Just as sex sells in the fashion, music and film industries, it seems distance sells in golf.
”I’d rather be hitting L-wedges out of the rough than trying to hit greens with 6, 7, 8 irons.” – John Daly, aka Wild Thing.
Manufacturers are constantly telling us how much further their latest club goes and how a simple £400 investment can having you hitting it as far as Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson or Gary Woodland.
Distance sells. And it is the way the game has trended in recent years. When was the last time you saw Jerry Kelly (PGA Tour leader in driving accuracy for the last two years) on a billboard or advert, selling accuracy?
I was curious how the impact of the modern, long, athletic-golfer has impacted the way PGA Tour players perform off the tee. After some research, I compiled a graph.
It shows the numbers of players hitting 70% of fairways vs the number of players averaging 290 yards off the tee, each year since 1980 (when PGA records began).
– The Early Years
– The Metal Years
– The Tiger Years
– The Modern Years
The Early Years
It’s not a surprise that no player averaged 290 yards in the early years. It wasn’t until 1997 that any player on Tour averaged more than 290 off the tee. In the early years of persimmon woods and balata balls, the emphasis was on accuracy and control.
Just look at the size, build and swings of the golfers of this era, and you will understand just how different the game was. Remarkably, Calvin Peete hit at least 80% of fairways in 10 consecutive season from 1981 to 1990. An amazing achievement, when you consider that not one player in the last 10 seasons has hit more than 80% of fairways.
The Metal Years
Whilst metal woods existed in the early 80s, it wasn’t until the 90s that players and manufacturers embraced the idea. The Big Bertha driver was launched in 1991 and professionals began to reap the benefits of the consistency and forgiveness of the new materials.
It wasn’t long before balls began to advance as well, with Titleist launching the Professional range of balls in 1993. The new combination of driver and ball sent drives straighter and longer, but still no player was able to break the 290 yard mark. Clearly, there needed to be a new breed of golfer, who could muscle the ball that far. Thus…
The Tiger Years
Whilst John Daly had managed to bomb his way to victory at the 1991 PGA Championship, it wasn’t until a much-hyped Eldrick Woods turned pro in 1996 that distance really started to matter.
Tiger was lean back in those days, but stories of him being, pound-for-pound, the strongest athlete at Stanford University soon started to make sense. He and Daly led the distance revolution and Tiger specifically showed the success you could at majors if you were hitting wedges into par-4s and mid irons into par-5s.
The key crossover happened in 2003. This was the moment when the number of players hitting the ball over 290 yards (64) exceeded those hitting 70% of fairways (40).
Players began to get bigger, drivers became bigger and the distances pros were hitting the ball was also getting bigger.
The Modern Years
It seemed there would always be a limit when it came to distance and driver technology and it seems to have happened in the past few years. Drivers are capped at 460cc (cubic centimetres) and are now focusing on adjustability and spin more than size and distance.
Whilst accuracy on Tour hasn’t improved, there has been an interesting trend in the number of players hitting it over 290 yards:
In two years, the number of players on Tour averaging the 290 yard mark has dropped by a third (32.1%).
In fact, the average driving distance for a PGA Tour, which rose every year from 1993 to 2006, has actually decreased year-on-year in 5 of the last 7 years.
It seems the game’s biggest hitters are scaling back. Here’s the top-10 longest drivers from the 2013 season, with their average driving distances compared to 2012:
I’ll let you take your own conclusions from the data, but it would appear that, for now, equipment and golfers are reaching (or have reached) the peak of their distance, and are scaling back. It will be interesting to see if, in the coming season, players start to become more accurate as a result.
One player, not concerned by the data, is Henrik Stenson. In 2013, he became the first golfer in PGA Tour history to hit more than 70% of fairways and 290 yards off the tee in the same season. Read more on his statistical dominance.