The Distance Debate in Golf…[the big picture view]

The distance debate in golf. It’s all anyone can talk about these days. 

It’s hard to believe this storyline rivals that of Tiger Woods as the defending champ headed into the first fall Masters EVER!

“Have you seen how far Bryson DeChambeau is hitting the ball?”

“Did you see him drive the 365-yard par 4 in Vegas?”

“Did you hear about him carrying it 400+ yards?”

In this post, I am going step back and give you a big picture view of the distance debate in golf and my opinion (backed by facts) on how we got here. Let’s dive in.

The Distance Debate in Golf Cover Image

Chapter 1

Golf Media and the Distance Debate

As of the time of this writing, Bryson DeChambeau is the odds on favorites to win the Masters.

His polarizing personality coupled with his training regimen and distance has created a huge divide in the game of golf. 

The longer hitters like a DJ, Rory, and Finau have joined the race for distance and speed.  

While shorter hitters like Mathew Fitzpatrick are lashing out against this “bomb and gauge” approach.

To some in the established golf media and pundits, it’s a circus act. 

A game that is wrapped in tradition. 

The tradition of the Masters, US Open, British…I mean The Open Championship (whatever….) and the PGA. 

The golf aristocrats at the USGA, R&A, and Augusta are stuck in antiquity.

They want us to believe that the game is under assault by a man who “eats protein shakes and lift weights.”

But, let me ask you this.

Name me one other sport that involves swinging a stick to hit an object where strength, speed, and even muscle mass doesn’t play a factor.

For a long time Bigger, Faster & Stronger have been the mantra of:

Hockey, Baseball, Basketball, Football, etc.

Why should golf be any different? 

Golf has this stigma (and rightfully so) that it is dominated by a bunch of stuck up country club types whose trust funds are bigger than their biceps. 

While some of that still holds true, it has gotten a lot better since I was first learning to play the game 30+ years ago.

It’s one of the few sports where you learn things like proper golf etiquette way before swing plane technique. 

But, golf is still a sport where mainstream media and the PGA Tour is trying to protect its Image.

This image of a wholesome, family product, wrapped in a bow, delivered by the voice of Jim Nantz on a Norman Rockwell painting.

The oligopolistic nature of golf media has conditioned everyone that things like, “feel,” “mental toughness”, “practice,” and a strong short game are what it takes to win tournaments. 

Don’t get me wrong, those things still matter. I recognize the fact that Bryson won the U.S. Open at Winged Foot in part due to his short game.

But many in old man golf media have critiqued and even laughed at the notion of professional golfers hitting the weight room, with their macro/meso training cycles performing eccentric and tempo set and rep schemes of complex barbell movements while consuming protein shakes. 

A simple Google search for a golf fitness routine will return a bunch of images results of your grandfather doing stretches to get over back pain. 

But if you want to hit the ball further you need things that teach strength and speed

  • You need things like deadlifts, Olympic lifts plyometrics, and interval training.
  • You need to be able to produce a large amount of force in a short amount. 

You need the speed of:

  • Usain getting out of the blocks and across a line 100m away in less than 9.6s 
  • Barry Bonds hitting a homer just shy of 500 feet
  • CJ Cummings cleaning 430lbs
  • Or Lamar’s ability to turn a 2 yds loss into a 40 yds TD run (Go Ravens!)

It’s as if strength and weightlifting in the world of golf are seen as barbaric.

Any strength and conditioning coach will tell you the same.

For such a long big names in golf media like Johnny Miller, Nick Faldo, and Brandel Chamblee tells us that strength training and lifting weights in golf will get you hurt. 

“I think he overdid the weight room, personally. I don’t think that helped him at all. I think [the] same thing with Tiger Woods. You just get carried away with wearing the tight shirts and showing off their sort of muscles. You know, golf is a game of finesse and touch; you need a certain amount of strength. I just think you’ve got a little too much of that. You know? And maybe expect too much. When you have a good run you expect to win every week or be contending and it’s hard to do in this game” – Johnny Miller 2016

 

“Throwing 200-pound and 300-pound weights around is not going to be good for your golf swing,” Nick Faldo 2015

 

“He [TIGER} has an obsession with perfection. Perfect golf swing, he’s changed his swing three or four times, cost him two years he did it. Changed his body because he was looking for the perfect body – who knows what that’s cost him in time and injuries and majors and tournaments.” – Brandel Chamblee 2018

Albeit, either we misunderstood Brandel but his tune has seemed to have changed recently. I do think he is a very thoughtful and smart analyst.

