Turn on Golf Channel or access virtually any golf media source, and one of the main topics of 2018 is “how far the ball is going,” or in other words, how far tour pros are hitting the ball these days. After years of saying there was no problem, the USGA and R&A are now claiming that something has to be done.

Jack Nicklaus has long advocated for rolling the ball back, and he was saying this 25 years ago when balata balls were still in use and the median driving distance for tour pros was 260.5 yards. For the most recent completed golf season, 2016-2017, that number is now 292.5. Based on 14 tee shots per round, that means tour venues today effectively play 448 yards shorter as compared to 1993. To keep up, that 6,900-yard course in 1993 must be stretched out to 7,348 yards to have equivalent approach yardages.

The gatekeepers of the game and media pundits say that golf architects today are “forced” to design such behemoth courses in order to “keep up with the ball.” That only makes sense if such courses are planning to host world-class competitions. Otherwise, there is really very little necessity in doing so. The average golfer hits the ball nowhere near 250 yards off the tee, the minimum distance a scratch golfer is expected to hit the ball, according to the USGA. Most courses have scratch golfers, not tour pros, as their best players, and you would be hard put to find scratch golfers who hit the ball much farther than 275 yards. A 6,900-yard course is more than adequate to test these golfers from a distance point of view.

What’s really behind this focus on how far tour pros hit the ball? Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley said during his annual news conference at the Masters that the par-5 13th hole was designed by Bobby Jones so that going for the green in two was a “monumental decision.” Ridley pointed out that today’s players routinely have a middle or short iron into the green, and that the decision on the second shot is no longer “monumental.” He expressed confidence that “something will be done.”

Unbelievably, it could actually be inferred that all of the talk about how far the ball goes comes down to how the 13th and 15th (another par-5) holes at Augusta National are played by the pros! Think about it – those who run Augusta National are powerful figures who have the ear of the USGA and R&A, and yes, they are listening.

First, most players do not “routinely” hit middle or short irons into that hole. That is reserved for the longest hitters in the game, but right now, many of them are the top players, so naturally they are getting the most attention. If the average driving distance is about 294 yards today, that still leaves a 216-yard approach shot to the 13th hole, which is 510 yards. For most touring professionals, that is not a middle iron, but probably a 4-iron or even a 3-iron, contrary to what you may have been led to believe. And with today’s club lofts being stronger than in years past, that 4-iron and 3-iron are actually closer to the 2-and 1-irons the older fellows hit back in the day.

What are the options that the USGA and R&A have? Here are three of the possibilities:

Enact a local rule allowing for a tournament ball. This would ostensibly solve the “problem” of the ball going too far for touring professionals and at the same time allowing amateurs to enjoy the game. But this presents a myriad of other problems. Elite amateurs who qualify for professional events would have to either learn to play a new ball, or be playing it already but sacrificing his game to those who are not using the shorter ball. Players entering qualifiers for USGA national championships would have to adjust in some manner, too. The handicap system would be in chaos, because someone could use a shorter ball to establish a handicap and then use the longer ball in amateur competitions such as the city or club championship.

Chances of this happening: Minimal.

Roll the ball back for everyone. This would involve making the ball fly shorter than it currently does. Many ranges have limited-flight balls, and the high-quality ones do not feature a ball flight that is markedly any different, other than they go shorter. You can still work the ball left and right, high and low with such balls. Critics say that this will reduce the popularity of the game, for who wants to hit a 5-iron into the green where previously they hit an 8-iron? But it likely presents fewer problems than bifurcating the rules, as a local rule would do.

Chances of this happening: Possible.

Do nothing. Many who favor doing nothing say that the way to reign in tour professionals is to narrow the fairways, grow the rough and firm up the greens, all to prevent the pros from shooting low numbers. But they are missing the point. The pooh-bahs of the game are not concerned with the actual scores the pros are shooting; they are concerned with how the game is being played at that level, and Chairman Ridley’s statement is proof. They don’t want to see pros hit middle and short irons into long par-4s, nor do they want some pros to be able to hit 550-yard par-5s in two shots. That’s the crux of the problem for them, not the scores. They see the “integrity” of courses being challenged. But par is based on what the shortest-hitting scratch golfers can do, not what tour professionals can do. And if a hole’s original “integrity” is lost, a new challenge can take its place. For example, if we go back to the 13th hole at Augusta National, one pro made the insightful comment that the new challenge is now the tee shot and negotiating the bend of the fairway, where in the past no one had any strategic decision to make. They just hit it to the middle of the dogleg with driver, because that’s all they could do.

Chances of this happening: Probable.

The “Great Distance Debate” of 2018 will undoubtedly last for a while until a final decision is issued by the governing bodies. Until then, people will continue to play golf, and given the overall health of today’s game, wonder what exactly the problem is.
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