The latest news in the golf ball world comes from GeoffShackelford.com about a not-so-secret test conducted by the USGA on a prototype golf ball designed to fly shorter than today’s standard golf ball. The USGA obviously tried to keep the test a secret by holding it in Canada. But word leaked out about the test and the fact that the governing body of American golf may be changing its long-held position that the current ball is just fine, thank you. The likes of Greg Norman, Tom Watson and, most notably, Jack Nicklaus have been lamenting for years about how the longer flying golf balls were making the grand old courses obsolete. As far back as 1977, Nicklaus raised the issue with the USGA. The USGA’s reaction at the time? Says Nicklaus, “They laughed at me.”
But has the golf ball really made that much difference at the highest levels of the game: the PGA Tour? Let’s take a look at the numbers. In 1990, the longest driver on Tour was Tom Purtzer, with an average whack of 279.6 yards. Last year’s driving leader was Bubba Watson with an average of 311.1 yards off the tee. Yep, that’s pretty significant. An 11% increase. But has that lead to better scoring? Barely. In 1990, Greg Norman led the Tour in scoring at 69.1. 19 years later, Tiger Woods was the scoring leader (in more ways than one! Bada Bing!) with an average round of 68.05. That’s only a difference of 1.5%
There’s no doubt that players are hitting it farther off the tee. But how much of that is ball and how much can be attributed to better clubs, better player conditioning, better technology in matching launch angle to swing speed, global warming, hope & change? When Bobby Jones first saw Nicklaus play, Jones remarked that Nicklaus was playing “a game of which I’m not familiar.” That was nearly 50 years ago. Distance will continue to change the game, but scoring is still the ultimate goal. And even if the golf ball has a Superball cover with a helium core, the old “drive for show” adage is true. You still have to get the ball in the hole.