Does the ball go too far?

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This autumn saw a record smashed on the European Tour, when Nicolas Colsaerts hit a 447-yard drive – the longest ever recorded on the circuit. It once again ignited the debate: Does the modern ball go too far? We investigate...

What’s the issue?
The defining moment of this year’s Masters was Bubba Watson’s 366-yard drive over the corner of the 13th hole, leaving himself a sand wedge into what used to be a challenging par 5. It was a shot that divided opinion. Some thought it was fantastic and were delighted to witness such a brave drive. Others saw it as final proof that the ball is going too far and making a mockery of the game and many of its finest courses. “Where is the game going?" asks Gary Player. "When are the USGA, the R&A and the PGA going to have more vision and cut the ball back by 50 yards?”

But is it really going further?
In 2014, Bubba was the biggest hitter on the PGA Tour, averaging 314.3 yards. He was one of 25 players to average 300 yards or more. But averages for the biggest hitters have been around 315 yards for the last decade, while the average driving distance for all pros has been floating around 290 yards for years. Look back a little further, and distances do change dramatically. Back in the mid-1990s, even the longest players were only averaging 283 yards, which would rank them among the shortest hitters of today.

So what’s changed?
The dramatic jump in distance happened around the turn of the millennium. By 1997, persimmon woods had completely disappeared from the professional game. In 2000, Titleist launched the Pro V1, and everything changed. It quickly became the most-played ball on Tour, and average driving distance shot up by six yards in a single season, leading the USGA to release a statement saying “any further significant increases in hitting distances at the highest level are undesirable”.

But can’t more distance be a good thing?
When Bubba hit that famous drive, the fans were screaming in excitement and awe, not dismay. Most handicap golfers get a bigger buzz from launching a long drive down the middle than from any other shot in golf. “I hope they don’t roll back the ball,” says Donald Trump. “It’s a tough game; you’ve got to make it a little bit easier.” And have you ever met a club golfer who wants to hit it shorter?

And golf’s not all about distance, is it?
While no one could deny that being able to hit 330-yard bombs helped Rory and Bubba take home three of the year’s Majors, big hitters don’t win every week. Jim Furyk is no.5 in the world, despite being 155th in driving distance. Certain courses favour big-hitters, while others place a premium on accuracy. It doesn’t matter how far you can hit it if you can’t get it in the hole. If distance was everything, long drive champions would be winning Majors, not trying to hit 450-yard bombs down a 50-yard wide grid.

Power of players

Is it really a problem?
Well yes, according to two of the game’s all-time greats. “The main culprit in slow play is the golf ball and the distance it goes,” says Jack Nicklaus, while Gary Player blames the ball for golf’s financial woes: “They’re spending hundreds of millions around the world, changing courses unnecessarily."

What could be done to regulate distance?
“Golf should have two standards for balls,” says Greg Norman, “one for professionals and another for amateurs.” Ping chairman and CEO John Solheim suggests “the distance rating of the ball used would factor into handicaps, just like slope rating or choice of tee box does today. This concept addresses the unique talents of the top 0.1% of the world’s golfers without hurting the other 99.9%.”

So is it going to happen?
Nicklaus certainly thinks so. “The USGA is close to making a change to roll back the golf ball distance,” says the 18-time Major champion. “The game has changed so much because of the golf ball. If they switch back, all of the 17,000 courses that are obsolete would be championship courses again.” Norman believes Augusta could pave the way for change: “As the Masters is not sanctioned by the PGA Tour, the PGA of America or the USGA. It is the only professional event that could dictate such specifications. And believe me, if the players were told that they had to use gutta perchas or featheries, I guarantee they would all still show up.” Augusta Chairman Billy Payne, however, believes it’s not the ball’s fault: “For a four or five-year period we blamed it on the equipment, but I really think it’s the conditioning of these young kids.”

Driving distances

Our verdict
The distance issue only affects golf’s top tier. Redesigning courses to avoid being overpowered is expensive, but it’s only a problem if you’ve got the world’s best golfers on your course. If that’s the case, money probably isn’t such a big problem. Amateurs want to use the same equipment as the pros, not balloon super-balls 300 yards while Rory is limited to 250. It might seem strange watching players hit wedges into par 5s, but seeing them crush booming drives is exciting. Athletics officials don’t want to make Usain Bolt wear lead boots because he’s running the 100 metres too fast. Bubba’s drive was risky. It paid off, and he won. Let’s make golf as exciting as possible for the largest audience possible – not dumb it down for the sake of tradition.