Average Driving Distance by Age and Handicap: Amateurs Vs Pros

Introduction

Driving distance. A subject that causes much discussion in both clubhouses and amongst the rule-makers of the game.

The R&A/USGA released a report at the start of February 2021 called Distance Insights. They appear to be considering three changes to the equipment rules. These would only affect professionals and elite amateurs.

Assuming you’re an average sort of amateur golfer then you’re probably struggling to hit it much more than two hundred yards off the tee. You are wondering what all the fuss is about.

Using the data from the report you should see the need for the professional game to be reined in.

Golf has seen many improvements in equipment technology over the last 30 to 40 years. There has also been a significant improvement in the condition of most courses. Despite this, there hasn’t been any significant improvement in the distance achieved by amateur golfers.

Amateur Driving Distance

The data produced by the R&A/USGA in their report could hardly be called an in-depth study. Looking at the quantity of data collected per year it seems to be based on a small sample size. Since 1996 they have used the same 6 courses to generate the data for male amateurs.

Course visits take place at the same time of year. To mitigate any wind assistance 2 holes that run in opposite directions are used. The holes have flat landing areas and are sufficiently long that they would encourage people to use their drivers.

Approximately two thousand shots get measured each year.

Driver Distance: Men

Looking at the graph below you can see that the biggest gains have been made by category 3 and category 4 golfers. Each improved by 22 and 18 yards respectively from 1996 to 2018.

This is larger than the increase for categories 1 and 2 but can be explained by the increase in driver usage over that period. You can see this in the driver usage graph.

Male Driving Distance

You can see in the graph below a surge in driver usage by category 3 and category 4 players in the early/mid-2000s. This is likely to be the cause of the increase in driver distance for those categories.

The pertinent question to ask at that point is why category 3 and 4 golfers decided to switch up to their drivers? It’s probably likely that an accumulation of technology and advertising convinced them that the driver was now a lot easier to hit. So they started to use that club a lot more.

Any “improvement” for amateurs over the last twenty-five years is down to their driver usage increasing!

You could still argue that this increased usage is down to technical improvements though. I’m old enough to remember using wooden-headed clubs. There is no doubt in my mind that even metal woods from the late 80s were miles more forgiving than wooden clubs. Drivers, in particular, have seen the greatest R&D expenditure. I didn’t even contemplate using a driver until I was able to get one made from metal!

Driver Usage by Category (Male)

Some argue that long-hitting benefits your score. I think that’s a bit simplistic. The fact that distance tends to increase the lower your handicap gets is because one is a function of the other. For example, let’s assume you are a member at a 6,500-yard course but you only hit it 200 yards with a driver. You would have to be absolutely unbelievable with pretty well every other club in the bag in order to get to category one.

At the end of the day in order to single figures, you generally need to hit it 230 to 240 yards off the tee. Otherwise, you would just leave yourself too much to do with every other part of your game.

If you did hit it shorter than average that would show that some other aspect of your game is significantly better than average. In order to make up for your short hitting either your fairway woods, irons, chipping or putting must be good.

Men by Age

Anecdotal evidence has always suggested that distance decreases as you get older. Recent studies would tend to back that up. For example, ARCCOS has data for over 26 million shots over a three-year period. You can see that for players between 10 to 39 there isn’t that much difference. However, for the next four categories, there is a drop-off of approximately 10 yards every 10 years older that you get.

Age Group/Year201720182019
10-19237235234
20-29242241240
30-39235235234
40-49227227226
50-59220217215
60-69205204205
70+191192190
ARCCOS Driving Distance by Age Group

This is hardly earth-shattering news, however. Short of using technology outside the rules the natural aging process is going to cause golfers to lose distance. While there will always be exceptions the majority of players are going to lose flexibility and strength as they get older. Their swings will get shorter and slower. Unfortunately, it is going to lead to an inevitable reduction in distance.

Average Driver Distance for Women by Handicap

Data for female players only exists since 2013 and also only 5 rather than 6 courses are used. Consequently, it is harder to infer any patterns.

There aren’t any results for category 1 golfers because there were too few of them.

