than ever before. There’s no dispute.

Tour players have benefited from 30 extra yards off the tee on average from 20 years ago. So have the rest of us. A combination of forces produces the prodigious length. Clubheads are better and more forgiving. And golf balls – at all levels – perform like never before.

And the least talked about part of a driver – the shaft – has made more technological inroads than perhaps anything else in clubmaking. Shafts can be dialed in to get the most possible distance out of the club without having to change your swing.

Has more distance ruined the game? Hardly. PGA Tour courses are much longer than they were 10 or 20 years ago, stretching to 7,400 yards or more. At one time, a 430-yard par-4 was a manly hole. Today, on Tour, it’s 480 – or longer. The 500-yard par-4 is now a staple in the professional game. Courses with a par of 70 are becoming more popular with the PGA Tour staff, which limits the long-ballers to only two par 5s per round instead of four.

Purists claim that distance has rendered great old courses obsolete. From whom? Tour players compete on only about 40 courses a year. That leaves the rest for us to play and extra distance isn’t causing even scratch players to bring the Pine Valleys and the Merions and the Seminoles to their knees. The greats are still great.

With all this extra distance, you’d think that Tour players are hitting wedges to every hole, which would mean they are hitting a lot more greens. In fact, it’s just the opposite. The 2011 leader in greens in regulation hit on average just fewer than 13 greens per round. The 70th ranked player was just under 12 greens per round. That’s significantly worse than the stats from 2001 and 1991.

Perhaps the reason for the fall-off is that players are hitting shots to the green from the rough more often. The bombers’ logic is that a wedge from the rough is better than a 7-iron from the fairway. As a result, the top-ranked player in driving accuracy in 2011 only hit 10.5 of 14 fairways per round. The 70th-ranked player hit fewer than nine fairways per round. Once again, significantly worse than 10 and 20 years ago.

So, if today’s Tour player is missing more fairways and greens per round, then surely he chips and putts better with the modern ball. Not true, either. Last year’s leader in scrambling got the ball up and down just over 65 percent of the greens he missed. The 70th-ranked player was successful about 58 percent of the time. Worse still.

In defense of modern players, they must deal with hole locations that are tucked three paces off the edges of greens in many cases during tournament week. However, nothing is ever wrong with hitting the center of the green. From the fairway.

Putting happens to be the one area today’s Tour player is marginally better than his brethren of 10 and 20 years ago. Last year’s leader averaged 27.75 putts per round, which is about a quarter of a stroke better than 10 years ago and a little more than that 20 years ago. Still, that only amounts to about one shot better per tournament.

There are a couple of reasons for the improvement. One is agronomy. Grass strains and green surfaces are better than ever. Tour players compete on almost perfect greens nearly every week. It’s markedly easier to hole putts when the greens are pristine. And Tour players have access to the latest in technology to analyze their putting strokes and thereby get a perfect fit for a putter.

All of which adds up to scoring, which is statistically about even with 2001 and 1991. The 2001 leader in scoring averaged 68.86 strokes per round, .05 worse than 2001 and about three-fourths of a stroke better than 1991.

Hitting the ball farther never made anyone better. And straighter isn’t necessarily the answer, either. You still have to somehow get the ball in the hole. Joe Durant led the PGA Tour in 2011 in driving accuracy and was third in greens in regulation. Yet, he finished 160th on the money list.

Even for the best ball-strikers in the world, it’s still a hard game.

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