GOLF HAS a length problem. The farther players drive the ball, the longer holes need to be, so that skills like iron play and putting remain important. But the longer courses are, the more they cost to maintain and the worse their environmental impact. They also become more daunting for recreational golfers, who keep them in business.
In 2004 golf’s regulators introduced limits on the size of clubs, hoping to slow the trend of ever-longer drives. Nonetheless, the pin-flation has continued apace. On November 15th a famous record tumbled: someone completed the Masters Tournament in fewer than 270 strokes, the mark Tiger Woods set when he won his first major title in 1997. The new low of 268 belongs to Dustin Johnson, a burly driver who has averaged more than 300 yards (274 metres) a pop throughout his career. He achieved the feat even though the Augusta National course is 8% longer than in 1997.
How have golfers continued to blast the ball farther than ever? The PGA Tour, the top men’s circuit, publishes ball-tracking statistics based on the flight of most drives in tournaments since 2007. These suggest that, although better equipment may have helped, players’ recent gains stem largely from their technique—and even bigger improvements now appear inevitable.
The data come from ShotLink, a system that tracks how fast a golfer swings (“clubhead speed”), his ball’s trajectory (“launch angle”) and its rotation speed (“spin rate”). After taking each player’s average value for these metrics in each year, we built a statistical model using them to predict driving distances. Together, the three factors explained 70% of the differences between players’ distances, and almost all of the increase in length over time.
The model’s lessons are intuitive. To thump the ball as far as possible, maximise clubhead speed and launch angle while minimising spin (which causes the ball to soar higher, rather than racing forward). However, most players face a trade-off between these goals, explains Paul Wood of Ping, a club manufacturer. Harder impacts usually mean flatter trajectories. Although the average male player swings faster and produces less spin than in 2007, launch angles have declined since then.
One golfer, however, has escaped this constraint. Bryson DeChambeau, a physics graduate with oddly designed clubs and a voracious appetite for data, is nicknamed the “Mad Scientist”. While the PGA Tour was suspended because of covid-19, he added 18kg (40lbs) of bulk. This has allowed him to swing faster than anyone else. But he has also managed to smash the ball with a high launch angle, rather than a low one—an unprecedented combination that might owe something to his unusually stiff wrists and robotic technique. Using both his brains and his brawn, Mr DeChambeau is now hitting 15 yards farther than his closest competitors do. He won his first major title at the US Open in September.
Mark Broadie, a professor at Columbia University and golf statistician, reckons that other professionals will try to beef up. But golf history is littered with players who lost their edge after tinkering with their swings. And time may yet show that the risks of Mr DeChambeau’s bombs-away approach offset some of the rewards. He strayed into the rough often at the Masters.
Nonetheless, the Mad Scientist’s breakthrough is bad news for course designers. They will probably have to keep fiddling with their fairways for years to come. ■
Sources: PGA Tour; ShotLink; USGA; R&A; Distance Insights Project. Pictures: Getty Images
This article appeared in the Graphic detail section of the print edition under the headline “Consultants of swing”