While the general trend of the graph for all categories is upward it would be dangerous to draw any conclusions due to the small dataset.

Female Driving Distances by Category

Women by Age

I was unable to find any data breaking down female driving distances by age.

Professional Driving Distance

Professional Tours: Average Driving Distance

Now we get to the nub of the matter and why the governing bodies have become so concerned. Just look at the graph below, particularly for the tours where data goes back to the farthest. You will see marked improvements in the distances hit over time.

Professional Tour Golfers Driving Distances

It can be argued that some of that is down to player fitness and course conditions. It also doesn’t hurt that tour professionals generally play in only the best weather. It is clear that an awful lot of the improvement is down to large metal-headed drivers and modern low spinning balls.

Why do Tour Professionals Hit It So Far

Professionals can hit such prodigious distances for the following reasons:

  • Fitness. These days professional golfers (for the most part) are athletes and take training seriously. They work on their bodies to generate as much clubhead speed as they can.
  • Technique. They have access to the best coaches who can improve their swing to produce excellent contact with the ball time after time.
  • Launch monitors. Launch monitors can show professionals their exact impact conditions. They can maximize the distance they hit for their clubhead speed by adjusting variables such as angle of attack.
  • Club technology. Manufacturers now tailor clubs to the nth degree for tour professionals. Specific shafts with different kick points, flexes et cetera.
  • Wedge performance. Even after some equipment changes around grooves modern wedges still get a decent level of spin from the rough. This gives rise to the “Bomb and Gouge” approach favored by many. Just blast the ball as far as possible and you should be able to wedge it on the green from wherever it finished!
  • Driver head size. The penalty for missing the sweet spot is significantly less than it was 30 or 40 years ago. Therefore everyone can swing that bit harder at the ball to generate more distance without sacrificing much accuracy.
  • Ball technology. Significant strides have been made with the balls that tour pros tend to use. Moving from three-piece wound balata balls to solid core urethane balls. These balls will produce a lot more distance by comparison.
  • Course agronomy. Many modern courses that are used for professional events have fairways that are almost as fast as the greens of yesteryear.

Why is this a problem?

One of the biggest issues is that modern golf courses designed for tournament play now take up a lot more space. Designers often feel the need to build a course that is the better part of 8000 yards long.

In a world that is growing more environmentally conscious, this is a big problem. Many see courses as a waste of resources and a playground for the rich. Golf should not be making it worse by gobbling up more land than it really needs.

In addition the greater the playing area that has to be maintained, the more staff you need to employ. You will also need more water, energy and chemicals to maintain the course.

Even in the UK, where water is rarely in short supply, courses are having to look at ways of “protecting” their water supply.

Long courses cause an extra problem because many amateurs insist on playing from the tees that their heroes play from. Given that the average drive for male amateurs is around eighty yards less than a tour pro that’s not going to lead to a speedy round.

Slow play is an often cited reason for people that decide to stop playing golf. 

It is a blight on the game and one of my own personal bugbears!

Rory McIlroy has been scathing in his criticism of the report with comments such as:

“The authorities are looking at the game through such a tiny little lens, that what they’re trying to do is change something that pertains to 0.1% of the golfing community,”

“Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the people who play this game, play for enjoyment, for entertainment. They don’t need to be told what ball or clubs to use.”

“We have to make the game as easy and approachable as possible for the majority of golfers. Honestly, I think this Distance Insights Report has been a huge waste of time and a huge waste of money, because that money that it’s cost to do this report could have been way better distributed to getting people into the game, introducing young kids to the game, introducing minorities to the game.”

Rors is entitled to his opinion. Getting paid millions of dollars by the likes of Nike and TaylorMade might be perceived to cloud his judgment somewhat.

Of course, someone needs to determine what is and isn’t legal in terms of equipment otherwise you would have a free-for-all.

His point about making the game as easy as possible is the wrong way to go. My own opinion is that part of the reason why golf is popular is that it is difficult to master. Learning how to hit a golf ball properly is a difficult skill. Anyone who manages to do it will feel a sense of achievement.

