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Changing Golf's Focus Away from Distance

One solution favored by several golf notables is the use of a limited-distance ball in professional tournaments. "Wouldn't it be fun to see [pros] hit a four- or five-iron once in a while instead of a sand wedge at every hole?" Jack Nicklaus said recently. Hootie Johnson at Augusta has said that if distance trends continue, the Masters may have to mandate the use of a scaled-back ball unilaterally to keep the course from being overwhelmed. To many of us, however, the prospect of creating a two-tier game is anathema: It would break the empathetic bond that exists between average players and the best in the world, all playing the same equipment. But if some day it has to happen, it won't be the end of the world. "Healthy sports evolve," says David Fay. "I don't believe changes are necessary at this time, but if the power and performance spread between the very best and the rest of us—even top club players and the like—continues to grow, eventually we may see a clamor for change." Fay believes the push may one day come from the PGA Tour, which sells entertainment: "The game could get boring if it's just driver and pitching wedge."

For the foreseeable future, golf will probably be fine without any major regulatory changes. Pros and amateurs will continue to use the same equipment, and distance will continue to creep up, albeit at a slower pace, especially for the pros. Tournament courses that cannot be lengthened will be narrowed and otherwise toughened up, the way relatively short Muirfield was successfully altered to challenge the world's best players in this year's British Open.

And the truth is, a little controlled distance inflation may be a good thing for the game, in the same way that many economists believe a little controlled inflation actually helps the economy by boosting consumer optimism. People like earning more than their parents did, or than they themselves did twenty years prior, even if they know in their heads that a lot of the increase is not "real." That's certainly the way I feel about clearing that bunker with my drive on the seventeenth hole at Island's End. It buoys my spirits. No matter how well versed I am in the theoretical problems of extra distance, I'm not about to relinquish my titanium monster and go back to that old persimmon driver I gave up—was it only ten years ago?


Recreational players have long preferred solid-core "distance" balls, but as recently as five years ago, Tour pros were still primarily playing soft wound balls because of the great feel they provided. But when solid-core balls with soft covers and high spin on short shots came out in the mid-nineties, the pros started switching to them en masse. The big jump came after Titleist introduced its Pro V1 in October 2000. (Sources: Darrell Survey, Titleist)


The burgeoning size of driver clubheads in the nineties helped boost distance in two ways. First, the thin faces of huge clubheads produced a slight springlike effect that added yards. Second, the drivers were more forgiving, enabling pros to swing harder than before without sacrificing accuracy. Lighter clubheads also made longer shafts practical, adding even more distance. (Source: Average of largest clubheads available from Callaway, TaylorMade and Titleist)


The HealthSouth Sports Medicine Van debuted on Tour in 1986, providing pros a convenient place for physical therapy and working out. Player interest was modest until the late nineties, when Tiger's fitness regime inspired many pros to work on their strength, flexibility and cardio-fitness. A second van was added in 2000, touching off another surge in usage. (Source: HealthSouth)


Typical greens in the 1970s rolled at 6.5 on the Stimpmeter; today some fairways on Tour roll that fast. Modern mowers let greenskeeping crews cut fairways as low as three-sixteenths of an inch. Denser grass, improved cultivation and better irrigation also contribute to firmer fairways—and longer drives. (Source: USGA, PGA Tour, Golf Course Superintendents Association of America)


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