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What Does the USGA’s Distance Report Mean for Golf Tournaments?

12 Feb, 2020

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

With much fanfare, the USGA released its Distance Insights Report, showing that hitting distances and lengths of golf courses have been increasing for 100 years.

That’s not exactly earth-shattering news to pros on the tour, but it does raise questions for those who organize and host events, both at the pro and the amateur level. Does it change the game? Will different venues be needed? How does this affect the sport?

To answer those questions, it’s important to start from the ground up. First of all, download the report here. It’s free and you can follow along with the points made. (Note: An abbreviated version, showing just the key conclusions, can be found here).

Golfers at the pro level are hitting further than they ever did. The Golf Channel notes, “That research in the 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, in particular, distances increased at a rate of roughly one yard per year, with the top 20 increasing by eight yards and the average rising by seven yards. Left unchecked, the report says, it’s possible that elite players might soon be able to generate swing speeds of 145 mph, ball speeds topping 215 mph and drives in excess of 400 yards.”

Side note: Yikes. That is a distinct increase – no question about it. And several factors contribute to it, added the Golf Channel: “Coupled with modern swing principles and technology that helps players optimize their swing speed, launch angle and ball speed – in addition to firmer, drier course conditions – the biggest hitters are longer than ever before.”

The venues are getting longer as a result. The report clearly shows that golf course lengths, meaning the total length from a course's longest tees – have been increasing overall over the 100-year period. Keiser University’s School of Golf points to one specific example: In 2000, Augusta National, the home of Masters, was measured at 6,985 yards. However, 10 years later, Augusta had increased in length to 7,435 yards.

That’s creating a marketing angle for cities who want to host big-name events: Golf Monthly notes, “Perhaps adding an extra 30 yards here or there might sway the selectors when [an event is] choosing a venue.” And certainly, being able to boast the greatest yardage is an advantage.

But not all events need that. The pro market, while lucrative, is only a small percentage of the events out there. Not only golf tournaments that are held in conjunction with conventions and professional meetings, but children’s, high school and collegiate tournaments are looking for homes. Those places don’t need a course so extensive and challenging that it is unplayable – and there are far more amateur golfers than professionals. Which, of course, leads to the next problem with longer courses.

The biggest concern, however, is that it those greater distances are off-putting for the rest of the golfing universe because longer and more challenging courses are a direct problem for those who want to grow the game from the beginner level up. Golf Monthly adds: “For amateur golfers, the focus should be on enjoyment, and few will like struggling to reach par 4s in regulation and needing a driver on par 3s.” It also notes, “When it comes to the best golf holes, bigger is rarely better. A par 4 of 350 yards demanding precision from the tee, a clear strategy and an accurate approach to a tricky green asks far more of the golfer than a straightforward par 4 of 450 yards that simply requires two mighty belts. And the former will almost always be significantly more memorable.”

And the USGA agrees with this: “Longer distances, longer courses, playing from longer tees and longer times to play are taking golf in the wrong direction,” the report states, “and are not necessary to make golf challenging, enjoyable or sustainable in the future.”

It's Not Just the USGA either: Golf World, in dissecting the Distance Insights Report, also noted that back in 2018, Sports Marketing Surveys released its Global Stakeholder Persectives Report on golf. And in that report, nearly 60 percent of those surveyed agreed with the statement, “recreational golf and professional golf are as different as two different sports.” To extrapolate, it is clear that players see a need for courses that remain enjoyable and relatable for Saturday duffers, convention golf tournament competitors and others who don’t play at the highest levels – who comprise far more of the industry than pros.

Longer courses aren’t eco-friendly, either: Golf Channel highlighted the fact that longer and larger courses “have put the game at odds with growing societal and environmental concerns, with a need to address escalating issues involving water and chemicals, land use, wildlife and habitat protections, and energy.” (This is something that could impact the view of Millennials – golf’s sweet spot at the moment – whose views on preserving the environment are very strong.)

Both the USGA and R&A Rules Limited acknowledge that they could have – and perhaps should have – done more to curb distance increases prior to the release of their study. In their Joint Statement of Principles, published in 2002, they warned that “further significant increases in hitting distances at the highest level are undesirable ... and will have the impact of seriously reducing the challenge of the game.”

Golf has reached a crossroads – not a flashpoint – and USGA agrees it’s time to retool expectations for what makes a good course and a good experience for everyone. “We just think this continuing cycle of golf courses having to expand is detrimental to the game,” USGA CEO Mike Davis told Golf Channel. “This is not an emergency. We don’t have a crisis. This didn’t happen overnight. But we are looking to solve a problem that we believe is in the best interest of all golfers.”

We haven’t heard the last of this. Davis noted the USGA has not made any specific recommendations; however, it is the first step on a long path. The equipment standards teams of USGA and R&A will now begin a review to assess the wide range of options related to distance.

“In the next 45 days the governing bodies will publish a set of specific research topics and then gather information from stakeholders and manufacturers, a process that is expected to take up to a year,” adds the Golf Channel. “At that time, if necessary, the governing bodies could propose a rules change.”

Whether this means different rules for different levels of play – or one universal set of rules – is, for now, unknown. It’s also unlikely we’ll see anything changing anytime soon.

 “This is a long-term process; this is a multi-year process, a collaborative process,” Davis told the Golf Channel. “For this to work it has to have the golf industry, as a whole, engaged. Through a lot of data research, we have determined there is a problem that golf collectively needs to solve.”

SDM will continue to follow this developing issue.

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