February 15, 2020

8 Intriguing Charts from the Distance Insights Report

This week, the USGA and R&A released their joint Distance Insights Report. The full document runs 102 pages and looks at everything from distance on tour to the sustainability of 7,500-yard courses from an environmental perspective. It’s nothing if not thorough.

Still No Answers

While many were expecting definitive conclusions and an action plan that would likely include rolling back the ball, the report was surprising in its near-total lack of conclusions. The only definitive is that more study is needed (so more study we shall have) and the only real surprise is the suggestion that the governing bodies might be open to implementing local rules that would functionally roll back equipment at the tour level only. As GolfWeek’s Eamon Lynch aptly describes, “It’s bifurcation by another name.”

Wouldn’t that be something?

For those invested in the future of the game, or what the game’s future might mean for you, the report is worth a read, though you might find the summary documents more digestible. Regardless, it’s all publicly available for your consumption.

Charts, Charts, and More Charts

Typically, this would be where I’d rail against the findings and argue against a rollback and that day may certainly come (and soon) but, today, I wanted to focus on a selection of the charts from the Distance Insights Report. Amid the indecision is a collection of insightful, thought-provoking, and cool bits of data that are relevant to both the larger distance discussion and what we do here at MyGolfSpy.

So, with that said, let’s have a look at my favorites.

Tour Driving Distance

This first chart shows driving distance across major tours over a 39-year span. Beyond stating the obvious — that professionals have been steadily gaining distance for decades —  it doesn’t make sense to focus on much before 2006 when the last bit of meaningful distance limiting regulations went into place. Going back to 1980 provides plenty of ammo to sound off on massive distance increases but data from before the limit on length, head size, volume, and MOI are basically just for show.

Within the modern era, it’s true that tour distance continues to rise – though it’s worth noting that the data aren’t normalized based on venue, weather conditions or any number of other meaningful factors, so there’s likely some noise in the data.

What’s most interesting to me is the unexplained jump in distance from 2016 to 2017. I’m hard-pressed to find a viable explanation. It’s not like golfers figured out launch monitors, fitting, and improved fitness while manufacturers produced a banner crop of drivers … at least not all at once. Weather conditions, anomalous data … it’s hard to say.

I suspect it’s data from the Korn Ferry Tour that have the governing bodies most concerned. Presumably, that’s where our next generation of professional golfers is coming from. Depending on the year, they’re already five to 10 yards longer than the PGA TOUR guys and it’s reasonable to assume that the guys behind them will be longer still.

There’s no end in sight.

If you’re concerned about distance on the PGA TOUR and what that means for classic courses and the real estate necessary for new courses, this chart is your best argument.

Amateur Driving Distance

The data from this chart come from the R&A which conducted research with club golfers. As an aside, it strikes me as odd (and less than thorough) that the USGA doesn’t have similar data for the USA. There’s an opportunity here to partner with Arccos and Shotscope to gather more comprehensive information about the amateur game.

As you can see, amateur golfers are not overpowering courses. As a whole, we haven’t gained much of anything from one year to the next. Score one for an aging population of golfers, I suppose.

That data in the Distance Insights Report closely correlate to the information we obtained from Shotscope. Within its database, across all golfers, the average driving distance is 216 yards. For golfers with handicaps of nine and under, it’s 237. During our annual driver tests, we typically find the average drive to be around 230 yards and it’s worth noting that we remove a small percentage of outliers and skew a bit towards faster swing-speed golfers.

The bottom line is that there’s no evidence to suggest a distance problem at the amateur level.

Speed and Distance Increases

This chart shows the increases in the 90th percentile of clubhead speed on the PGA TOUR. Basically, it’s data from the fastest of the fast.

As we look to explain the reason for the continued distance increases at the professional level, the usual suspects are fitness, optimization, and the equipment itself. As we saw from the tour distance chart, USGA regulations haven’t changed and certainly haven’t been relaxed since the MOI limit was put into place. Theoretically, the contribution from equipment should be capped, although between aerodynamics, manufacturing improvements, and some wiggle room within the Rules, some portion of the increases can likely be attributed to the gear.

What can’t be explained by gear alone is the steady increase in clubhead speed. Maybe a tick or two comes from improved aerodynamics but improved fitness (generally more athletic golfers) and a better understanding of how to gain head speed are likely the most significant contributing factors. The increased speed, along with improved launch conditions, likely explains the continued distance increases.

