Playing a round of golf in the 1800s wasn’t a pleasant experience. Relatively poorly kept courses meant you could trudge across uneven grass and hack your way through tangled rough. The feather-filled ball you hit off the tee would travel no more than 200 yards – and half that if the rain permeated its outer layer, turning it as heavy as lead. By the turn of the 20th century, the sport had transformed. Almost overnight, the average player could hit a drive 25 yards further, thanks to the wound rubber core golf ball replacing its feathery counterpart.
Fast forward another 100 or so years, and the average professional on the PGA Tour, golf’s main touring competition, was hitting the ball 260 yards from the tee in 1990. By 2000 that was closer to 275 yards. By 2010, it was nearly 290 yards. Today, it’s almost 295 yards.
That’s too far, say the Royal & Ancient (R&A), British golf’s rule setters, and the United States Golf Association (USGA), their American counterparts. The organisations have published a report that concludes “longer distances, longer courses, playing from longer tees and longer times to play are taking golf in the wrong direction.”
They lay the blame at two golf trends: advances in technology in the last 15 years that they’ve tried to put a stop to, or at least slow down; and the increasing athleticism of players on the professional tour, which is more difficult to manage.
In a survey conducted by the R&A and USGA to accompany their report, player fitness was seen as the third-most important contributor to increased hitting distance on the golf course. However, capping player fitness isn’t possible for the sport’s organising bodies to do: you can’t limit the amount of time a professional golfer spends in the gym, or put a cap on their muscle mass. As a result, the only option is to hit pause – and possibly roll back – club and ball technology.
“They’re going to aim this at equipment, in part because they accept the fact that tour players are going to become faster at club head speeds,” says Tom Wishon of Wishon Golf, a club designer with decades of experience.
The 1900s revolution in golf resulted in a clutch of Victorian courses like Musselburgh and Prestwick in Scotland becoming outmoded because they were too short for the top players to feel challenged. The fear now is that, just as Musselburgh was forced to move to a new course in 1925, the same thing will happen in the 2020s to stalwarts like St Andrews.
So to try and stop golf going in the wrong direction, its organising bodies look set to roll back key technology advancements that benefit the basic player. The aim is to stop the pros performing so well that they make the current crop of golf courses irrelevant. But what led golf down the “wrong” path in the first place?
What initially fuelled the race to distance was a massive leap forward in technology, which gained speed in the 1990s. As the sport became more popular, and benefitted from widespread televised coverage, there was a demand for big hitting.
The Titleist Pro V1 ball was developed in the 1990s and made its debut in the year 2000. The ball was a step change in technology, moving from the wound ball golf had previously relied on to a new, multi-layered design.
At the same time, golf club technology also improved. In the early 1990s, Mizuno developed forged irons that helped players achieve loft from the fairway. In 1991, Callaway unveiled its Big Bertha driver, which had such a large head it improved power and performance. And by the end of the decade, the Taylor Made 300 Series drivers were among the first to have a flexible face.
“We know all the science there is in driver head technology, discovered it, developed it and used it,” explains Wishon. Companies made money from it too - shedloads, by analyst estimates, who say the golf equipment market is an $8.4 billion industry. In the 2010s, as the average PGA distances suggest, vast leaps have given way to incremental updates and improvements. Technically, we’ve reached a brick wall.
Though the technology may have stalled, professional golfers still want to eke out any improvement they can. So they’ve hit the gym. Gone are the barrel-bellies of the past, and in are professional training regimens designed to squeeze out any advantage. The average clubhead speed of the top players on the PGA Tour has increased from 117.5mph in 2009 to nearly 120mph in 2018. A faster clubhead speed allows faster ball speed, which in turn allows them to hit the ball further.
The result? Current courses are being outmoded, deemed too short to play in professional competitions. Courses built in the United States between the 1920s and 1970s take up an average of 153 acres, compared to an average of 205 acres for courses built since the 1980s.
The governing bodies of the sports have already levied restrictions on technical developments, more than two decades ago. In 1998, golf’s ruling organisations introduced limits on the coefficient of restitution (COR) of the clubhead, after years of club manufacturers taking advantage of the fact that the spring-like effect of their clubs was not capped by ruling bodies.
The COR is calculated by dividing the sum of the ball speed after impact minus the club speed after impact by the club speed before impact. Currently, any golf club manufactured and used on courses isn’t allowed to have a COR of more than 0.830. That gives a “smash factor” of 1.5 – ball speed divided by clubhead speed. If the clubhead speed – the velocity at which a player swings the club – is 100mph, the fastest ball speed allowed in regulation clubs is 150mph.
“We can adjust distance by the right launch angle and spin, but those are squeezing out two or three or five yards here and there,” says Wishon. “For substantial distance increases, we’re done in driver head design. There won’t be any other new metal that will be discovered, any new kind of weighting or construction of the head that will increase the ball speed over the 1.5 smash factor that COR controls in the rules.”
