Should Golf Require Shorter Clubs?

A proposal intended to limit the length of drives by reducing the maximum club length from 48 inches to 46 inches has drawn criticism from professional players.
Golfer hitting ball with driver
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Peter Gwynne, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- Professional golf has a problem: Players are driving the ball too far.  

Some prominent professionals have protested loudly about a proposal for mitigating the problem, made by and under study by the sport's rule-makers, the United States Golf Association (USGA) and the United Kingdom's equivalent, the R&A. 

The new standard would pertain to all clubs except putters and would set the maximum length of the shaft at 46 inches, measured from the end of the grip cap at the top of the club to the ground. The current limit is 48 inches. Drivers, the longest non-putter clubs in golfers' bags, are likely to be the only clubs affected by the decision.  

Of course, hitting the ball as far as possible off the tee is a major objective of golf, and longer clubs make this first hit easier. The longer you can drive the ball from the tee, the shorter your next shot to the green needs to be. And the shorter that shot, the better the chance that it will put the ball close enough to the hole for an easy putt. 

Longer clubs permit golfers to give the ball more speed at impact, which lets it travel further. 

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Today, the top professionals can now drive the ball so far that they dominate all but the longest courses, leading some golfing authorities to argue that the game is becoming too easy for them.  

"Old historical courses" have been "killed" by the ability of tour professionals to drive the ball extraordinary distances, said Peter Dewhurst, an engineer and professor emeritus at the University of Rhode Island and author of "The Science of the Perfect Swing." 

Hitting distances have increased regularly for the past 100 years. But the effect has become particularly noticeable in recent years. 

According to the Distance Insights Report, a study issued last year by the USGA and the R&A, the average drive of the 20 longest hitters in the U.S.'s PGA Tour increased from 278 yards to 310 yards between 1995 and 2019. It's not just that the equipment is better and the drivers a bit longer. The main difference is that players are swinging their clubs faster. 

"In the 1990s, the average driver speed was 104-105 mph. Now it's 115 mph. Each mph means 2.8 yards in distance," said Tom Wishon, a golf club designer and founder of Tom Wishon Golf Technology. 

"The modern players are athletes, who start to train in high school to increase their clubhead speed," he explained.  

The gains haven't been restricted to male professionals. The 20 best hitters on the LPGA tour now average drives of over 270 yards. And "recreational golfers" -- weekend players and other nonelite amateurs -- have also increased their driving distances significantly in recent years, although the authorities have proposed the shaft length limit as a "model local rule" that would apply only to specific competitions among professionals and top amateurs. (This kind of approach to rules in golf is itself controversial.) 

Increasing the speed limit 

The champion of the 2020 U.S. Open and former physics major Bryson DeChambeau exemplifies the effort to increase driving distance. Using dietary and training techniques, he bulked himself to a level of size and strength that has made him one of the game's longest drivers ever.  

"Bryson swings the driver at 122-125 miles per hour in tournaments. That means he hits 30 yards over the average guy on the tour, who swings at 115 mph," Wishon said. That swing speed, achieved with a 47.75-inch driver, helped him to lead the PGA tour last year with an average driving distance of 322.1 yards. 

DeChambeau has since talked of using a 48-inch driver. Dewhurst calculates that the change could increase his clubhead speed by about 5 mph and the ball's speed from 192 mph to about 199 mph.  

The increases in tour players' driving distances have forced courses to redesign their layouts to construct the longer holes required to continuing hosting professional tournaments. But that solution can increase the use of water, chemicals and other resources, the Distance Insights Report states. 

The USGA and the R&A, meanwhile, have tried to restrict the length of drives by tweaking other rules governing the design of clubs and golf balls. For example, they have made adjustments that limited how long the ball remains on the clubface before flying into the air and have extended that limit beyond the center of the clubface. They have also adjusted the golf ball itself to change its internal construction and stability in flight. And in 2010, the authorities banned certain types of grooves on iron clubs, to make it more difficult to hit accurately from the rough, where mishit long drives can land. 

But the question of how to best reduce distance by tweaking the rules remains. Phil Mickelson, a winner of six major tournaments who uses a 47.5-inch driver, objects to some of these past rule changes as well as the proposed shaft length limit. In a series of tweets a few weeks ago, he questioned what data the authorities used to make the proposal and asserted that a change would affect recreational golfers more than tour professionals. With longer drivers, amateurs "might hit it so short they're not going to get in as much trouble as the guy who hits it farther," he tweeted. 

Mickelson noted that returning to a previous version of the golf ball with more weight in the center might offer a better solution. That formulation, he said, would lead to bigger misses on the tour when pros hit long drives poorly and work as a better way to keep distances down without punishing weekend players. 

Extra club length has one obvious advantage. "The longer the length, the greater the angular acceleration and speed through the swing," Wishon explained.  

Maintaining speed 

Golfers' abilities are ruled by physics. Most weekend golfers lack sufficient strength in their wrists to maintain speed until the clubhead hits the ball. "You have to have a very late unhinging of the wrist angle to get maximum speed," Wishon said. "For the average Joe, the angle of release by the wrist falls."

Dewhurst points out another potential problem of longer drivers. "The further you are from the ball, the more difficult it is to keep it at a small distance from the [clubhead's] sweet spot," he explained. Missing that spot can lead to a misplayed drive that goes offline or makes minimal distance. 

Wishon said that although most average golfers would struggle with the longer clubs, some could benefit from playing with a longer driver. 

That fact, Wishon argues, is why golf authorities shouldn't have different rules for elite and weekend players. "You can't find any other sport where on any day a participant can perform the same way as or better than the professionals," he said. "Different rules would destroy the game." 

Author Bio & Story Archive

Peter Gwynne is a freelance writer and editor based in Hyannis, Massachusetts, who covers science, technology and medicine.