Is Rory suggesting that we should make the hole 12 inches wide so it becomes almost impossible to miss a putt? Is he asking for the balls to be tricked up so that they fly straighter no matter how they are struck? Would he like to see 80-yard fairways with no rough or indeed any hazards? You would definitely have a much easier game but in my opinion, it wouldn’t be golf.

At least he does agree that bifurcation is a good thing and would be in favor of it.

“If they want to try to make the game more difficult for us, or try to incorporate more skill to the game, yeah, I’d be all for that, because I think it only benefits the better player, which I feel like I am.”

What Does Bifurcation of the Rules Mean?

Bifurcation means dividing something into two branches or parts. It is increasingly likely to happen in golf. The rules will be split. More stringent equipment requirements for professionals and elite amateurs. This will hopefully rein in the ridiculous distances that tour pros are now achieving and will allow a little more skill back into the game at that level.

Average driving distance by age and handicap

How to Hit the Ball Further

Most amateurs would benefit more from improving their accuracy and hitting more fairways. Unfortunately, we are all guilty of wanting to get a few extra yards off the tee.

This is also somewhat a chicken and egg situation.

If you decide to go “all in” with fitness exercises and lessons then it is likely your current driver might not suit you by the time you complete the process. How keen are you to remodel your swing? You may be better off looking at maximizing distance with your current swing by changing equipment.

If you want to do the job properly then you should look at other aspects such as your fitness and swing technique.

Here are some things that affect driver distance.

Equipment

The quickest and simplest way to hit the ball further is to improve your equipment to match your technique.

Make sure that your driver is correctly fitted for your golf swing. Ideally, you want to do that using some form of launch monitor which would give you accurate data on your launch conditions. Using this information a club-fitter should be able to find a combination of club and ball that maximizes your distance.

Assuming you already have equipment that matches your swing then the next thing to look at would be the technical aspects of your swing.

Clubhead Speed

Many amateurs confuse swinging hard at the ball with swinging fast. This is often the antithesis of what you need. Standing over the ball gritting your teeth in preparation for a mammoth effort, squeezing the life out of the grip et cetera. It’s not going to lead to more speed and more distance.

Haven’t you noticed that your longest drives were often when you are at your most relaxed when you didn’t care about how far you were hitting it? This is because you allowed your muscles to work correctly.

There are a number of exercises you can perform to try to improve your clubhead speed at impact. An old-fashioned one is swinging the club upside down so you can hear the swish of the club. You need to be accelerating through the ball to maximize your distance.

You could also look at a number of training aids such as those provided by superspeed golf.

If you want to take it to the next level then you could start looking at golf-specific exercises to improve your fitness.

Striking Accuracy

If you want to improve your distance then you need to be striking the ball consistently in the right area of the clubface. With modern drivers, this might even be above the center.

Get some impact tape so you can get some feedback on your current ball striking. Work on improving that either on your own or with a coach.

Golf ball teed for driver

Angle of Attack

The angle of attack is one of the most important factors affecting the distance you will achieve. While everyone knows the static loft of their driver, very few are likely to know the dynamic loft they achieve at impact. This is due to a combination of the static loft and their angle of attack. Modern drivers coupled with a modern golf ball are designed to be hit on the up.

Spin

For a given clubhead speed and angle of attack, there will be a perfect spin rate to achieve maximum distance. Again this is where the launch monitor comes in. To get the most out of your swing then you need to match the correct spin rate to your other launch conditions. Too much spin and the ball is likely to fly on too high a trajectory costing you distance. Too little spin and the ball will fly in a more penetrating flight but will still not achieve the best results.

Average Driving Distance by Age and Handicap: Conclusion

The last thirty or forty years have seen massive increases in the distance achieved by professionals largely due to equipment. Unfortunately despite manufacturer claims, this hasn’t really translated into meaningful improvements at the amateur level.

The games governing bodies are likely to impose restrictions on the best players in an effort to stop great courses from becoming obsolete. For the rest of us, we will just keep plugging away trying to shave a couple of shots off our handicaps!

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