Players' thoughts on distance only go so far; they're trying to hit it even farther

Rex Hoggard
Golf Channel

Ever since the USGA and R&A released 99 pages of disturbing distance data, the game’s best and brightest have largely said all the right things.

Asked Tuesday at the Genesis Invitational about the study, Tiger Woods donned his architect’s hat.

“To see the technology advance as fast as it has, the average distance was, from when I first came out on here, if you carry it 270 [yards], it took a lot of trouble out of play. Now guys are hitting their hybrids and 5-woods 270 in the air,” he said. “The game has evolved, and it's changed. We're running out of property to try and design golf courses that are from the back 7,800 to 8,000 yards. It's difficult.”

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The next day Rory McIlroy was asked a similar question and offered a similar answer.

“A lot of the stuff about the ball going too far and technology, it really pertains to 0.1 percent of golfers out there. So look, if they want to try to contain what we do as touring professionals, I'm all for that,” he said.

McIlroy went on to applaud the sustainability aspect of the distance report and explained, as only Rory can, how golf needs to do better.

Smash and bash: 'Happy Gilmore' golf in the game's future?

But all the we-need-to-do-something feedback from players feels a little hollow. It's not a lie. It's not disingenuous. 

It's just incongruous, considering every player’s ongoing pursuit of longer drives.

Given the current landscape, players taking a measured approach is the only option and not remotely surprising; but just as the distance report was painting a concerning picture, players have over the last weeks, perhaps unintentionally, explained why distance control can’t be mandated.

It started last month at the Farmers Insurance Open when Woods talked about a new driver that allowed him to “pick up a little bit of speed, which is nice.”

Last week at Pebble Beach, Phil Mickelson was much more specific and scientific.

“You can't outperform everyone consistently without clubhead speed, because there's no substitute for speed in this game,” Lefty said. “It allows you to put more spin on the ball, it allows you to hit the ball longer, make carries come in higher and softer into the greens.”

Mickelson went on to explain in impressive detail that, thanks to an intense offseason training program, he’s picked up roughly 4 mph in ball speed over last season.

It’s no surprise that Bryson DeChambeau was even more detailed on Tuesday at Riviera, telling GolfChannel.com about his own distance gains, also as a result of some offseason gym work.

Bryson DeChambeau sees Happy Gilmore-like length in golf's future

Dumbed down, the two big brains outlined a simple formula. For DeChambeau, 20 pounds of muscle have him up to 187 mph in ball speed. For Lefty, losing 15 pounds has him up to 182 mph in ball speed. Both equations add up to the same sum – longer drives.

It’s a small sample size, but DeChambeau’s average drive has jumped from 302.5 yards last season to 305.8 yards this season, which at the highest levels of the game is a significant bounce. It’s also a bump that DeChambeau and Mickelson have come by honestly.

New-and-improved golf clubs and golf balls help, as does a modern fitting process that leaves nothing unanswered. But it’s how DeChambeau and Mickelson have transformed their bodies that is the common theme. In the case of Lefty, it’s also alarming how quickly he was able to turn that sweat into longer drives.

“It took me probably a year before I, overnight, had 5-6 mph more clubhead speed,” Mickelson said last week. “I was struggling to swing 115 [mph]. I think that was kind of my average clubhead speed. Now, it's easily over 120. If I need to get to 122-123, I can at will. And that's an important part for me to feel like I'm not at a disadvantage before I even tee off.”

It’s also an important element of the current distance debate. Athletes, as well as the PGA Tour, will continue to say all the right things about unity and the need to address longer drives, but their actions tell a different story.

There’s a quest in every sport to identify and produce bigger, faster, stronger athletes. Players can honestly concede something needs to be done about ever-increasing distance gains, and then go about their business of trying to hit the ball farther. It’s not a lie or disingenuous; it’s simply the nature of competition.

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