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Changing Golf's Focus Away from Distance

Technological innovation is without doubt the major contributor to all this extra distance. Take the so-called springlike effect in drivers, among the most controversial issues in golf because of recent moves to limit it by the USGA and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews (which regulates the game outside the United States and Mexico). The measure of springlike effect is coefficient of restitution, or COR. The old persimmon drivers had a COR of about .78—so, for that matter, does a telephone pole or anything else that doesn't "trampoline" the ball.

Starting in the mid-nineties, however, as manufacturers began using stronger, thinner metals to fashion ever-bigger and more-forgiving clubheads, they discovered (it wasn't planned) that these drivers' faces flexed ever so slightly at impact, giving the ball a little extra oomph. Eventually club makers and the USGA figured out that, on average, every increase of .01 in COR boosted distance by approximately two yards, and this held true for the average 110-mile-per-hour swing speed of Tour pros down to the 80 or 90 m.p.h. swing speed of the typical male mid-handicapper. In 1998 the USGA ruled that the COR in a golf club could not exceed .83, and it reiterated that ruling this August after briefly floating a complicated proposal that would have allowed a COR of up to .86 for five years. (USGA regulations technically apply only to players who keep an official handicap or compete in USGA tournaments, but most clubs and organizations, including the PGA Tour, follow the USGA's lead.)

Everything else being equal, a ball struck precisely on the sweet spot of a driver with a COR of .83 will travel ten yards farther than a ball struck similarly well with Bobby Jones's old driver. This may not seem like earth-shaking progress given that Jones roamed the earth eighty years ago, but when combined with other factors that will be discussed in a moment, the yards add up, especially for the pros. Recreational players, on the other hand, don't usually smack the ball precisely in the center of the clubface, so they don't get as much benefit from the COR effect—just as you don't bounce nearly as high when you jump near the edge of a trampoline as you do when you jump exactly in the middle. In fact, the area on a driver's face that produces the full benefit is the size of a pinpoint, and on most clubs the area that produces any COR effect whatsoever is no larger than a tee head. In short, except for those rare and wonderful drives that we "pure," most of the time we grinders might as well be using Bobby Jones's clubs, as far as COR benefits go.

But modern drivers help everyday golfers in other ways, especially the new supersize clubheads that reduce the penalty for off-center hits. The pros don't generally need forgiveness the way amateurs do (to keep from slicing and hooking), but they do benefit with greater accuracy and this, in turn, helps them achieve extra distance. Why?Because they can swing at the ball harder than they used to with no worse odds of winding up in the rough. That same forgiveness in the clubhead makes it harder for them to work the ball, of course, and that's another way the nature of the pro game has changed: Instead of carefully curving the ball around doglegs as in the past, most pros now find it's more effective simply to bomb the ball over the corner, as far downfield as possible. Irons are longer, higher and straighter these days, too. Why concern yourself with pesky architectural features like bunkers and multilevel putting surfaces when you can simply parachute a high, 250-yard long-iron shot to whatever spot you want?

"In the past, distance wasn't looked at by the Tour pros as being of as much advantage as it is today," says Pinnacle Distance Team member Brian Pavlet, a former world long-drive champion. "Back when drivers had smaller clubheads, the pros were mostly concerned with just keeping the ball in the fairway, and they tended to work the ball right and left more. Distance was helpful, it just wasn't the main thing."

The advent of graphite shafts has also helped the pros hit the ball farther, by making possible longer but still lightweight drivers that generate greater clubhead speeds. All these technologies help recreational golfers hit the ball longer too, of course, but most of us aren't skilled enough to take full advantage of them—certainly not enough to scare the gophers or make classic golf courses obsolete.

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