Blog 346, 6/2/16 - Who's Really Cherry-Picking the Figures?

The USGA's John Spitzer (Golfweek)
So I’m looking on Twitter for people’s reaction to this morning’s news that the R&A and USGA have issued a joint report stating the ‘facts’ relating to how far the golf ball travels. John Spitzer, the USGA’s managing director of equipment standards, made it clear the report wasn’t taking a stance. “I don’t see it as trying to refute or push for any position,” he told Golf Digest. “It’s just fact.”
There are a number of these facts in the report, but in a summary email sent, one assumes, to everyone it has an email address for, the USGA identifies what it thinks are the four most important – 1) Between 2003 and the end of the 2015 season, the average driving distance on four of the world’s seven top professional tours increased about 1%, or 0.2 yards per year. 2) For the same period, the average driving distance on the three other tours decreased about 1%. 3) The ten shortest players on the PGA and European Tours are about 6% shorter than the Tour average, while the ten longest players in the group are about 7% longer than average. 4) The average launch conditions on the PGA TOUR – clubhead speed, launch angle, ball speed and ball backspin – have been relatively stable since 2007.
But anyway, I’m checking for the feedback. And what’s the very first tweet I see? @EuropeanTour is saying French pro Sébastien Gros averaged 326 yards off the tee in the first round of the Nordea Masters in Sweden.
I’ve heard of Gros, but am not that familiar with the man tells me has won twice on the Challenge Tour and is currently ranked 192nd in the world. It also says he is 5’11” tall and weighs 11st 6lbs (160lbs).
Woosie could crush it back in the day.
Anyone who ever saw Ian Woosnam hit a golf ball knows size is not the most important factor when generating clubhead speed and, indirectly, distance. The Welshman wasn’t even 5’5” but could outdrive everyone in the early ‘90s apart from John Daly perhaps, and a similarly short Italian player named Emanuele Canonica who was just over 5’5” and ripped it 290 with persimmon and balata. The size of your swing arc, the speed at which your hips turn, and the amount of lag created by the wrists contribute to clubhead speed, but you must combine them with a solid strike to hit the ball far. Size then is clearly only a small part of how far you can hit the ball.
But still, a 160lb-man averaging 326 yards!
It’s just a one-off of course, and conditions in Sweden might have promoted mammoth drives. The holes at which Gros’s drives were measured might all have been playing downwind or downhill. He might have hit a couple of cart paths or sprinkler heads, and the grass at Bro Hoff Slott GC might have been shaved significantly lower than at other tournament venues (though that’s unlikely because don’t all Tour venues have homogenous surfaces these days?)
Spitzer warns this sort of anecdotal evidence could easily be used to refute the USGA’s contention that distance is not exploding at a rate that should cause concern. “There’s a million statistics that you can look at,” he says. “But I would say that none of them give us pause.”
Really? None of them give you pause? Not one? Okay, becoming instantly horrified and taking immediate action to rectify the situation may be asking too much of organizations that took 40 years to ban the anchored putting stroke, and which still allow players to repair pitch marks but not spike marks, but none of the millions of statistics you have relating to the ball make you sit back, have another look, and go ‘hmm’?
Here’s a few of those statistics that not only give me pause, but make me shake my head in disbelief, shout “Are you kidding me?” at whatever I’m reading/watching, and wonder what on earth Augusta National, The Old Course at St. Andrews, and most of the world’s other great venues could look like in 20, 30, 40, 50 years’ time.
toc 17th tee
See how far the tee at the 17th on the Old Course has retreated over the years?
Between the 1964 Open Championship and the 1995 Open Championship, the Old Course grew by seven yards. Between 1995 and 2015, it grew 364 yards, and holes were lengthened so much they extended back on to parts of the New Course, the Eden Course, the Himalayas Putting Course and, for the 17th tee, a section of ground heretofore untouched.
The numbers are worse at Augusta National, home of the Masters. Between 1934, the year the tournament was first played, and 2001, Alister Mackenzie’s masterpiece grew a reasonable 285 yards from the Masters Tees, or 4.3 yards a year. From 2002 to now, it has grown another 450 yards – just over 32 yards a year.
The cry is that organizers want today’s players to hit the same irons into the greens that Seve Ballesteros did in 1980, Jack Nicklaus did in 1975, and even Arnold Palmer did in 1964. That’s a noble quest for sure, but to do it, the Green Jackets have had to extend tees way further back than Mackenzie or Bobby Jones could ever have foreseen. And now there is talk of the club actually buying property from a neighboring golf club in order to push the 13th back another 50 yards.
Oakmont, venue for the US Open in a couple of weeks’ time, is another venue worth scrutinizing as it is a regular host of the championship (this will be its ninth). In 1994 when Ernie Els won, the course measured 6,946 yards - actually 26 yards shorter than it had been in 1983 when Larry Nelson triumphed. This year it will play to 7,254 yards – an increase of 308 yards since ’94.
