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‘Diminishing the skill of the game’: Course architects say it’s time to rein in distance

A survey of their members by the European Institute of Golf Course Architects reveals increasing ball flight length and advances in equipment must be addressed
 

Ninety five per cent of golf course architects surveyed by a leading organisation believe the game’s governing bodies need to take action to reduce hitting distances.

In a survey of their members conducted by the European Institute of Golf Course Architects (EIGCA), three quarters of respondents believed increasing ball flight lengths and advances in equipment are diminishing the skill of the game.

And nearly nine out of 10 considered that driving distances should be reduced by 10 to 15 per cent.

The EIGCA has sent the responses to the R&A and USGA as they grapple with the issues in their Distance Insights project.

Some of golf course design’s biggest names – including Ross McMurray, Tom Mackenzie and Paul Kimber – gave their views on a range of factors related to increased hitting distances from their perspective of designing golf courses around the world.

“The most eye-catching result is that 95% of respondents agreed that action needs to be taken to reduce hitting distances,” says Christoph Städler, President of the EIGCA.

“The vast majority of respondents (75%) believed that increasing ball flight length and advances in equipment technology are diminishing the skill of the game which is leading to a simplification of golf course strategy. 88% of respondents considered a reduction in driving distance of between 10% and 15% would be appropriate.”

Considering an average shot length of 310 yards by the 20 longest hitters on the PGA and European Tours last year, respondents were asked by what percentage they would like to see hitting distances reduced.

Mackenzie, who has worked on the likes of Saunton and Royal Dornoch, said: “15% would take 310 yards back to 265 yards which seems a big jump backwards. Somewhere between 10 and 15% would be good.”

Alan Walker, the designer and proprietor of Garon Park Golf Complex in Essex, added: “270 yards should be considered a long hit. By making this adjustment it re-introduces long and medium iron second shots to holes.”

Asked whether continued increases in hitting distances would have an impact on golf, Thomas Kelly, part of the team at European Golf Design, said: “More expensive, longer, slower rounds on larger, less sustainable golf courses is not appealing to anyone I know of.”

Mackenzie added: “Seeing the likes of Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau demolishing courses with raw power is exciting in some ways, but unless they play 8,000 yard courses, these players are just hitting wedges into greens and the game is dull dull dull!”

Just over a third of EIGCA members believed any action to reduce hitting distances should only be applied to tournament professionals, while 62 per cent believe amateurs should largely be spared any regulatory effects.

The Distance Insights project has been billed as one of the most important debates in golf’s future but has been hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

Last month, the R&A and USGA revealed that the releasing of the research topics related to the next phase of the project will now happen in March next year.

The initial findings concluded increased hitting distances were taking the game “in the wrong direction”, a view that seems to have been backed up by EIGCA members.

“Golf course architects are clearly concerned about a number of factors influenced by hitting distances, including safety, negative impacts on the environment, land grab and threats to the integrity of historic courses,” added Städler.

“Reducing hitting distances could lead to shorter courses which are quicker to play, cheaper to maintain, need less land, are more sustainable, more accessible and potentially more profitable.

“At a time when we are looking to increase player participation surely these should be our objectives.

“By the clever use of design, skilled golf course architects are able to achieve a certain balance between the challenge for the best players and fun and playability for weaker and shorter players. With ever increasing hitting distances, this becomes increasingly difficult.”

Steve Carroll

Steve Carroll

A journalist for 25 years, Steve has been immersed in club golf for almost as long. A former club captain, he has passed the Level 3 Rules of Golf exam with distinction having attended the R&A's prestigious Tournament Administrators and Referees Seminar.

Steve has officiated at a host of high-profile tournaments, including Open Regional Qualifying, PGA Fourball Championship, English Men's Senior Amateur, and the North of England Amateur Championship. In 2023, he made his international debut as part of the team that refereed England vs Switzerland U16 girls.

A part of NCG's Top 100s panel, Steve has a particular love of links golf and is frantically trying to restore his single-figure handicap. He currently floats at around 11.

Steve plays at Close House, in Newcastle, and York GC, where he is a member of the club's matches and competitions committee and referees the annual 36-hole scratch York Rose Bowl.

Having studied history at Newcastle University, he became a journalist having passed his NTCJ exams at Darlington College of Technology.

What's in Steve's bag: TaylorMade Stealth 2 driver, 3-wood, and hybrids; TaylorMade Stealth 2 irons; TaylorMade Hi-Toe, Ping ChipR, Sik Putter.

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