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Thanks to technology, golfers are going the distance

The raging debate in the golf world over the distance the modern ball flies is largely a non-issue for the average golfer, many Western New York golf experts agree.

That doesn’t mean it is not an important debate. It doesn’t mean it’s not a problem for the sport at the highest level. It’s just that it has little to do with the way most people play the game.

“The improvement in technology is a good thing for the average player,” said Crag Burn club pro Frank LaForce.

“For amateur golfers, I’m all for the technology,” said Dwayne Randall, golf pro at Peek’n Peak Resort and the Western New York club pro player of the year four years running. “It allows the average golfer to enjoy the game more. It’s allowed them to be more consistent.”

“Scores haven’t dropped significantly among average golfers. But I think the average golfer is hitting better shots tee to green, and the game is more fun. A bad short game is still a bad short game. That’s going to keep you from scoring. But the game is more fun. More golfers are keeping the ball in play. When your second shot is continually behind a tree, that’s not fun.”

The distance the ball flies – and to a lesser degree the distance the clubs hit the balls – remains a source of controversy at the professional level.

The average driving distance on the PGA Tour has gone from 273 yards in 2000 to about 290 yards today. The average drive of the 50th-ranked player on the PGA Tour was 272 in 1997, 285 in 2002 and 294.7 in 2012.

As a result, courses on the PGA Tour keep getting longer. Augusta National, home of the Masters, has gone from 6,985 yards in 2000 to 7,445 yards last year. Several holes at the Old Course at St. Andrews were torn up in December so the birthplace of golf could better protect par when it hosts the British Open this summer.

Jack Nicklaus has called for more limits on how far the ball flies for many years, and pressure seems to be increasing on the United States Golf Association to take firmer action against equipment manufacturers.

“I firmly believe they should dial back the golf ball,” said Steve Denn, tournament director of the Porter Cup at Niagara Falls Country Club in Lewiston. “It’s absolutely ridiculous. The distance the ball goes is making all these classic courses in many cases obsolete. It’s costing more to maintain courses. Instead of a 6,500-yard course, you’re seeing so many new courses built at 15 or 20 percent longer. That increases the cost. And it’s adding to the length of people’s rounds because some people play the longer distances.”

The top collegiate golfers in the country have come to the Porter Cup since 1959. In the first 44 years of the event, only three times was the winning score better than 10 under par. But a 10-under total has been bettered by six of the last 10 winners, including a 22-under winning total in 2007. Niagara Falls CC plays 6,871 yards for the Porter Cup.

“We can’t stretch out our course any longer,” Denn said. “If the conditions are right for scoring, we could potentially see a winner at 20 under, and there isn’t much we can do about it.”

At top local amateur events, the affect has been much less dramatic.

Tom Sprague, executive director of the Buffalo District Golf Association, says he does not set up courses for tournament play appreciably longer than he did a decade ago.

“Except for a couple of our players, like Jake Katz and Matt Stasiak, our long players are not that long,” Sprague says. “Why? The most overlooked factor in length of players is the condition of the courses they play. The PGA courses, as you know, ‘run’ like crazy.”

Sprague said he recently played in Charlotte, N.C., at Quail Hollow, site of a PGA Tour event.

“It was chilly and they had their share of rain,” Sprague said. “But, on the fairways the ball never seems to stop. I was about 25 yards longer on the average drive. My playing partner, who is a member, said that by the time the pros are there in May, it will pick up another 10 to 20 yards. We don’t have a single course in Western New York, except Oak Hill, where that kind of change takes place. So what would Bubba Watson’s average drive be on our courses? Well, it wouldn’t be what it is on the tour.”

Watson led the tour last year with a 315-yard driving average.

“We’ve added four new tees that help add some length to the course, and we do set it up a little longer than we did 20 years ago,” LaForce said of the Crag Burn club championship. “It puts a longer iron in the players’ hands a little bit more. But quite honestly, it doesn’t correlate to who wins. Probably four of our last five club champions have not been one of our longest hitters.”

Crag Burn’s Raman Luthra is defending Buffalo district champion. He said his average tee shot is between 255 and 265 yards under normal conditions. That doesn’t make him among the longest hitters at the top local amateur level. But he doesn’t see distance being any kind of a problem at the top local amateur level.

“I think from a technology standpoint the long putter has helped or saved people more than any driver or ball,” Luthra said. “Hybrids have made a big difference. Average golfers are hitting three, four, five hybrid clubs, and that’s a huge advantage as opposed to hitting long irons. It’s made the game more enjoyable. People are hitting driver more consistently because of the larger heads. But the higher handicap players’ short games still aren’t as good as they need to be. They’re not scoring better.”

“I am not worried about length, at the local level,” Sprague said.


Drive for show

Average driving distance over the years on PGA Tour

1980 256.5 yards

1985 259.7 yards

1990 262.3 yards

1995 262.7 yards

2000 272.7 yards

2005 288.4 yards

2010 287.3 yards

2011 290.9 yards

2012 289.1 yards

Source: PGA Tour