And at Baltusrol, venue for this year’s PGA Championship, the increase in yardage since the 1993 US Open that Lee Janzen won has been the equivalent of 10.8 yards a year. Between the 1967 US Open (Nicklaus) and 1993, it was 5.2. That’s not nearly as significant as the increase at Augusta National, certainly, but it’s still over double what it was.
What else might give you pause? How about the 308-yard 2-iron Jason Day hit at the Player’s Championship in May, or the near 400-yarder he hit on the 10th at Augusta in April? How about Dustin Johnson’s 372-yard bomb at the Players this year, Bubba Watson’s 424-yarder at Firestone a couple of years ago, or the countless other 350-360 yard drives that are recorded on the PGA Tour and European Tour each week?
How about these figures unearthed by sports statistician Shoshana Agus-Kleinman which show carry distance on the PGA Tour has increased by over 10 yards in the last 10 years, about five times the overall distance (carry and roll) Spitzer says balls have traveled over the last 12 years?
Or how about a 160lb largely unheard of Frenchman averaging 326 yards off the tee during the first round of the 2016 Nordea Masters?
And if none of those numbers give you pause, or make you want to reassess what you just said, how might the greatest golfer that ever lived saying “just change the friggin’ ball” affect you? Nicklaus has been saying as much for decades as have Palmer, Gary Player, Tom Watson and numerous other past greats (if you don’t see any current stars on that list, remember who’s paying them lots of cash to play the newest golf balls).
hank kuehne
Hank Kuehne ht the ball very, very hard.
In his interview with Golf Digest, Spitzer also cautions against overreacting to single-year fluctuations. One wonders then how we all should have reacted when Titleist introduced the solid-core/urethane cover Pro-V1 to the PGA Tour in October 2000. Let’s consider the numbers before this ball’s release with those that came after. In 2001, John Daly was the longest driver with an average of 306.8 yards. Ed Fryatt placed 100th in that category, averaging 279.2 yards. By the end of 2003, the longest hitter on Tour – Hank Kuehne - was hitting it 321.4 yards, and the 100th-placed man – Steve Flesch – was averaging 285.7 yards.
So, in 2003 the longest driver on the PGA Tour was hitting it 14.6 yards further than in 2001, and the 100th longest was 6.5 yards longer than his 2001 equivalent. That’s percentage increases of 4.8% and 2.3% respectively – significantly more than the 1% (or less than 1%) increase Spitzer says occurred on Tour between 2003 and 2015. It’s good that the rate of increase has slowed dramatically over the last decade – we’d be in significantly more trouble than we are already if it had been sustained. But, as one person on Twitter said today, “Stats show the horse left the barn when the Pro-V1 came out, and has not returned.”
Here's another Spitzer gem: “The recreational golfer, the casual golf viewer thinks pros hit the ball much farther than they (actually) do. I don’t have a crystal ball (to see) if there’s anything dire in the future, but I know that we don’t have the view that it’s going so far that every hole is a driver and a wedge.”
In response, I’d say a great many more holes are driver/wedge for today’s pros than they were 15-20 years ago, and that despite most holes getting longer and longer, and…
Look at the Old Course. Nowadays, it's possible Jason Day or Rory McIlroy could hit a wedge or 9-iron into the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 6th, 7th, 9th, 10th, 12th, 13th, 15th, 16th, and 18th greens. In 1995 when Daly won, and 1990 when Nick Faldo won the second of his three Claret Jugs, players found the 1st, 3rd, 7th, 9th, 10th, 12th, and 18th with their most lofted irons. Sorry for all the math, but that’s about a 42% increase in the number of holes that are played with a wedge for the approach shot by the world’s best.
And, of course, many of those that aren’t a drive and a wedge have been extended almost beyond recognition – bogus contrivances of what they once were.
As golfers who want to play shorter, more enjoyable rounds, and clubs who want to spend less money on land and maintenance have discovered, the continual lengthening of courses on TV sets a very dangerous precedent. The Augusta National Syndrome which sees courses trying to duplicate the Masters venue’s perfect, lush playing conditions is harmful enough. Courses wanting to extend their layout as televised courses have in order to keep pace with the ball are going to take longer to play, and charge their customers/members more in order to meet their rising costs.
rory mcilroy
Who doesn't love to watch Rory smashing a driver?
Of course, the USGA and R&A are in a very tricky situation. On the one hand, they want the game to look exciting on TV, and Rory McIlroy hitting it 350 yards is exciting. They also don’t want to upset ball manufacturers who will threaten to sue them for big money if they’re prevented from seeking a commercial advantage by producing equipment that’s superior to that of their competitors or what they produced before. But, at the same time, they also have a responsibility to the game, by ensuring it remains one of skill and finesse, rather than just crude power, and to the planet by helping superintendents and clubs reduce the amount of land they have to maintain. 
Towards the end of the Golf Digest interview, Spitzer says if you are looking to tell a story, you can cherry-pick the data and tell whatever story you want. Very true, but does it not work both ways? Have Spitzer and the USGA/R&A not cherry-picked the figures they want to highlight, conveniently forgetting the crazy distances we have seen many of the game’s top players achieve every week for the past several years?


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