Professional golfers are driving the ball farther than ever, with 2017 showing the most significant cross-tour gains in more than a decade, according to a report released by the USGA and R&A Monday.
The annual Distance Report shows a three-yard average gain across the seven most prominent professional tours (PGA, European, Web.com, Japan, PGA Tour Champions, LPGA and Ladies European). According to a joint press release by the governing bodies, that gain "across so many tours in a single season is unusual and concerning."
Concerns of increased distance are not new for golf, hence the annual report that began in 2015, but the source(s) for increases remains a contested topic. Jack Nicklaus has been lobbying for a reduced-flight ball for decades. More recently Tiger Woods also voiced the need to dial back the ball in the pro game. One of the most vocal opponents to a roll-back has been Wally Uihlein, the former chief executive officer of Acushnet, Titleist's parent company. Uihlein argues that the distance boom can be attributed to six factors, including not only the ball but also changes in course conditioning, an influx of more athletic golfers, and advancements in driver technology.
The heads of the governing bodies have also taken increasingly stronger positions in the distance debate in recent months.
“I don’t care how far Tiger Woods hits it,” USGA chief Davis told the Wall Street Journal in November. “The reality is this is affecting all golfers and affecting them in a bad way. These courses are expanding and are predicted to continue to expand. All it’s doing is increasing the cost of the game. The impact it has had has been horrible.”
R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers added last month: “There’s no doubt in my mind that the technology has made this difficult game just a little bit easier. At a time when we want more people to play the game, I think that’s a good thing. But we do also think that golf is a game of skill and should be reflective of skill. If you look at the data, there has been a significant move up across all tours. We’re looking at the longest on-record average driving distance. Both of those have caused us and our colleagues at the USGA serious concern."
Still, the governing bodies have also made it clear that they still need more time and data to weigh the distance gain's potential impact on the game.
As stated in the Monday report: "Building on the extensive research we have undertaken in recent years, we will conduct a thoughtful conversation about the effects of distance prior to making any specific proposals. We remain open-minded and our absolute priority is to ensure that all key stakeholders are involved in an open and inclusive process, and that we move forward together in the best interests of golf at all levels. There is no fixed timetable, but we will commence this process immediately and endeavor to reach a conclusion as promptly as possible."
The gains on each tour vary, with the Web.com tour showing the greatest gain (+6.9 yards) and the LPGA actually showing a decrease (-0.8 yards).
The governing bodies have declined to comment further on the findings. USGA spokesperson Janeen Driscoll told GOLF.com Monday morning: "Both organizations believe the cover letter and report provide sufficient information on our joint focus at this stage. As we move forward in the process of this comprehensive analysis and engage more people in the game, we will share more."