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Distance Debate

U.S. Open 2024: USGA CEO says driver still an area of interest in distance-rollback effort

June 12, 2024

Ross Kinnaird

The first target in the efforts of golf’s rule makers to roll back distance was the ball. The driver might be next.

When the USGA and R&A announced in December that there would be a change in the way golf balls were tested that would make most models nonconforming, resulting in an estimated distance loss of as much as 15 yards at the elite level, it was seen as a way to penalize the fastest swingers in all of golf (top men professionals) while offering lesser and potentially inconsequential penalties at the recreational golfer level. While a similar rollback for the driver was contemplated in the early days of the ruling bodies’ research, that interest eventually waned, said Mike Whan, USGA CEO.

Yet during his U.S. Open-week press conference on Wednesday at Pinehurst No. 2, Whan talked about the distance deliberations and conversations with R&A CEO Martin Slumbers and indicated that the driver is still in the rollback crosshairs.

“I would say comfortably speaking for both Martin and I, we had and have a real interest in figuring out a way to provide a difference as it relates to the driver, as well,” Whan said. “To date, we didn't really come up with something that wouldn't have a much more negative effect on the recreational game. What we did on the golf ball is going to have much more of an impact at [the elite] level than at the average level. When we started talking about changes in the driver or driving equipment, it was just the opposite. Much more significant impact across the board than just at the elite level.”

In fact, the USGA and R&A offered several initial proposals for equipment rule changes related to a distance rollback that focused on clubs not balls. Those included elements like reduced spring-like effect (specifically a rollback to the allowed Characteristic Time limit), or reductions in clubhead size or forgiveness on off-center hits (specifically a lower limit on the measurement of moment of inertia). Those elements, all largely about reducing how mishits are punished less, clearly would make drives shorter and the game more difficult for average golfers, who tend to miss the center of the club face to a vastly greater degree than elite players.

However, changes to driver performance could be instituted in what’s known as a Model Local Rule and could be tailored to only apply to elite men’s competition, leaving average golfers not impacted at all. Doing that, though, would run counter to the position of one set of rules for all of golf, something that became a critically important element in the ball rollback discussion.

Steve Otto, the R&A’s executive director - chief technology officer, said in 2022 that a rollback only would be truly effective if it encompassed drivers as well as golf balls. “If you just do the ball, it's like lengthening golf courses, where you're playing into the hands of the distance players,” he said. “The nod to the club side is about the balance of skill and technology. So it’s the hybrid of both club and ball that gives us the possibility to really have a meaningful effect that buys us some time. What that period of time is I don’t know. But the nod to the balance of skill and technology should mean that they don’t all become very fast swing speed players. It’s always exciting to see the fast guys play, but we don’t want them all to be fast guys. We want the balance of a variety of skills throughout the field.”

During his comments at the USGA’s press conference Wednesday, Whan made it clear the driver is still an area of interest in the pursuit to reign in distance.

“I think we said this when we announced [in December], and if we didn't I will just tell you,” he said. “We shelved it for now because we thought it was time to make a decision and put it on there, but we didn't retire the idea. We just didn't, quite frankly, have an idea that we believed was worthy of going to the market yet. But I would just put a 'yet' on that statement.”

While many traditionalists have made the case that today’s drivers are much easier to hit than in days gone by, it is clear that the majority of elite men’s professional golfers are using drivers that not only have a higher moment of inertia than were used only a handful of years ago, but also have a larger area of the face that has the highest spring-like effect. That frees up an elite player to swing a little (or a lot) faster with less fear of a mishit being as severely punished.

While golf balls in and of themselves may not be exceptionally faster today than they were a handful of years ago, ball speeds on the PGA Tour have increased in tandem with swing speeds. Since 2017, the average ball speed on the PGA Tour is up almost 4.8 miles per hour (to 173.6 miles per hour, or a 2.8 percent increase), while the average swing speed is up a little more than two miles per hour (to 115.9 miles per hour, or a 1.8 percent increase). Generally, every mile per hour increase in swing speed at the elite level equates to 1.5 miles per hour increase in ball speed. That means the increase in swing speed over the last seven years would more or less be solely responsible for the increase in ball speed.

For what it’s worth, driving distance on the PGA Tour is about one yard shorter so far in 2024 than it was at this time a year ago.