Do you remember Nike’s Chicks dig the long ball commercial circa 1999 with Tom Glavine Greg Maddux? Well, what was true then is just as true now.
Golf equipment OEMs have been selling us distance as long as beer companies have been selling us sex. And we buy every last bit of it.
A couple of more yards here and bikini-clad co-ed swooshing down the slopes there. But are we really hitting the ball any farther? Yes, and perhaps no. But pretty much “no.” At least that’s what recent data provided by Arccos seems to suggest.
A quick refresher. Arccos is an automatic golf performance tracking system that leverages A.I. technologies to produce individualized analysis. The information provided in the following charts and graphs comes from its database of over 26 million shots.
NOT TOO DISTANT PAST
If we flashback to early February, the daily chatter largely focused on the recently released USGA and R&A distance report. The preliminary findings suggested that the ball was going too far, particularly for elite golfers (professionals and competitive amateurs). The report also states that driving distances for non-elite (recreational) golfers have increased over the previous 100 years. Additionally, the USGA and R&A stopped short of offering any conclusions or action steps but did say it would request feedback to help narrow the focus and determine exactly what questions it should work to answer.
It’s a report that tells us there’s going to be another report. At some point. So there’s that.
Because at least 99% of us are recreational golfers, it’s surprising how little of our data the USGA and R&A used in the report. In fact, from what MyGolfSpy understands, the USGA made little, if any, effort to collaborate with Arccos or other notable golf performance tracking companies. Make of that what you will.
In the charts below, we’ve provided both Average and Median distances. We know golfers understand averages, but the Median values are useful as well, in part, because they’re more resilient to outliers.
Arccos Driving Distance Study – All Drives
The first two graphs are simple and straightforward. Both the mean and median average distance has decreased slightly over the last three years. Specifically, the mean decreased by 2.6 yards and the median by 3 yards. There could be any number of reasons for this though the drop isn’t precipitous. We’re talking a moving average of 1-2 yards per year. Given the variations in weather, course conditions and the fact we’re dealing with humans, the safest conclusion is that amateur driving distances certainly aren’t increasing. If anything, the trend is marginally down.
As a side note, Arccos states that its users experience an average drop in HCP of 4.2 after using its platform the first year. So, if longer drives aren’t leading to lower scores, what is?
Arccos Driving Distance Study – By Gender
In separating the data by gender, the numbers remain relatively consistent. Consistently flat, that is. Arccos’ male userbases haven’t crossed the 230-yard threshold, and as a group, have actually lost 3 yards.
The average driving distances for women haven’t moved much either staying between 167-168 yards. Even if we only take the single largest number (regardless of mean or median) and round up, men haven’t averaged more than 229 yards while women hover below 169 yards. It’s hard to imagine these players are making any courses obsolete or forcing courses to build taller driving range fences.
Arccos Driving Distance Study – By Age
It’s no surprise that the longest hitters are in their 20s. As a group, players averaged almost 242 yards in 2017. In general, golfers in the 10-19 year-old bracket are as long as those in their 30s. From there, it’s pretty much downhill. For every decade older a player gets, he or she loses between 7 and 9 yards. Once you hit your 60s, the number jumps to between 12 and 17 yards. It adds up to a +/- 200 yards decrease over 18 holes, which may not be enough to justify moving up a set of tees.
The median distance by age skews slightly longer as expected, though the age brackets with the longest and shortest drives are unchanged. The average golfer in his/her twenties is roughly 50 yards longer than the typical 70+ year-old player. This isn’t because the 20-29 cohort is sneaking up on Rory McIlroy, Bubba Watson or Cam Champ. It’s the normal and expected result as age often corresponds to swing speed, strength, flexibility, and overall athleticism.
Arccos Driving Distance Study – By Handicap
Do better golfers hit it farther? Yes. But not by nearly as much as you probably think. Starting with the highest-handicap players (21-25) it takes roughly 10 yards to jump up a category. However, it takes about 13 yards to go from a single-digit (6-10) to a low-single digit (0-5). The correlation between driving distance and overall score isn’t a surprise. However, if asked to wager a guess on the average driving distance of a 0-5 handicap, I would have taken the over, all the way up to 249 yards.
It seems fair to request that before reaching any conclusions, there should be a holistic and accurate body of evidence regarding amateur driving distance. Because, if (but more likely when) the ruling bodies institute some level of change it will likely impact all golfers. The USGA hasn’t wavered from a “one set of rules” stance and there’s no indication it’s willing to move off this stance.
But, at this point, we don’t have a clear and consistent picture of how far non-elite players are hitting the ball. Arccos’ numbers suggest a slight downward trend, while the USGA and R&A believe that “it is time to break the cycle of increasingly longer hitting distances.”
Certainly, both sets of data have some shortcomings. We know there isn’t a 100% overlap between non-elite golfers and golfers who use Arccos so that data isn’t reflected in the charts. Also, beyond age, gender, and handicap, we don’t have specific demographic information that could help us better understand who is using Arccos. More worrisome, however, is the data used by the USGA and R&A. Swiss cheese might have fewer holes.
For male golfers, the R&A gathered data from the same six courses from 1996-2018. However, it didn’t use laser technology to determine precise distances until 2006. For females, it studied distance on a single course from 2013-2018. Over the respective time frames, the R&A assessed approximately 2000 shots/year for males and 377 shots/year for females. Based on this study, it determined that from 1996-2018 males gained 15 yards in average driving distance. Due to insufficient data, it couldn’t make any definitive claims regarding female golfers.
To corroborate its findings of European amateurs, the report references a study of American amateur golfers based on the World Amateur Handicap Championship. The study tabulated drives from the same course in Myrtle Beach, SC during the event in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2011. The total number of shots recorded? 3850.
At best, it’s a muddy picture. At worst, it’s a muddy picture with severely limited information. But, there’s hope. Right? I’m certain once the USGA determines more exact areas to investigate, there will be a prolonged period for public commentary. Hopefully, there will be a clear admission that unless you’re teeing up Big Bertha at the local Pirate’s Cove mini-golf, amateurs aren’t taking any course down a path to obsolescence.
Beyond that, what are your hypotheses as to why the numbers are flat to slightly down regardless of age, gender or handicap?
If we extend this data and feel it’s representative of the non-elite group of players, do you believe the ruling bodies should:
- Opt for bifurcation (different sets of rules for elite and non-elite golfers) or
- Maintain a single set of rules for all golfers while working to restrict distance primarily at the elite level.
- Do nothing and work within the current limits of ball and equipment specifications.
Please share your thoughts and questions.
*This content is backed by the MyGolfSpy Integrity in Advertising Promise.