When the subject of weight training and the distance debate came up, many in golf media pointed to the likes of Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy and said:

“See I told you so.”

And for a while they were right.

Over the years, when I heard comments like this out of the media, I always asked:

  • “WHY?!”
  • “What is it about strength training for golf that is so bad?”
  • “Why is strength training so bad? I’m not talking about bulkiness but STRENGTH training?”
  • “Why?”

And the answer I would always hear is…”because it just is.”

Or “it will get you hurt.”

But let me tell you what really gets you “hurt in the gym”.

  1. You don’t get stronger in the gym, you just break down muscle. You need to rest and eat right to rebuild. Too much volume and no recovery is what gets you hurt. 
  2. Awful form like rounded backs during deadlifts. Knees caving in on squats, hyperextended backs during overhead movements is what can compromise you.

These are some of the reasons why I decided to start Signum Golf.

I look at the game’s greats like Johnny and Nick for golf instruction. 

But I pay attention to people like Louis Simmons, Arthur Jones, and Dave Tate when it comes to strength, speed, and weight training. 

As Louie said, 

“Big is not strong. Strong is strong.”

Let that be a lesson to all the young kids who want to eat a high caloric diet like Bryson…You don’t need to be bigger. You just need to be stronger.

Chapter 2

Money $$$$ and its influence on the Distance Debate in Golf

Let’s step back and take a look at how we got here when it comes to the Distance Debate in Golf.

Let’s go back 20+ years. 

Before Tiger exploded on the scene, the average age on tour in 1996 was 36 years old.

Back then it was unheard of for a rookie to win their first year at big show.

Did you know that for the longest time, Seve Ballesteros was the youngest winner on the PGA tour?

He won the 1978 Greenbrier Classic at the age of 20 years, 11 months, 24 days

That record stood until Phil broke it in 1991 at the age of 20 years, 6 months, 28 days at the Northern Telecomm Open.

Soon afterwards, Tiger broke that record at the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational at the age of 20 years, 9 months, 6 days

Now guys are doing it with regularity:

  • Rory McIlroy – 2010 at Quail Hollow at the age of 20 years, 11 months, 28 days
  • Jordan Spieth 2013 – 19 years of age at the John Deere
  • Matt Wolf – 2019 – 20 years old at the 3M
  • Jaoquin Niemann – 2020 at the Greenbrier at the age of 20.

Before Tiger, young players had to “learn the ropes”, grind it out, and maybe after a couple years they would get their first win. 

Before Tiger, the PGA Tour was carried by the established older generation.

Names like Jack, Palmer, Trevino, Watson were the backbone of the tour. 

The GOAT changed all that. Tiger became the Tour. 

Tiger proved that the young can win. And win A LOT

Now you have kids coming out of college winning their first year on tour (ala Wolf, Hovland).

And sometimes even their first major (Morikawa) 

To put it simply, the game got younger and attracted pure athletic talent.

“I rob banks because that’s where the money is.” – Willie Sutton

In the chart below we show inflation-adjusted purses per PGA tour event going back 80 years.

PGA Tour Purse Money per Event

In 2019 the figure stood just shy of $7.5 million per event (in 2019 dollars) vs $2.4 million in 1996 when Tiger made his debut on tour. 

You can see the trend.

(The last 15 years is somewhat alarming)

If you want to attract better athletes, have bigger paychecks. 

In my opinion, it’s one of the reasons, talent in professional soccer is much better than US soccer….they get paid more overseas!

Soccer Player Compensation

Many call the growth in purses, The Tiger Effect.

But there is a big piece that often gets missed in chalking it up to one man. (Albeit he is the GOAT!)

The chart below shows PGA Tour purse money on a 5-yr compounded annual growth rate.

PGA Purse Growth Rate Tiger Effect

You can see that before Tiger stepped on the scene in 1996, it was already growing at a steady clip (black circle). 

