Rapid advances in golf ball technology over the past two to three decades that makes them fly straighter and farther than ever has rendered many historic courses obsolete and dramatically changed the way the game is played at the professional level.
The average driving distance on the PGA Tour has jumped by 13% since 1993, rising from an average of just over 260 yards to more than 295 yards in 2018. Much of those gains were realized during a brief ten-year period between 1993 and 2003, when average distance jumped from 260 all the way to 287.
While the pace of change has slowed over the last decade, 2018 saw the second-biggest year-over-year jump in average distance in the last 15 years, an increase of 2.4 yards.
Veterinarian Dr. Joel B Akin, an avid golf enthusiast for many years, worries that professional golf has reached a tipping point where any further distance could threaten the integrity of the game and viewer interest in it.
He laments that many tournaments have already become drive, pitch, and putt shows, with limited usage of long irons or woods and the necessity of shaping the ball almost eliminated from the game. Instead of having to work the ball around courses and manage their game, players can just blast it right over many courses’ doglegs and leave themselves a straightforward pitch for their approach shot.
The famed Augusta National, home of the annual Masters tournament, is one of several courses that have made extensive changes over the years to keep up with changes to club and ball technology, lengthening several holes, narrowing their fairways and adding more hazards.
Despite those efforts, scores continue to fall, with 2018 runner-up Rickie Fowler’s 274 score being tied for the lowest ever by a player that didn’t win the Green Jacket.
Amateurs Could Be Negatively Impacted by Ball Rollbacks
While there is a threat to the professional game, Dr. Joel B Akin notes that on the other hand, better golf club and ball technology is generally good for the overall health of the game, allowing amateurs to feel more competent and motivating them to get out on the links more often.
He worries that any rule changes that are implemented by the USGA to limit the distance gained via clubs and balls would impact all levels of golf, removing much of the incentive for equipment and ball manufacturers to research and develop new technologies that would be disallowed at the highest levels of the sport.
He says that making golf balls and clubs the sole scapegoats for the professional game’s distance problem is also disingenuous, as there are several other factors that have contributed to the rise in distance.
As with baseball, where launch angle has become better understood and is widely credited with the recent surge in home runs, so too has launch angle become a focus among pro golfers, rising by close to 2 degrees since 2007, even as backspin has been reduced by 500 RPM, increasing the amount of roll players get on their drives.
That said, you can’t exactly force players to change the way they hit the ball, which is why the focus remains on altering balls and clubs, the debate over which will likely rage for years to come.