The Distance Debate … Again

Columns - Design Concepts

April 12, 2018

In February, famous for Groundhogs Day, the holiday, and Groundhogs Day, the movie, the distance debate came up again – and again - pairing new distance data with age-old arguments, but little new insight.

To recap, the new USGA/R&A joint distance data came out, showing a 3-yard increase over last year for the PGA Tour, after many years essentially no distance gains. Jack Nicklaus called for the golf ball to be rolled back 20 percent. And, then, we were off to the races! I tire of these discussions, perhaps worn out by numerous high-volume, low-intelligence, Facebook faceoffs.

The distance arguments can be summed up simply:

  • Anyone who hits it further than me has an unfair advantage which needs to be curtailed.
  • The <1% who are extremely long hitters believe it’s unfair to limit their advantages of physical prowess and years of practice.
  • The equipment makers are against roll backs of both distance and profit.
  • Traditionalists believe we should keep older courses in use for major tournaments.
  • The USGA and R&A have “committed” vaguely to further discussion, which sounds like a stall tactic. Like me - I believe they see no real problem.

For proponents of a roll back, much of reality is ignored –

  • Basing the distance debate on the top 25 to 50 longest hitters in the world skews the argument horribly. The pros have influenced course design towards longer and harder courses. Too many design discussions drift to the subject of, “Would the pros tear this course up?”, even on the design of easy peasy municipal courses. Worse yet, sometimes those thoughts become actions, even though the pros are never, ever, going to show up.
  • 99% of courses don’t need major changes to accommodate either every day play, or even lower level tournaments, were length is held down to protect the bottom half of the field.
  • 99% of America’s 15,000 courses do vitally need to keep and attract players, while about 1% (about 150) of America’s course want to, but can’t, host tournaments solely due to their length.
  • The same distance study that started this round of arguments also showed average golfers losing length. Most courses ought to be thinking in terms of adjusting middle and forward tees.

Progress- defined as making things in life easier - is a universal aspect of human endeavor. Do cars go too fast, potentially causing more accidents? Do medicines heal too well, while potentially causing some addictions? And do golf carts lead to out of shape golfers? Yes, there are drawbacks, but progress continues.

Rolling the ball back will assuage some egos, help a few clubs to host tournaments, and possibly save several hundreds more from being “forced” to spend millions to add length. In truth, for most courses, the cost of reasonably adding length via new back tees is comparatively inexpensive to other renovations drivers, like rebuilding greens or improving bunkers, but it doesn’t stop that argument from being raised.

Better equipment has undoubtedly met the standard of doing the “greatest good for the greatest number” of golfers, who want and need longer, higher flying, easier to hit golf balls and forgiving clubs to ease their golf struggles. The number of courses becoming obsolete for tournaments is quite small. The number of golfers wanting more distance is exceedingly large.

Like many, I look forward to seeing Shinnecock Hills, Winged Foot, The Country Club, Los Angeles Country Club, Oak Hill, Bethpage and Pinehurst host majors. I love the traditional (to us) British Open Rota, has been tweaked over the decades - Prestwick, the first Open course, was last used in 1925, after a 60-year run. Musselburgh Golf Links was replaced after hosting six early Opens in 15 years. Royal Cinque Ports eliminated after hosting two Opens across just 11 years. Which goes to show, times have always changed.

That said, 75-80% of the next 24 majors will be contested on courses that also hosted them in the 1920’s, effectively nullifying the “obsolete courses” argument. In any version of Darwinism, 80% survival over time is remarkable. And, while the courses have lengthened, and some changed character over the years, it’s a strength of their original design to be adaptable with length additions and design tweaks to unforeseeable conditions a century (or centuries!) later.

It seems to me like the “distance problem” is working itself out slowly but surely at the tournament level. In the interim, tour pros will surely overpower a few courses. And, while many older courses can adapt, over time, the proportion of PGA tournaments played on modern classics, designed more specifically for the modern pro game, and its ever-expanding needs for gallery space, parking, television, etc., will increase. It will be just as interesting to most to see how new venues fare against the pros.

Meanwhile, for mid-level tournaments, distance needs haven't changed much, because those courses still need to be playable for a wider variety of players and tee shot distances. Many clubs have happily accepted that they are perfectly suited for other prestigious USGA events beyond the PGA Tour. And at the club and public every day level, golfers will continue to enjoy the benefits of better equipment.

For most of us, hitting “driver and six iron” like Tom Watson in his prime, or “driver and flip wedge” like Bubba Watson now, is the goal. For either, we need both longer balls and shorter courses.

So, I would avoid bifurcating the ball but begin to bifurcate golf courses. Cut the “one size fits all” mentality. Eliminate back tees on most courses, and forward tees on a few. Use the leftover land for parks and gardens, where possible.

Take a cue from food service, where specialty restaurants are more popular than ones with general menus. Or fashion, where “one size fits all” was never a stylish choice. Build specifically to smaller sub markets of golfers. Use the "championship" label only for true tournament level courses. Find other descriptive and appealing labels for other good courses.

Man, I hate long discussions on the long ball. The next time I hear “Roll the ball back,” it should be from a playing partner who wants to re-try a missed putt.

Jeffrey D. Brauer is a veteran golf course architect responsible for more than 50 new courses and more than 100 renovations. A member and past president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, he is president of Jeffrey D. Brauer/GolfScapes in Arlington, Texas. Reach him at