He came along and simply added gasoline to the fire (red circle). 

So what underlies this growth?

PGA Tour Purses and the SP500

The above chart shows the S&P 500 and total PGA Tour Purse Money per event since 1939 (both inflation adj). 

The correlation between the two is astounding.

If you are familiar with statistics the r-square is a very strong 0.90.

Why is that?

A stronger economy, more liquidity, a rising stock market leads to more corporate spending, more advertising dollars, more corporate sponsorships for the PGA tour, bigger purses, and finally more money for the players.  

  • So purses grew,
  • the PGA Tour grew
  • And the game of golf grew. 

Tiger came along at the PERFECT Time for Golf.

  • Greenspan’s economy was roaring,
  • The tech craze was about to enter the late stages of its parabolic rise.
  • Corporate spending was set to take off in the form of the tech bubble. 
  • The Nasdaq was set on a journey to sky-rocket to 5,048 (March 10, 2000), a level it wouldn’t touch for another 15 years after the crash.

And Tiger was just the right guy to take the tour and the game there!

Golf course construction in the U.S. was no different. We saw a parabola rise in the rise of new courses in North America until the real estate crash of 2008.

Don’t believe me? Well think about this, the Golden Age of Golf Course Construction happened to take place in the post WW1 -1930s era, right before the 1929 October Crash which led to the Great Depression. 

I’m sorry, I digress. Back to the subject of the Distance Debate in Golf.

Well, the stage was set in the late 1990s for an increase in amount of eye balls to the game 

How do golf equipment companies get more business, attract more customers, grow, and please shareholders?

Simple: come out with better products! 

 

Chapter 3

Technology and it’s influence on distance in the game of golf

To “grow the game,” the incremental golfer isn’t attracted to the latest technology in wedges and putters. 

They want to hit it farther and they want to hit it straighter. 

So begins the race for distance. 

Time for bigger, faster, stronger!

For so long, technology in golf was stuck in the rearview. 

Driving Distance on the PGA tour and technology innovations

But then technology really started to catch up

By the mid 1980’s graphite shafts started to become mainstay in golf.  

Taylor made was one of the first company to create metal-headed woods but it wasn’t until Callaway introduced the big bertha in 1991 that they really took off. 

Soon after, in 1995, Callaway introduced titanium heads in the form of the Great Big Bertha (I still remember hitting it for the first time!)

But then BOOM! The solid core golf ball made its debut in the Distance Wars. 

Capital Investment and research and development began to grow.

Callaway Golf Research and Development Expense

Not soon after, the financiers got involved.

So investment banking M&A activity picked up in the space! (I should know, I used to work for one of them.)

  • 1996 – Cobra purchased by American Brands.
  • 1997 – Adidas bought Salomon (owner to Taylor Made).
  • 1997 – Callaway acquired Odyssey Sports to get into the putter business.
  • 1998 – Nike introduces its first line of golf balls.
  • 2002 – Nike debuts its first line of clubs.
  • 2003 – Callaway purchases Top-Flite Golf and its Ben Hogan Golf division.

Some of the charts below are courtesy of Titleist!

Golf ball & Driving Distance

Driver heads grew bigger and bigger

Driving Distance and Driver Head Size

Driver shafts got longer without the added weight equating to more clubhead speed.

(Interesting tidbit about the chart below. Everyone is raving about Bryson testing out a 48-inch driver. But for the first time since the mid-1990s, shaft length ticked up in 2018 )

Driver Length and shaft weights

Technology went into developing forgiving clubs like hybrids to replace the unhittable 1-irons

My point is the liquidity in the economy, growth in the game, eyeballs on the game (Tiger), and more money to the game allowed corporate America to innovate. 

Now we have Trackmen, swing speed devices, weight plates, high-speed cameras that capture the bend of a driver at impact.

The game of golf finally caught up with tech. It finally used tech. 

Chapter 4

Athletic Talent in the Distance Debate in Golf

Fast forward to today and the professional ranks of golf is populated with ATHLETES with physiques to match.

Rookies on tour no longer look like they just came from a local bar or all you can eat.

Nowadays they are leaner and stronger with the physiques to match as evidenced by the BMI data below.

