As 2020 comes to an end we are entering a new era. Golf – the game of precision, accuracy and mental toughness has been morphed into a game dominated by gym freaks swinging off their feet. It appears tour players care far less about fairways and far more about strokes gained statistics.
Nevertheless, in this modern era how far do you need to drive the golf ball to play on the PGA Tour? I decided to look at the past 20 years of data – the results are a little surprising.
Below are some key stats before we consider the problem at hand and what, if anything, should be done.
- The average driving distance on the PGA Tour has increased by 22.7 yards over the past 20 years.
- The longest driver on tour has gained 20.7 yards since 2000.
- The shortest driver on tour has gained 26.6 yards since 2000.
- The shortest player on Tour in 2020 had an average driving distance of under 280 yards (Andrew Putnam, 277.9 yards).
- You can still make it onto the PGA tour averaging less that 280 yards off the tee…for now.
- The past 20 years have shown a slower increase in driving distance for the longest player on tour (+20.7 yards) compared to the previous 20 year timeframe 1980 to 2000 (+27.1 yards).
- The death of the short hitter is the true story within the modern distance debate.
- The PGA Tour should use data and course design to evolve the elite game.
- Despite Tiger Woods’ dominance he has never topped the driving distance charts. He has finished 2nd on the list four times during his career.
- John Daily topped the driving distance chart every year from 1996 to 2002 averaging 304 yards off the tee during the 7-year period.
- From 2000 to 2009 Corey Paven finished bottom of the driving distance charts 8 times, but still managed to have a successful playing career.
The distance debate
The golf distance debate has become a piece of mainstream media with many concerned that this trend is ruining the game and our historic golf courses.
In recent months the war on driving distance has heated up. Previous legends of the game have suggested banning the use of tees to solve the distance crisis. The USGA and R&A produced a very thoughtful report on what should be done to manage the development of the game.
But what has actually changed, do we need to be worried and what is the solution?
Let’s take a look at the data.
What has changed on Tour in the past 20 years?
The graph below shows the shortest, average and longest drivers on the PGA Tour every season over the past 20 years (2000 – 2020).
As expected, there has been a gradual increase in all three of these statistics. With the average driving distance on the PGA Tour increasing by 22.7 yards from 2000 (273.7 yards) to 2020 (296.4 yards).
However, when you dig a little deeper into the data there are two surprising insights.
Is driving distance a modern issue?
The longest driver on tour has gained 20.7 yards since the 2000 season (John Daily 301.4 yards to Bryson DeChambeau 322.1 yards). This increase is less than the change observed in the previous 20-year timeframe from 1980 to 2000 (+27.1 yards).
In 1980 Dan Pohl led the tour driving distance averaging just 274 yards off the tee – a good three clubs behind John Daily’s driving average in 2000 of 301 yards.
From this perspective, the increase in driving distance on tour is actually slowing down, not speeding up. So is this really a modern problem, or just steady progresion over time?
The death of the short hitter
The second insight reveals itself when you plot the change in all three stats from 2000 to 2020 next to one another (see below). The data doesn’t paint a picture of the longest players getting longer, but instead a bunching of driving distance on tour.
Over the past 20 years the longest player on tour has added 20 yards to their game, but the shortest driver has levelled up over 26 yards off the tee.
This bunching of driving distance isn’t a surprise when you consider how the main tours have attempted to combat the distance issue – few players could survive on the monstrous courses that have become the norm for the PGA Tour.
Do we need to be worried?
In my humble opinion we don’t need to be worried about players hitting it further, but we do need to be concerned with how we are dealing with the issue.
Extending holes by 15-20 yards fuels the fire of players needing to hit it further. Players capable of bombing drives 350-yards off the tee will have a distinct advantage playing par 4s that are 490-yards.
When considering the length of the golf courses in 2020, the pin placements used and the depth of the rough it is staggering to think Andrew Putnam can compete with Bryson DeChambeau when he is on average 44-yards further back after their respective tee shots.
According to the data Andrew is losing 1.12 shots to the field average off the tee, but is 3rd in strokes gained putting – keeping some hope in the old saying “drive for show, putt for dough”.
The ‘death of the short hitter’ is the true story that we should be discussing. One of the joys of golf is the near infinite solutions there are to playing this great game.
We’ve seen DJ and Bryson crush the ball on their way to world number one. In contrast, Spieth and Donald have attained the same status by barely missing a putt inside 10-feet.
For me, this is what we need to preserve in the game of golf.
I will be delighted to see 40 of the world’s best players load up the squat rack and monitor their club head speed next season. As long as there is still space for the players who wants to live, breathe and sleep on the putting green in their pursuit of excellence.
What is the solution?
The ‘distance problem’ is a product of science, data and technology. To date, it has been combatted with guesswork. I feel the answer lies back where the problem began.
Fighting data with data
- What holes result in the longest drivers shooting a lower score?
- What tournaments show the strongest correlations between driving distance and finishing positions?
- What features mitigate the distance effect (rough, slope, pin position, green firmness) and what features exacerbate the problem?
The answers to these questions should be used to shape the future of the PGA tour. Elite sport performance is always concerned with finding an edge – where should I focus my efforts to see the biggest return in performance?
We can’t change this equation, it is entrenched in elite sport. However, we can use data to adapt the constraints of competition. Thus shifting the cost-benefit of adding 40-yards onto one’s driving distance.
The inverse of the questions above are also valuable.
- What courses and features show the strongest correlations with short game performance?
- What courses and features show the strongest correlations with putting performance?
The PGA Tour already has the answers to these questions. ShotLink and strokes gained data can be used to shake up the tour in 2021 favouring the types of players we want to see flourish. Or at least provide a varied playing schedule across the season.
Why would we not use this data to make informed decisions about the future of the game?
I don’t believe there is a distance problem, you can still play on the PGA Tour hitting it less than 280 yards. However, we are losing performance diversity at an elite level because we are not using data to shape the future of the game.
The answer doesn’t lie in stopping players hitting the gym, or regressing the golf ball. Instead, we should adapt the constraints of tournament play to breed the game we want to see being played at an elite level.
Progression and innovation aren’t the enemy here. I admire Bryson for sitting down and concluding that it was advantageous to spend less time on the range and more time in the gym.
The governing bodies and tours now have the opportunity to shape the future of the game – I hope they consider using data to evolve the game we all love.
Two more articles will follow in this series discussing when it is beneficial for you to increase your own driving distance and the science behind doing so. If you don’t want to miss out subscribe to the Golf Insider weekly post.
Happy golfing – Will @ Golf Insider UK
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