While on the surface it doesn’t seem like Bryson DeChambeau, Matthew Wolff, Cameron Champ and their peers bombing drives that approach 400 yards would hurt the game for the masses, there is evidence to the contrary.
It was somewhere between 2000 and 2005. I was bombing the ball—routinely reaching 300 yards off the tee, and once I had a wedge for my second shot into a par-5, after clearing a hill and taking advantage of a “speed slot” on the other side. I had reached my peak power.
Stepping back a little further in time—1996, to be exact—Tiger Woods turned professional and changed the game forever. Tiger changed the meaning of “drive for show, putt for dough.” His incredible length off the tee made other professionals look meek, and set off a scramble to “Tiger Proof” golf courses.
As we now know, Tiger-proofing had the opposite effect. Instead of making courses too long for Woods to overwhelm, it made them almost unplayable for shorter hitters. Tiger still dominated, and a new breed of golfers followed in his footsteps.
The distance debate didn’t really start with Woods, of course. Every generation has had a young buck come up and disrupt the field by driving it past everyone else. Right before Tiger, we had John Daly. Daly wasn’t just power, either. His short game was smooth enough to earn him a pair of major championships (the 1991 PGA Championship and 1995 British Open).
Presently, everyone is talking about Bryson DeChambeau. He used the time when the pro Tour was shut down by the pandemic to gain 40 pounds of muscle and invaluable mph on his driver and ball speed, so he could attack and overpower golf courses. Bringing the feared Winged Foot Golf Club to its knees for a U.S. Open title is all the proof one needs to see the fruits of his labor (and the payoff from gallons of protein shakes).
Golf’s governing bodies—the United States Golf Association (USGA) and Royal & Ancient (R&A)—are taking this seriously and have set their sights on how it could affect not only professional tournaments, but also golf courses and equipment. In February, the organizations issued a joint Distance Insights Report with an ominous tone: “There is a 100-year trend of hitting-distance increases in golf, as well as a corresponding increase in the length of golf courses, across the game globally,” the report said. “The USGA and the R&A believe this continuing cycle is detrimental to the game’s long-term future.”
Increased distance can have a number of trickle-down effects, including classic, shorter courses becoming obsolete; increased use of water, chemicals and other resources to maintain a course; golfers needing more time to play rounds, and even the desire to play tees that are too long for a player’s skillset. All of these results are indeed detrimental to the game.
I live less than 15 minutes away from Canterbury Golf Club in Beachwood, Ohio, which has hosted two U.S. Opens (1940 and 1946) and a PGA Championship (1973). Sam Snead once said, “I’d much rather face a rattlesnake than a downhill 2-footer at Canterbury.”
The first time I played Canterbury, I missed such a putt on the first hole and was ruined (mentally) for the remainder of my round. While the Herbert Strong-designed course held its own when it hosted the 2009 Senior PGA Championship, eventually it also became too short for the young guns.
The golf industry has been trying various “grow the game” initiatives for years, but it took a global pandemic to see numbers really start to improve. While on the surface, it doesn’t seem like DeChambeau, Matthew Wolff, Cameron Champ and their peers bombing drives that approach 400 yards would hurt the game for the masses, there is evidence to the contrary.
Are your members and guests now coming to you, asking for a club fitting that adds 10 yards off the tee? Are they now outhitting your golf course, and maybe even forcing you to make renovations—lengthening tees, repositioning fairway bunkers, etc.—to try to counter their gains in distance?
Drop me a line (firstname.lastname@example.org) and let me know how the “DeChambeau Effect” is impacting your operation, and how you think it could affect golf in the long run.
Rob Thomas, Senior Editor