(Note the chart below is as of 2018 and not updated for Bryson’s recent weight gain.)

BMI of PGA Tour Players

Gone are the days of a Craig Stadler. Now you see guys like Xander, Brooks, Rory, DJ, Finau, Woodland, Bryson, and Wolf playing the game. 

For example, U.S. Open winner Gary Woodland was a former collegiate basketball player.

They follow nutrition programs and strength training programs to match. 

As the professional ranks started to get paid more they attracted better talent and put the technology in their hands to hit it like a Barry Bonds or a Sammy Sosa. 

We saw some parallels in baseball. 

The real estate boom of the 1990s led to bigger and bigger stadiums.

A true baseball fan loves to watch a no-hitter and recognizes the accomplishment.

But the fringe fan wants to see a ball hit 400+ feet over a centerfield wall. 

Baseball had to put butts in the seats. You do that by incentivizing home runs!

The players responded and got bigger! They were compensated for it with huge guaranteed contracts.

Owners turned a blind eye because the money was good. All was well.

The steroid era was born and everyone turned a blind eye. 

You know how the story ends.

To be straight, NO! I am not saying that we are going to see a steroid era in golf. 

But will there be players that take PEDs? Sure, I wouldn’t be so naive.

Yes, you can put on weight like Bryson in such a short amount of time. It may not be the healthiest way but it can be done. (He does it with a high caloric, high fat, and high sugar diet.)

But ponder this. The PGA Tour finally updated their PED testing protocols in 2017 to include blood testing (vs. urine previously) and match the banned substances of WADA.

WAY BEHIND that of all other major sports. 

Will someone on the PGA Tour take PEDs? Probably. Never say never. 

But probably not anyone at the top of the sport like Rory, Bryson, or DJ.

The consequences are too immense.

But someone who is on the fringe of keeping their card where a paycheck, livelihood, and lifelong dream is at stake?

Sure. It’s been done before. It will be done again. 

Chapter 3

The Governing Bodies are still playing catch up in the Distance Wars!

In 2019, the governing bodies finally decided to “investigate” something that has been afoot for a long time. 

All they did was put together a report that told us what we knew

Everyone is hitting it further. 

But this is not the first time this has been done!

Tiger’s 1997 onslaught of the Masters woke our eyes to the fact that like in every other sport:

SPEED WINS. SPEED KILLS

So the game pushed back, and Augusta led the way by making 2604 Washington Rd. even longer. 

If a guy’s advantage is distance you don’t neutralize him by making the course longer.

You do quite the opposite!

Hence the culmination of the greatest golf ever played from 2000-2001 along with a new golf ball and the best swing in golf history aided by high tech camera, etc.

The governing bodies have been playing catch up since.

Driving Distance and PGA Tour Equipment Regulations

And despite all the efforts, players continue to add speed. Which means distance!

Club Head Speed

For so long there was a tradeoff between the two. Ying vs yang. Distance vs accuracy. 

You could have one but you couldn’t have both. 

But then guys like Tiger, Rory, DJ, Bryson and Bubba showed and NASA scientist working in the R&D departsments of equipment companies, now you can.

So here we are on the eve of the Masters, the Holy Land of Golf.

The Annual Hajj down to Georgia. 

The biggest storyline is not that Tiger is the defending champ in the first fall Masters ever.

But rather Bryson is preparing to lay waste to it with a 400 yard driver. 

Here is my point on the Distance Debate in Golf. 

Any economist will tell you, “There is no free lunch.”

The game enjoyed a secular bull market from 1982-2008 on the back of:

  • a strong economy,
  • falling interest rates and rising liquidity,
  • increased corporate profits,
  • growth in corporate spending and sponsorships,
  • growing purse sizes,
  • technology advances,
  • player advances,
  • And don’t forget, the debut of the Biggest Name in golf’s History (ahem the GOAT)!

The secular bull market gave us:

  • better athletes,
  • better equipment
  • and hopefully a better understanding of strength and conditioning for professional golf athlete.

The game evolved to be Bigger, Faster, Stronger & Longer and now those at the top want to push back despite such.

They enjoyed the cake ($$$$) and now they want to eat it too (protect their courses).

It will be interesting to watch!