As the acclaimed architect of Bandon Dunes, Tom Doak, said in the September 2005 issue of Golf Magazine: "Something has to stop changing—and soon—or we'll no longer recognize the courses and the game we love."
Although many believe that the 2004 USGA decision regarding driver head size and maximum COR quashed the issue of increasing driving distance on the PGA Tour, this is not the case. Further, the "distance plateau"— that is, the fact that the driving distance of the top players on tour has only increased marginally from that point to the present—is a red herring.
As Karen Crouse of the New York Times explains, although the top players on tour have been constant with an average of about 315 yards off the tee, the averages of the moderately long hitters on tour have increased substantially: “In 1997, the 50th-ranked player averaged 272.3 yards. By 2002, the distance had risen to 285.0. In 2012, it was 294.7.”
This points to a fundamental shift in the way the game is played at the professional level: the bomb-and-gouge player (typified by John Daly) is becoming the rule, rather than the exception.
Shot-making, on life support for the past 20 years, is now dead. The tour has become a pitch-and-putt exhibition of booming drives and high-lofted approach shots.
The USGA’s 2002 “Statement of Principles”—in which they delivered such laugh-inducing lines as "should such a situation of meaningful increases in distances arise, the R&A and the USGA would feel it immediately necessary to seek ways of protecting the game"—looms over this entire discussion.
If the members of the United States’ golf ruling body are to be taken at their word, then they must be concerned by the increase in the driving average of tour players with slower swing speeds.
Golf expert Geoff Shackelford writes, “The final, official and accurate 2011 PGA Tour Driving Distance average: 290.9. The 2010 driving distance average of 287.3 followed 2009's 287.9 and 2008's 287.3.”
These facts, taken together, indicate that driving averages are still increasing on the PGA Tour, regardless of any plateau. It’s prudent to ask, then, what is fundamentally more damaging to the game: a handful of players hitting the ball 310 yards, or the majority of players hitting it 290? Both realities are unsustainable.
A letter published in The Telegraph by a group of golf architects and writers raised the following points: Increased golf ball distance have made safety margins on many golf courses obsolete, necessitating costly course modifications for golfers' safety. Additionally, a golf ball that goes further necessitates longer golf courses, which in turn necessitates an increase in capital investment (labor, materials and water).
Also, longer golf courses take longer to play. One of the chief deterrents to playing a round of golf in an increasingly time-crunched society is the amount of time it takes. Increasing this value is necessarily detrimental to the game.
Beyond these specific observations, it's always necessary to bear in mind when having "the distance debate" that the mangling of classic courses in an effort to lengthen them and make them more challenging is veritably sacrilege. Further, such butchery would be entirely unnecessary if the USGA and R&A would have acknowledged which way the wind was blowing 20 to 30 years ago.
Is booming distance ruining golf?
At the very least, the USGA went too far in 2003-04 in adjusting distance standards. This hapless kowtow to manufacturers was made at a time when booming distance was already ruining golf. It was done at a time when every course which hosted a tour event was scrambling to move enough dirt to make their respective tracks playable.
As stated earlier, there has been a flattening out of top driving distances over the last ten years. However, as Adam Van Brimmer indicates, “29-year-old John Daly led the PGA Tour in driving distance in 1995 with a 289-yard average. Seven years later, an older and heavier Daly led the tour at 306 yards off the tee—a whopping 17-yard increase.”
This increase was already too much to be tolerated (and clearly had nothing to do with fitness).
Van Brimmer also discusses the way in which booming distance has fundamentally altered the professional game, as he states, “Top players rely more on length now than two decades ago. In 1985, none of the top 10 money leaders ranked among the top 10 in driving distance. In 1984, only three did."
Adding to Van Brimmer's point, in 1980, 84 PGA Tour players drove the ball an average of 250 to 260 yards. In 2011, 84 players averaged between 290 and 300 yards off the tee.
Surely, this fundamentally alters the way the game is played. Additionally, such an increase in driving distance by the vast majority of players requires costly and destructive modifications to almost all golf courses in order to remain challenging.
This reality is unacceptable, particularly in the economic climate of the past several years.