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Golf has a problem: people are hitting the ball too far

Matthew Lobel plays on the 13th hole at the East Potomac Golf Links in Washington, D.C., in March.
Keren Carrión
/
NPR
Matthew Lobel plays on the 13th hole at the East Potomac Golf Links in Washington, D.C., in March.

There's a storm brewing in the golf world over how far the best players are able to pound the ball. Some argue it's making the game too easy.

At its heart, the problem is technology. Clubs used to be made out of wood and the original ball was hand-stitched leather stuffed with goose feathers. It's a far cry from the modern titanium drivers and highly engineered golf balls that pierce the sky.

These modern golf balls were in their infancy when 18 holes opened at East Potomac Golf Links (EPGL) in Washington, D.C., in 1923. Engineers were barely figuring out that adding dimples to the ball gave players more control over the distance, trajectory and spin; things essential to the modern game.

People weren't hitting it a mile long like they can today, jokes Will Smith, who used to work in golf course architecture.

"Here we are 100 years later," he said, while surveying the 15th hole on the Blue course at EPGL. "We're trying to build a golf course that can challenge and be interesting to golfers who hit the ball probably on average 30, 40, 60 yards further."

Will Smith is the co-founder of the National Links Trust, the non-profit organization that manages the three public golf courses in Washington, D.C.
Keren Carrión / NPR
/
NPR
Will Smith is the co-founder of the National Links Trust, the non-profit organization that manages the three public golf courses in Washington, D.C.

Smith thinks there's a disconnect between how the game used to play and the way it's currently going. Something's got to give.

The golf world erupted recently when the game's governing bodies proposed the idea of men's professional golfers switching in 2026 to a ball that doesn't go as far as it currently does.

The USGA and R&A suggested the idea of two different golf balls — one for professionals and elite players, and another for everyday people.

They're not keen on how far pros can currently hit it, arguing the distance is harming the sustainability of classic golf courses and rendering them useless to the top level players who can power their way to better scores.

There are plans for a makeover of the D.C. courses, including making some holes longer.
Keren Carrión / NPR
/
NPR
There are plans for a makeover of the D.C. courses, including making some holes longer.

A typical drive would be about 20 yards shorter, so instead of seeing your favorite player bomb a drive 320 yards down the fairway, with the new ball it'd only go about 300 yds.

If it helps, think of it in baseball terms. There's a wooden bat used in the major leagues, and a metal bat used in college and recreational play. The wooden bats require that extra bit of skill to send the ball 300-plus feet.

The distance problem has a trickle down effect, according to Smith.

He's co-founder of National Links Trust, the non-profit organization that manages the three public golf courses in Washington, D.C., including EPGL.

The organization plans to renovate the three Washington courses: EPGL, Langston Golf Course and Rock Creek Park Golf. Each is planned to get a healthy makeover, including making some holes longer to stay relevant with modern equipment.

How far can you go? People at the East Potomac Golf Links give it their best shot.
Keren Carrión / NPR
/
NPR
How far can you go? People at the East Potomac Golf Links give it their best shot.

They're trying to stretch out the courses to try to get every single last yard by putting tees as close to the boundary fences, Smith notes.

"Because when people make their decisions about where they want to play golf, one of the things they look at is yardage," Smith said. "And rightly or wrongly, someone who's really good at golf might think that that's not a worthy test."

Longer courses need more attention, land and water.

The idea to lengthen golf courses in order to make them more difficult dates back to a certain player who took the game by storm, according to Jonathan Wall, managing editor of equipment at Golf.com.

Tiger Woods and his ability to blow it past competitors captured the attention of the golfing world.

Trying to shorten the distance of drives had been talked about, but never acted upon. Until now.
Keren Carrión / NPR
/
NPR
Trying to shorten the distance of drives had been talked about, but never acted upon. Until now.

"That's when the governing bodies started to take a closer look and say, all right, the balls may be going too far now," Wall said. "So what are we going to do to help rein back in distance?"

They never quite got around to reigning in distance, until now.

And the new solution doesn't really satisfy PGA Tour golfer Billy Horschel, who doesn't believe there's a distance problem in golf.

"There's many factors into this and I don't believe the golf ball should've been singled out," Horschel told the No Laying Up podcast. "Yes, distance has increased on the PGA tour. There's no doubt about that. We are making a change for .1% of the golfers in the world."

Horschel believes the increase in distance comes down to two factors: golfers being in better shape than in the past, and drivers that are more forgiving to hit.

He'd rather see the current golf clubs get modified rather than the ball, and he's not alone.

Golf's ruling bodies hope to finalize the new ball by 2026.
Keren Carrión / NPR
/
NPR
Golf's ruling bodies hope to finalize the new ball by 2026.

Golf equipment companies are in the business of helping people hit the ball farther and argue the new pro ball will take the fun out of the game.

"One of golf's unifying appeals is that everyone in the game plays by the same set of rules, can play the same course with the same equipment," Titleist, one of the brands that would be affected, said in a statement. "Golf is an aspirational sport, and we believe at its very best when equipment and playing regulations are unified."

"Everybody's been playing the same golf ball for eons," Wall said. "So to now tell them that there's going to be a pro ball and an amateur ball, it's just something that doesn't compute with a sport that is steeped in history."

Golf's ruling bodies hope to finalize the new ball by 2026 — but are making it clear: this change won't stop long drives or affect the weekend golfer for now.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gus Contreras