Manufacturers are still playing around at the edges. In an attempt to improve performance (or, cynics say, sales) they have introduced immense customisability into golf clubs. Almost every driver available to buy today has moveable weight plates that are meant to allow players to shift the centre of balance in their club head to improve performance. Shaft adaptor sleeves or hosels, which are little more than valves containing a screw that holds the club head in place in relation to the shaft, allow players to change the loft of a club, or whether it will push a ball right or left.
Such advances don’t come cheaply: TaylorMade’s SiM driver, which claims to be “speed injected” and has a hosel, costs £429. Callaway’s Mavrik driver, which was designed with the aid of artificial intelligence, ran through thousands of permutations of shapes and materials. During the design process, AI was use to filter through 15,000 iterations of the club face to select the one with the best performance. (Its predecessor, Epic Flash, which was also designed using AI, was reported to account for a 13-yard distance increase for the average player.)
Some are sceptical of the impact these make. “If the technology improvements are so much better why have handicaps not reduced further and we’re not all playing off scratch?” asks Steve Low of Designer Golf, a golf club maker and fitter, who calls it “marketing BS”.
The latest innovations are designed to avoid the reality of the situation, says Wishon. “In terms of the drivers, players can’t hit it any further than they’re hitting it right now because they’re all locked on the limit,” he says. “But these companies would never admit it. It would kill club sales. How do these companies sell golf clubs? ‘You’ll hit it further.’”
Likewise, similar rules exist to limit ball speed. Dean Snell helped develop one of the most-used golf balls in the world – the Titleist Pro V1. Today, he runs his own company, Snell Golf, which designs balls for everyday players rather than pros.
Rather than using the wound rubber golf balls that had been in use since the 1900s, Snell developed a multi-layer golf ball that allows for low spin on long shots from tee boxes – which prevents drag and helps the ball travel straighter and higher – and high spin on short shots around the green. Snell’s current golf balls are made of solid cores, the materials of which depend on what kind of performance the player wants, encased in cast urethane material.
“We’ve seen enormous improvements in ball speed and control of spin,” says Jason Almeida of Snell Golf. “When you can control spin rate, you can drastically affect the performance of the ball,” he adds. But here too ball speed is throttled: Snell Golf, just like any other ball manufacturer, has to submit their prototypes to the USGA who test it to ensure it’s not too fast. “It’s not like golf balls continue to get faster every single year,” says Almeida. “We’ve been following the same guidelines for several years.”
It’s a similar issue to one that has affected professional athletics. Limits have been placed on trainer technology, such as Nike’s Vaporfly shoes. In swimming, performance-enhancing swimsuits coated in polyurethane to reduce drag in the water were banned in 2010 after swimmers, including multiple world-record holder Michael Phelps, smashed records using them. (The polyurethane suits lasted just under two years: in that time, all but two world records were set by swimmers donning the costumes.)
Almeida and Wishon both believe that the plan to crack down on golf technology, rather than players, is misguided. “To single out one area of this problem is, in my opinion, kind of foolish,” says Almeida. “It’s a combination of everything: yes, the balls are a little more technologically advanced. The clubs are more technologically advanced. They’re all improving ball speeds and spin rates. Then you couple that with a much, much higher level of fitness professionally.”
With that added fitness will come faster swing speeds, which will push shots further and further anyway, reckons Wishon. “I bet you that in 10 or 20 years, the average club head speed will approach 120mph,” he says. “With it, they’ll continue to hit it further, regardless of the COR.”
Every one mile per hour of increased driver club head speed adds 2.8 yards to a ball’s “carry distance” – or the amount it will fly before landing. Absent the ability to make significant technological steps forward, players are developing stronger muscles, and finetuning their swings in order to increase clubhead speed at the point of contact.
While any new courses will be designed to be more challenging in layout, and most likely longer to account for professional players hitting it further than ever, retrofitting new courses is complicated. Adding a new tee to a golf course further away from the hole costs on average $12,000, according to the USGA. Every single bunker, which are often added to try and dissuade long hitting, costs $9,100 to install. Club technology has largely stalled, and firm rules are in place there. And it’s impossible to stop people working out.
To downplay the impact of longer hitters, it’s likely that the governing bodies will begin by introducing a new, less efficient, ball into the two major championships over which the R&A and USGA have jurisdiction: the US and British Opens.
That’s likely to cause ructions with the PGA, the organisation that oversees the PGA Tour. Taking away long hitting scuppers the tour, shearing it of one thing that ticket holders enjoy seeing: players performing at their peak, achieving sporting feats that amateur golfers could only dream of. Any dumbing down of the game could affect its popularity – and with it, golf’s bottom line.
“This is going to be a fight between tradition and money,” says Wishon. “You’re going to have the R&A and USGA saying tradition is far more important, and the PGA saying you can’t tell us we can’t make as much money, and what you’re about to do would put our revenue at threat. I think that’s where it’s going to end.”
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