Add to this the impact of new golf balls. Five years ago most Tour pros were still hitting three-piece wound balls covered in soft urethane, and a few were still using balls covered in rubber-based balata. These balls had great feel around the greens and spun like crazy, which helped the pros work their shots and gain precise distance control with their irons. So the pros stuck with them even though it meant giving up distance off the tee compared with what they might have got with the harder solid-core balls that were also available to them, even thirty years ago, and that most recreational players have always used. With money on the line, the pros valued feel over distance.
But then came what you might call the Pro V1 revolution. Starting in the late nineties, manufacturers came to market with premium solid-core balls covered in innovative polymer materials that gave everyone, pros and recreational players alike, the best of both worlds. Around the greens these balls felt nearly as soft as urethane, and when hit at relatively slow swing speeds with short and midirons, they spun plenty. But when hit hard with a driver the inner core compressed and reduced the spin, which is the recipe for distance. Spalding, Nike, Bridgestone and Callaway produced early versions of these balls, but it wasn't until Titleist introduced its Pro V1 in October 2000 that the Tour pros started switching en masse (for the obvious reason that so many of them had Titleist contracts). At the start of the 2000 season, only 27 percent of PGA Tour pros played a solid-core ball, but by the start of the next season 84 percent did, which handily explains the dramatic six-yard run-up in average Tour driving distance that year.
And the manufacturers didn't stop there. Using high-tech launch monitors, the experienced eye of club fitters from the Tour vans and test-bed knowledge about the optimal flight patterns of these highly engineered balls, they tweaked their Tour pros' equipment to maximize distance off the tee. You and I can switch to Pro V1-type balls, too, but it won't make us as much longer as it did the pros—partly because our swings are virtually impossible to optimize and partly because most of us were already playing solid-core balls.
But equipment isn't the whole story. To complete the picture, we must take into account two other factors. The first, often overlooked, is agronomy. Twenty-five years ago, in the days when greens in this country were rolling at Stimpmeter speeds of 6.5, the typical fairway at Tour events was cut around five-eighths of an inch high and Stimped at perhaps two or three, according to Jim Snow, head of the USGA Green Section. These days some fairways, as set up for Tour events or major championships, are cut as short as one-quarter inch and Stimp at the same speed as yesterday's greens: 6.5. Amateurs don't generally like playing off fairways that tight because it's too easy to hit the ball fat or thin, so strictly recreational courses usually maintain their fairways longer. But the pros love pinching crisp, high-spinning iron shots off closely mown turf, as well as the extra roll—sometimes as much as thirty yards—that those fairways give them on their drives.
The final consideration is the increased strength and athleticism of Tour players. Tiger Woods set the bar with his natural talent, then raised it by becoming a dedicated gym rat after he turned pro in 1996. His success and example, plus the huge modern purses at Tour events, has drawn ever stronger, more-elite, natural athletes into the game.
For a sense of where the pro game might be headed, listen to Brian Pavlet of the Pinnacle Distance Team. "A lot of people think we hit the ball as far as we do because we know some trick, but that's not the case. Our swings are pretty standard," he says. "The main thing is that we are all pretty big guys—six-two, six-three—and we work out constantly and we just all seemed to have been born with a knack for hitting the ball a long way. Most of us, in fact, were pretty accomplished in other sports before turning to long driving." The impact of bigger, better athletes migrating to golf is already strikingly apparent on the Buy.com Tour and in the college game, where every team seems to have one or two players who routinely bomb out-of-this-world drives. "Even if equipment stays exactly the same as it is today," says David Fay, executive director of the USGA, "I fully expect that driving averages on the PGA Tour will continue to climb, simply because of better technique and more outstanding athletes."
We amateurs, on the other hand, aren't likely to suddenly find heretofore untapped reservoirs of hand-eye coordination or to add twenty pounds of rippling muscle to our physiques. We play golf for fun, not profit. And so, once again, this aspect of the distance phenomenon effectively bypasses the everyday player.