USGA, R&A unveil distance study, but questions remain

Dustin Johnson, one of the longest hitters on the PGA Tour, typically hits the ball well over 300 yards with his driver. Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

A joint study looking at gains in driving distance in professional golf will do little to quell the notion among many in the game that the golf ball travels too far and that many revered courses are being rendered obsolete for the best players.

Released this week by the USGA and R&A, the study reviewed driving distance data from seven of the major professional golf tours from 2003 through 2016. According to the study, the average driving distance on five of the seven tours has increased about 1.2 percent, or 0.2 yards per year, but decreased about 1.5 percent on the other two tours.

Those numbers ring hollow among many who have seen the game's elite players smash drives well beyond distances they were reaching just a few years ago. Jack Nicklaus has long been a proponent of scaling back the golf ball to preserve revered courses.

According to PGA Tour statistics, 27 players averaged more than 300 yards per drive last season, 15 more than in 2010 and 18 more than in 2003. Individual drives over 300 yards made up 26.56 percent of tee shots in 2003 but comprised 31.14 percent of tee shots in 2016.

The study does not stay which clubs were used. As PGA Tour player James Hahn tweeted: "Does the study show what clubs were used off the tee? A drive off the tee could be with a 3-wood or a 2-iron.''

Golf courses from Augusta National to the Old Course at St. Andrews have been adding yardage to their layouts for years to try to combat the distance the ball travels today. Augusta National, for example, was 6,925 yards when Tiger Woods won the 1997 Masters. This year it is expected to play in excess of 7,400 yards.

The USGA/R&A review was based on approximately 285,000 drives per year, with data from male and female amateur golfers included for the first time. The entire report can be viewed here.