Wet vs. Dry

We’ve long suggested that the simple solution to the distance problem is to grow the grass and soften the course. Watch a PGA TOUR event and it’s immediately obvious that they get more roll than we do. For the most part, tour venues play firm and fast.

Look what happens when it rains during an event. When conditions are soft, the median driving average drops by 4.4 yards.

The argument against softening courses is that water is going to be in increasingly short supply so maintaining soft conditions won’t be viable. I’ll leave it to the agronomists to argue those points but a little bit of extra length on the ground – even if it means exploring alternative, drought-resistant grasses — could be a solution. These things cost money, however.

Dialing back the ball doesn’t present nearly as many challenges for course owners and operators although ball makers certainly don’t love the idea.

Distance Insights Report – The Equipment

Among the charts in the report were several related exclusively to the evolution and performance implications of golf equipment. Some of what follows are things we wanted to look at anyway so we appreciate the USGA doing the work for us.

Average Iron Loft

It’s not just drivers that are going farther. You know the equation: if you want irons to go farther, jack the lofts.

The chart above depicts the change in average iron loft throughout the bag from 1970 or so to the present day. It more or less states the obvious but seeing the progression is fascinating just the same.

To be sure, there are some legitimate design reasons behind strengthening lofts on modern irons and those reasons often work to our benefit but, yeah … it’s wild how much things have changed.

Average Iron Length

As lofts have gotten stronger, clubs have gotten longer. This goes hand in hand with forgiveness insomuch as a more forgiving head allows for a bigger miss which makes longer shafts viable, even for less than competent ball strikers.

It’s also important to consider the role of lighter steel and graphite alternatives have played in increasing the playability of irons at longer lengths. Once upon a time, the 130-gram shaft was standard. Now it’s just one of near countless options.

Again, this is all obvious enough. Things change.

The Benefit of Higher MOI

This chart depicts driver distance drop-off based on MOI and impact position. It’s a visual equipment companies love to use to illustrate the benefits of their designs but it’s telling that it’s included in the Distance Insights Report.

Not even the best players in the world hit the center of the face all the time and there’s little doubt that some portion of the increase in distance can be attributed to improved MOI.

It’s not explicitly stated in the report but the chart almost certainly compares drivers across several decades. You won’t find a 3400 MOI driver on the market today, let alone a 2300 or 1665. Club D at 5128 could be considered average by today’s standards. Keep in mind that the limit is 5900 and a few currently available designs are approaching that limit, while several others are above 5500.

The USGA’s data suggest that, on the extremes, you’ll lose between 10 and 25 yards on an extreme mishit with a higher MOI driver. With lower MOI designs of the past, it’s 30 to 40+ yards. Even for pros whose misses aren’t as big, there’s a handful of extra average yards that can be attributed to improved off-center performance.

Soft Is…

And finally … my favorite chart from the Distance Insights Report. Not to beat you all over the head with this but there are still plenty of you who think Soft is Slow is a myth. Hopefully, the USGA’s data will help clear things up once and for all.

The chart shows how the Coefficient of Restitution or COR (which correlates to ball speed) changes with impact speed. The impact speed portion of the data is measured in feet per second. Converted to miles per hour, the chart covers the equivalent of 68 to 109 MPH (swing speed).

As you can see, at 120 feet per second (just under 82 MPH), COR begins to drop off appreciably (and rapidly). Translation: beginning at about 82 MPH, a softer ball will see significantly less energy returned to it at impact than a firmer ball.

It’s slower.

It’s also worth noting that even at 100 feet per second (roughly 68 MPH), the soft ball is already slower than firmer alternatives.

At 140 feet per second (~96 MPH), the drop off is appreciable and gets exponentially worse as speed increases. As we’ve said, there are fitting considerations for which soft balls can work really well but that doesn’t change the fact that low-compression balls produce less ball speed off the driver.

Next Steps

The Distance Insights Report is ripe with plenty of other cool charts. But the takeaway is this: After an exhaustive study, the governing bodies have decided the most prudent course of action is to keep studying. While most of us don’t love it when things are left unresolved, the approach is responsible. The breadth of the reports suggests that while rolling back gear is certainly on the table, there appears to be an understanding that most of us don’t have a distance problem and there is a multitude of other factors that needs to be considered beyond equipment alone.

My feeling is that some sort of roll back is all but a given but, for the first time, there are indications that the USGA and R&A may be willing to draw lines between the amateur and pro games. They’re clearly still not comfortable with bifurcation but the governing bodies may be open to leveraging a loophole that allows them to do just that … even if they call it something else.