Author’s Note: The USGA and R&A recently announced additional research and areas of interest as part of their Distance Insights project. This could lead to equipment regulation to combat increased driving distances in the professional game. As a result, the distance debate is top of mind for many in golf circles. This is the first in a series of articles entitled The Distance Disconnect. In each, I will take a deeper dive into an aspect of the distance debate that is often overlooked or misunderstood. In this article, I will focus on the important distinction between scoring and strategy.
Following the Distance Insights announcement from USGA and R&A earlier this month, pushback from tour players was swift and steady. One of their common critiques against potential equipment regulation is that the problem lies elsewhere - namely with course design and setup. Webb Simpson’s comments prior to the Waste Management Phoenix Open offer a good illustration of this viewpoint.
Here’s what Simpson had to say on the distance topic:
“I've been kind of saying for the last few years, I don't think equipment is the problem. I just think the issue comes down to golf course architecture. We need more doglegs. We need tighter fairways. We need longer rough. We need smaller greens. We need more firm greens.”
As many point out, tour players have significant conflicts of interest on the topic of equipment regulation, given their endorsement deals from the equipment manufacturers. But, conflicts aside, it seems clear that Simpson and some other pros have an authentic belief that current equipment standards are not detrimental to the game.
Simpson’s comments give a particularly enlightening peek into how some tour players see the game, even as the comments themselves are less than enlightened. To Simpson, golf is a game of execution: the course should demand a certain shot, and players should be tested by their ability to execute it. It’s not crazy why Simpson and his contemporaries want execution to be at the forefront. After all, their livelihoods depend on how well they can solve the puzzle of golf. Naturally, they’d prefer the game be as predictable and one-dimensional as possible, thus maximizing control over their own success.
Of course, golf has always been a game of both strategy and execution. The “Golden Age” of golf course architecture is so-named because it emphasized strategy - different routes to the hole with risks and rewards for playing various shots. Simpson’s preference for a single minded test of execution goes so completely against the original and enduring principles of golf so as to render it a different game entirely. One would be hard-pressed to envision narrow fairways, thick rough, and small greens on the revered links of the British Isles, including The Old Course at St. Andrews.
Many in golf circles rolled their eyes at Simpson’s and similar comments for their ignorance. To me, these views do not come from ignorance as much as they do a misunderstanding of the purpose of equipment regulation. The objective of reining in distance is to make golf more interesting, not necessarily more difficult. In other words, the aim is to enhance strategy rather than increase scoring. This important distinction can help clarify and bolster the case for equipment regulation.
Scoring is not the problem. While it is true that scores in the professional game have slowly but steadily gotten lower, these lower scores are not the issue that equipment regulation is trying to solve. Rather, the problem is that strategy has largely gone out the window as the game has become more reliant on distance. For example, instead of strategically placing a tee shot for the best angle to the pin, distance gains have dictated that the best approach involves hitting the tee shot as far as possible. After all, a wedge out of the rough is easier than a mid-iron from the fairway. The current version of professional golf is a fundamentally different game that does not ask as many questions of its champions.
The most interesting holes to watch at professional tournaments require decision-making. Think the 10th at Riviera, or the 13th at Augusta. Players are confronted with a choice and must marry their strategy and execution to achieve success. Unfortunately, holes like these are becoming fewer and farther between. And, even these holes have lost interest in recent years. In 2015, 51% of the field went for the green on the par-four 10th hole at Riviera. In 2020, that number was 80%. As Geoff Shackelford writes, Riviera’s 10th hole has become, "Less risk-reward and more hit-and-hope." If even the most strategic holes are succumbing to distance gains, it’s surely past time to further regulate equipment.
One other point about the most interesting holes: they usually are some of the “easier” holes on the course in relation to par. This fact further solidifies the distinction between scoring and strategy. These holes aren’t great to watch because scoring is difficult. They’re fun and interesting because the strategic choices they present make the ensuing shots all the more thrilling, or agonizing.
If the objective were to “protect par,” or make scoring more difficult, Simpson would be right. Narrow fairways, thick rough, small greens, tight doglegs, and lots of trees do make golf more difficult from a scoring perspective. In fact, if the goal were to increase scores, this would be the perfect recipe. But that’s not the goal. It is always possible to manipulate scores through changes to course setup. However, with today's equipment, it is not possible for professionals to play many of the game’s great courses the way they were intended.
It comes down to what golf is about. Is it a game of executing shots? Or is it a game of strategically navigating a course while executing your chosen shots? In case it wasn’t clear, I firmly believe it’s the latter.
** For more on the topic of distance in the professional game, listen to The Sidehill Lie Golf Podcast Episode 3 with Mike Clayton **
To bring back strategy to the professional game, two options exist. Either courses must be lengthened to adapt to current driving distances, or current driving distances must be altered to adapt to courses. There are almost endless arguments against the first approach, from the financial and environmental costs to the scarcity of land to the long walks back from greens to tees that disrupt the flow of the round. So it seems clear that regulating equipment, especially the ball and possibly the driver, is the best way to make strategy relevant again.
Opponents of equipment regulation point out that today’s longest players will still be the longest under new regulations. That’s absolutely correct. Distance always has been and always will be an advantage. But by reining in driving distances, these longer hitters will be forced to play courses the way they were designed to be played. Courses and driving distances will again be in scale, as they have been for most of golf’s existence. It’s likely that many of the same great players will win with regulated equipment. But, they will be asked different questions along the way, providing a test of the strategic aspect of golf. As a result, the game will be far more interesting to watch.
The distinction between scoring and strategy is a crucial part of the distance debate. When players like Webb Simpson brainstorm ways to make courses more difficult, they are missing the point. Equipment regulation seeks to restore strategy to the professional game, not to increase scores. Golf has always required strategic acumen as well as physical ability. Currently, professional golf does not offer this complete examination. Further equipment regulation would seek to provide the test of strategy and execution that have made golf an enthralling sport for generations.