When Bryson DeChambeau, who had put on 40 pounds during lockdown as the PGA Tour suspended play from mid-March to mid-June, stepped onto the first tee at Muirfield Village last month at the Memorial Tournament, everyone was anticipating fireworks.
But no one expected what happened next.
Commentators concurred they’d never seen anything like it, as the American’s drive easily flew over bunkers 330 yards away and finished 423 yards from the tee on the 473-yard par four.
DeChambeau was the form player, and though he putted exceptionally like he did at the Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit in early July where he picked up a sixth tour win, it was his driving that week – where he became the first PGA Tour winner to average more than 350 yards off the tee – that ignited debate.
Jack Nicklaus, whose Muirfield course in Ohio hosted back-to-back events later in July, was wary of such yardages.
“The USGA and the R&A have got to wake up sooner or later,” said the 18-time major champion, who first went to the sport’s governing bodies 43 years ago to discuss the issue.
“They can’t just keep burying their heads on this.”
Meanwhile DeChambeau’s contemporaries lauded his physical gains. Tiger Woods said he was “impressed” while former world No. 1 Lee Westwood thought he should be “applauded” for his efforts.
“To retain the feel in his short game and his putting, when he’s piled on all the pounds and bulked up, is a phenomenal effort,” the Englishman told CNN’s Amanda Davies.
In February’s Distance Insights report co-published by the USGA and R&A, the idea of bifurcation was again floated whereby professional golfers adhere to different rules and regulations to amateurs.
“Longer distances, longer courses, playing from longer tees and longer times to play are taking golf in the wrong direction. We believe that it is time to break the cycle,” the report concluded.
“We recognize that the governing bodies might have done more […] and we believe it is never too late to do the right thing for the future.”
Bomb and chop
Spare a thought, however, for the people who design golf courses, only for technological advances since the 1990s to drastically alter driving distances.
Although in 2019 the average distance was 294 yards on the PGA Tour and European Tour combined, in 1995 it was some thirty yards less.
The first real spike was from 1992-2000 when the introduction of oversized and titanium drivers made distances soar, before ball technology from 2000-2004 led to another dramatic jump as wound golf balls were phased out to be replaced by the multi-layer tour ball.
Increasing athleticism has also brought about a huge change in elite golfers’ physiques.
Four-time major champion Ernie Els has played throughout these changes. He said developments in technology should be forgotten and that more could be done to make the courses play harder.
Growing the rough to put a premium on accurate driving was clearly a ploy used by the PGA of America for August’s PGA Championship, where American youngster Collin Morikawa prevailed in only his second major.
Morikawa averages just under 296 yards to rank tied-107th on tour, but while the big hitters – unsure whether to take drivers and risk being a little long or instead take aim with a three wood – failed to capitalize on the first major of the year’s 294-yard par-four 16th in the final round, the 23-year-old decisively hit the drive of his life to within seven feet of the hole and buried the eagle putt.
But what do the designers and architects of golf courses think?
Perry Dye, son of the late Pete and Alice Dye whose most famous creations include TPC Sawgrass, Whistling Straits and Kiawah Island, told CNN Sport his parents left a letter from designer Donald Ross complaining in 1923 about the golf ball “wrecking” his courses.
“My Dad would tell you we need to go to two balls. And Jack Nicklaus would say the same. But when you go out in the marketplace, they’re not going to take away the distance.
“My kids are 37 and 40 and I listen to them talk about how they like to play and it’s bomb and chop, but they don’t even know how to chop. I mean, they don’t even know how to bomb either, but they think it’s worth playing. Bomb and chop is here to stay.
“Here’s the dilemma in the design world – do we change all our average players to driver-wedge. If you think about it, that’s the way the pros play. Why can’t we play like that?”
Dye pointed out the difference in scoring from one week to the next at Nicklaus’ famous Muirfield course, which proved a difference in setup could stop any big hitters in their tracks: DeChambeau missed the cut at the Memorial as he hit a 10 at the par-five 15th hole.
European Golf Design managing director Jeremy Slessor sees fast and firm greens and fairways as a solution while also advocating ball changes.
“When I started in the design and construction industry in the mid-1980s, we were putting in fairway bunkers at about 230-240 yards. We’re now putting them at 300-350 yards,” said Slessor, whose company were behind Ryder Cup courses at Celtic Manor (2010), Le Golf National (2018) and Marco Simone (2023).
Slessor spoke highly of the Hong Kong Open, where the 6,700-yard course and its small greens are always a test for the game’s best.
“The challenge for elite golfers now is firm and fast. There’s no course that’s long enough anymore. Erin Hills (US Open 2017) was nearly 8,000 yards and that just wasn’t the challenge everyone thought it was going to be.
“The simple thing is to make the ball bigger. The pros should play that ball, and the manufacturers can use all their research and development to make the longest-flying big ball.”
The ‘small’ ball (1.62 inches in diameter) was barred from competition in 1990, replaced by the standard ball (1.68 inches in diameter).
“At some point somebody is going to have to do something. Why not now? What’s holding everybody up?” Slessor adds.
LOBB + PARTNERS principal Tim Lobb, the vice chairman of the European Institute of Golf Course Architects who collaborated for more than a decade with five-times Open champion and fellow Australian Peter Thomson, has worked extensively to make natural contours a severe hazard rather than adding bunkers.
“I think from a sustainability challenge, there are different options,” he said, acutely aware of the effects of coronavirus on the sport.
“Ground contouring and interesting pin positions are a good one. While greens are getting faster and faster, the mowing doesn’t pay attention to the edges, so some of the best pin positions are lost.
“What we’ve seen in design over the last five to 10 years is a big push for sustainability, and it’s even higher now than it ever has been, which is a great thing, because everything’s being questioned.
“I’m just fearful for the game because we’re getting so zoned in on bunkers and after greens, they’re the second-most maintenance intense feature on a golf course, which is crazy.
“Not saying we need to go back to the 1800s, but since Covid-19, with no bunker rakes in bunkers, people have been forced into a different way of thinking.”
Limit the loft
Ottawa-based Neil Haworth, who designed the world’s longest golf course at more than 8,500 yards in China, discussed limiting the loft on wedges with leading names in the sport years ago.
“Phil Mickelson has a 65 degree, a 60 and a 50 something. Bryson a 50 degree, a 55 degree and a 60 degree. A sand wedge is usually 54-56 but if you limited it to that, if you’ve hit it 420 yards on a 480-yard hole, you don’t have the club for the next shot.
“So is there an advantage to hitting it that far? This could be a Tour thing, not for all golfers. But I think it’s time to deal with the ball and the quicker they do it the better.”
Haworth saw first-hand the effects of driving distances many years ago when he walked the course with Woods at the WGC-HSBC Champions host course at Sheshan he designed.
“In the mid-2000s, we were walking down the fairway with Tiger, and I was thinking: ‘Oh Jesus, maybe we should have put a back tee there.’”
Dye concluded the design world is confused.
“If you hit driver-wedge to 18 holes you’d say it was a short golf course. So how do we convert, or mix, or integrate the design today between the average player and the pro? As you can tell, more often than not we’re grooming golf courses to handle their pros. And that’s on both sides of the ocean.
“I’m telling you we’re confused.”