On Feb. 4 of this year the USGA and the R&A issued a comprehensive report titled “Conclusions from the distance insights project: Implications of hitting distance in golf.” Data on hitting distances has been collected since 1996 on male golfers at six different venues in the UK, usually between May and September. For female golfers distance data has been collected at eight different venues since 2013.
The research in the full 99-page report focuses extensively on the driving distance of “highly skilled male golfers” for whom more information is readily available. From 2003-2019, the governing bodies noted that the average drive of the 20 longest hitters on the PGA and European tours had increased to 310 yards, with the average driving distance overall at 294 yards. Since 2013 distances increased at a rate of roughly one yard per year, with the top 20 increasing by eight yards. Left unchecked, the report says, it is possible that elite players might soon be able to generate swing speeds of 145 mph and drives regularly in excess of 400 yards.
These increases at the professional level are not solely due to equipment innovation. The report recognizes that evolving athleticism of the top players is also a factor. Many of them have focused on fitness and flexibility to maximize their performance. Modern swing principles and technology now help players optimize their swing speed, launch angle and ball speed. Consequently, the biggest hitters are longer than ever before.
The R&A and the USGA issued this Joint Statement of Principles on distance:
“Any further significant increases in hitting distances at the highest level are undesirable. Whether these increases in distance emanate from advancing equipment technology, greater athleticism of players, improved player coaching, golf course conditioning or a combination of these or other factors, they will have the impact of seriously reducing the challenge of the game.”
Zephyr Melton wrote an editorial on Golf.com titled “Here’s how far amateur golfers drove the ball in 2019”. He points out that the report shares data in a chart showing changes in amateur driving distances for male golfers from 1996 to 2019. Average distance across all handicaps in 1996 was 200 yards but has been steadily increasing and topped out in 2017. In 2019, the average driving distance for male amateur golfers was just 216 yards. This data was collected from 1141 shots of players with varying handicaps. It is not surprising to see that lower handicap players have longer average driving distances when breaking it down by handicap. Players with handicaps less than 6 average 239 yards, compared to 177 yards for 21+ handicappers (6-12/220 yds, 13-20/200 yds).
Female golfers had an average driving distance of 148 yards in 2019, and the difference between high and low handicap players is even more drastic. Low handicap players average 197 yards off the tee, while players with handicaps of 29+ average just 120 yards. There is a full breakdown in chart form in the report if you wish to review it.
As if amateurs needed any more reminding, the data in the report reflects just how large the gap is between them and professionals. This season, the PGA Tour average driving distance is 297 yards, while the leader in that category is Cameron Champ at 322 yards. This is over 100 yards longer than the average male amateur.
This report is a difficult but interesting read. The bottom line is that the USGA and the R&A are probably looking at future rule changes to limit the driving distance of the modern golf ball. I just hope they consider the difference between pros and amateurs and leave us alone. My new Callaway Mavrik has given me a few extra yards and I’m loving it.