You’ve probably seen the news recently detailing the joint decision by the USGA and R&A to limit the length of drivers to 46 inches among golf rule changes for 2022.
The ruling will come into force for competition (professional and elite amateur) from January 1st 2022. But as USGA chief executive Mike Whan said: “It’s important to note that it is not a rule of golf and as such, it is not mandated for the average, recreational golfer.”
Reaction to the news has been mixed. Much of the media has spoken about “Bryson-Proofing”, which we want to discuss a bit later.
The reaction from some professionals, including Phil Mickelson, has been one of exasperation at the tinkering from authorities.
Mickelson, in fact, was irate when he first learned the news back in August, and he let rip on Twitter, calling the decision “PATHETIC”. Others simply shrugged it off as something that has little bearing on their game, or their successes.
There has been talk of this for a while, and it is no coincidence that it really came on the agenda during Bryson DeChambeau’s hot streak from mid-2020 to the spring of 2021.
It was after winning the Arnold Palmer in March 2021 that DeChambeau himself broached the subject of “Bryson-Proofing”. At the time, his opinion was that it would be impossible, given those who hit the longest would always have the advantage.
Correlation between power and success is negligible
But does any of this stand up to true scrutiny? It’s debatable. Consider the following: Below are the top 10 players on the PGA Tour by average driving distance across 2021:
*current world ranking in brackets
- Bryson DeChambeau (7)
- Rory McIlroy (14)
- Cameron Champ (71)
- Matthew Wolff (33)
- Will Gordon (350)
- Wyndham Clark (231)
- Dustin Johnson (2)
- Luke List (174)
- Jhonattan Vegas (86)
- Brandon Hagy (178)
Now, while that is only a small dataset to analyze, any mathematician is going to have a hard time proving a positive correlation between average driving distance and world ranking.
Speaking from a perspective of pure data, claiming that DeChambeau is highly placed in the rankings due to driving distance cannot be stated without referencing low ranked players like Will Gordon.
There is no pattern, and one isn’t formed by looking further down the rankings. The world number one, Jon Rahm, is 19th in average driving distance, whereas the world number 828, Ryan Brehm, is 11th.
And yet, it is accepted wisdom in golf that being able to hit the ball further off the tee gives players an advantage. That is true, but only up to a point.
It’s the ability to hit the ball further with the addition of relative accuracy that gives the advantage; not power for the sake of it. Although, you might also add that the ability to get out of trouble – stats like sand-save-percentage – also count.
Players punished for power with precision
It’s for that reason you’ll find names DeChambeau, Johnson, and Rahm mentioned in golf tournament betting previews from the likes of Steve Palmer and Adam Sagar, and the reason you don’t see names like Will Gordon and Ryan Brehm.
Of course, there is always an element of ‘horses for courses’ with golf – some events will suit power hitters, and some won’t. But there seems to be an erroneous emphasis on driving distance that excludes other factors.
The point – and this is backed up by Mickelson and others – is that players are being punished for marrying power with precision. Such attributes are lauded in sports like tennis – have you ever heard someone calling for an end to 150mph serves? – so why not golf?
But the most salient point is that truly feels unneeded. DeChambeau is often used by the media as a symbol of golf’s changing dynamics. But that, in turn, tends to lead to an exaggerated perception of his abilities.
DeChambeau is a fine player, perhaps even a great one. But he tends to dominate headlines more than courses. His last victory was at the Arnold Palmer in March, and he has been just about okay ever since.
In short, his results (and performances) suggest a player deservedly in the world’s top 10 – but no more than that.
So why create a rule to rein in DeChambeau? Golf’s authorities surely can’t draw parallels with DeChambeau’s performances and those of, for example, Tiger Woods.
Back in the 2000s, all the talk was of “Tiger-Proofing” courses. DeChambeau would be the first to admit that he will never get to that level.
The only logical assumption is the USGA and R&A are nipping this in the bud now, hoping to seem prescient that driver length will be a problem of the future.
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