Fallacies of the Golf Ball Distance Debate

March 5, 2018

Does the golf ball fly too far? Depending on who you ask, you will likely receive a number of different points and counterpoints as a response. Somewhere in that population of customers, however, you will also hear a number of false equivalencies, ad hominem attacks and even a few red herrings before your conversation ends.

Earlier this morning golf’s governing bodies — the USGA and R&A — released their third annual report on driving distance for everyone to peruse and debate throughout their Monday. Social media exploded as the game’s numerous talking heads weighed in on a debate that has existed for years, yet has gained momentum in recent months.

Suddenly, seen in the preamble of this year’s report, the conversation took an interesting turn:

“The 2015 and 2016 editions of the distance report presented the increases in driving distance since 2003 as a slow creep of around 0.2 yards per year,” the report’s preamble reads. “The 2017 data shows a deviation from this trend. The average distance gain across the seven worldwide tours was more than 3 yards since 2016.”

In years past the USGA and R&A have done little more than acknowledge that golf balls are probably flying further than ever before, however have come short of suggesting anything “significant” let alone signs of a problem. The difference this year, according to them, is the fact that distance increases are being seen across multiple tours and among multiple player groups.

In other words, the data has finally gotten to a point where golf’s big wigs can no longer look the other way.

Alas, those who doubt golf’s growing distance issue are more than ready to rely on questionable logic to brush the concern under the proverbial rug once again.

Here are a few of my favorite arguments that I’ve heard on this topic. I’ve done my best to remain open-minded, however it might be time to try another strategy.

“Driver distances are not significantly increasing one year to the next.”

This is true. Driver distances, in terms of average yardage, are not increasing by a statistically significant amount every calendar year. But that’s kind of how data works when you deal with large sample sizes and averages.

According to the report, “variability in driving distance of 4 or more yards from season to season on any one tour is not uncommon.” Furthermore, even though “the average driving distance on each of the men’s tours
monitored was longer in 2017 than at the end of any previous season,” comparing the average distance in 2016 to that of 2017 is still only comparing two data points. When over 40,000 shots is your population, it is highly unlikely to see a statistically significant difference when comparing two samples.

However, this doesn’t mean distances aren’t increasing as a whole. In fact, while the report suggests total distance has only increased less than 3 percent since 2003, this only tells half of the story.

Consider this data visualization from DataGolf.ca, which shows average driver distance every year on the PGA TOUR since 1983:

As you can see, the total distribution of players continuously shifts to the right of the graph over time, suggesting a significant increase in distance. This is obviously due to advancements in equipment over the span of 30+ years — admittedly making this an apples vs oranges counterpoint — however the point remains the same: everyone is hitting the ball further.

Also of note: the shift seems to “slow down” during recent years, which may explain the subtle total increase in distance referenced in the report. This is a fine example of how data scope can greatly alter your interpretation of the story.

“The longer hitters on TOUR will still out-drive the shorter hitters no matter what.”

In the event of a golf ball roll back — which the USGA has hinted at many times in the past — another classic argument surfaces: long hitters will still pound the ball, so how does this fix anything?

Supporters of that argument are missing the point. The issue isn’t that players like Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson, Tony Finau and Rory McIlroy are hitting the ball farther than their competitors. The issue is they are dwarfing golf courses in the process.

During my recent conversation with well-known golf instructor Michael Breed, the topic of golf course architecture and golf hole design was discussed. Breed argued, like many others, that golf course playing conditions are more likely to cause greater driving distances than the golf ball itself. He’s correct: hard, rolled fairways on TOUR are closer to asphalt than grass, and golf balls will roll for miles.

His recommendation to toughen up golf courses by growing rough and softening up the turf could decrease distances as a whole. However, if you support this line of thinking and are concerned with the shorter hitters on TOUR, wouldn’t this shift also impact them?

It seems that rolling back the golf ball is a bad idea, however toughening up golf courses makes more sense. I don’t understand that logic when everyone is still affected either way.

“Nobody is going to want to buy a limited flight golf ball.”

Nobody is suggesting anybody has to.

No matter how many times it is said, some people still can’t see to grasp the concept that nobody wants to take distance away from Grandpa. The professional tours are in a completely different world that the rest of us. Regular, Average Joe golfers like you and me should be allowed to play anything we damn well please as long as it makes us happy.

Manufacturers can still produce and sell any golf ball they want; however, if you are going to compete as a professional, what’s the harm in playing a Pros-Only golf ball?

“Because the USGA/R&A have always standardized the rules for all golfers.”

Guess what? They’ve also admitted bifurcation already exists between pros and amateurs, although not overtly.

I totally understand the desire to standardize rules and regulations for everyone who participates in a sport. I also understand that changing anything in the Rules of Golf often takes an act of god, however the powers that be broke this mold recently as a flurry of common sense descended upon the land.

What is preventing another adjustment to the rules, especially when every piece of equipment being produced these days wants you to hit the ball farther and data validates the trend is not stopping any time soon?

It’s time to come to terms with the fact that we do not play the same game as professionals. It looks the same, you keep score the same way… but it simply is not the same game any longer.

It makes no sense to play two games by one set of rules.

What are your thoughts on this debate? Did I miss any other popular arguments you’ve heard? Let me know what you think in the comments below, or send me an email at golfunfiltered@gmail.com.