The truth about driving distance
It is true that elite golfers can drive the ball prestigious distances and that this takes an immense level of skill, however there are many other misconceptions surrounding the distance the ball goes and how it gets there. The average drive on the PGA and European Tour is currently around 289 yards and the values on the Ladies European Tour and the LPGA are around 245 yards.
It seems to be a commonly held belief that the longest hitters get some additional benefit from modern balls. In fact, hitting golf balls obeys the law of diminishing returns, namely for each mile per hour of added swing speed a slower golfer gains more distance than a high swing speed golfer, like Bubba Watson. The longest hitters have to combat additional losses due to extra compression and also overcome greater drag forces; as well as needing to keep the ball closer to the target line.
People often say that non-elite golfers do not benefit from innovations in technology, this is not true. They do benefit, but perhaps not as often! Due to higher levels of variation it is harder for them to realise the benefits, but they are there for the taking. This is perhaps summed up by the quote from the 1950’s PGA Tour player Jack Burke - The average golfer doesn’t play golf. He attacks it!
People also seem to proffer the view that elite golfers are using special equipment, this is not the case. As part of our work and vigilance we test equipment for players of all levels, not only to confirm that it conforms but also to confirm that it matches the versions we have had submitted to us.
Since the publication of the Joint Statement of Principles in May 2002 driving distances on the world’s main Tours have stayed fairly static and we continue to monitor all aspects of the driving of the ball. Recently, both the PGA Tour and European Tour have been collecting data on which clubs are being used from the tee and it appears that the driver is more prolific than might be thought from a brief viewing of tournament coverage. The main driving distance statistic is acquired each week on two opposing holes on which players are likely to hit drivers. The level of driver usage on these holes has generally been seen to be in excess of 90%. On the PGA Tour the Shotlink system is used to measure the distance and fate of all shots which gives us an enormous amount of information on how the game is played.
The number of golfers on the PGA Tour having driving averages in excess of 300 yards is lower than it was at its peak in 2005. We often hear that the elite male players are playing a separate game. In fact driving distance appears to be a continuum and there is an almost linear correlation of skill (quantified by handicap) and driving distance. We would expect the average driving distance for male golfers with handicaps between scratch and 5 to be 240 yards.
Each season since 1996 we have been gathering driving distances from players with a range of handicaps and the average driving distance in 2012 for this cohort was 208 yards compared to 200 yards in 1996; an increase of 8 yards. The largest change over the 17 seasons has been the number of higher handicap golfers choosing to use drivers from the tee in our measurements. Back in the 1990s the percentage usage for the highest handicap group was 55% and this has risen to a figure in excess of 90% since around 2005, which is presumably associated with enhanced forgiveness. Using driver-only data the increase in driving distance from 1996 to 2012 is only 3 yards.
We have also measured more than 300 golfers at all handicap levels in our facility in St Andrews and given them feedback on their launch conditions as well as an indication of their scatter on the face of the club. The image below shows the impact locations for an 11 handicap male golfer. Unsurprisingly our study confirmed the commonly accepted fact that golfers with higher handicaps tended to have more scatter, but there were also examples of less skilled golfers with lower scatter, namely those who could achieve consistent impacts, but unfortunately usually in the wrong area of the face.
The key is to ensure that the club face is square to target and hit the ball as close to the middle of the club as possible; which is obviously far easier said than done but it would probably help to take lessons and then practice!