The Long and Short of It

The Long and Short of It

By Patrick F. Cannon

About 10 days ago, I got an email from the United States Golf Association (USGA) announcing that they were proposing, effective in 2026, the distance that golf balls could travel would be reined back for professional and highly-ranked amateur golfers. Recreational golfers – that’s me and my fellow duffers – would not be affected.

            Why would they do this? Well, the average distance for tee shots using a driver on the professional tours has steadily increased: 257 yards in 1980; 263 in 1990; 273 in 2000; 287 in 2010; and 296 in 2020. The golfer with the highest average for an individual in 2020 was Bryson DeChambeau at no less than 322 yards. Why is this a problem? Basically, because golf courses were never designed for these distances, so that those that host top events must continuously increase their yardages to keep competitive. Some are simply running out of land.

            There are two main factors involved: better physical condition for golfers, and improvements in clubs and balls. The USGA has already placed limits on equipment; the proposed rules on ball construction will result in a 20-yard decrease in average drives. They have asked for comments on the new rules. One professional golfer I heard interviewed said he thought any comments would have no appreciable effect on the final decision, especially since the R&A (Royal & Ancient of Saint Andrews), which governs the rules for most of the rest of the world, is on board with the USGA.

            I got my first set of clubs when I was about 10, and I have played off and on since then. I reached my peak in my 30s, when I could hit my drives about 240 yards, and – on a good day – score in the low to mid 80s. Now that I’m 85, let’s just say I act my age; but I still enjoy nine holes on a fine day. As I said, the new rules won’t affect me, but they got me thinking about other sports. (For the record, I think golf clubs and balls should have been frozen in about 1950.)\

            The bat has always been wood, so baseball fans like to obsess about the ball.  Since the home run became more prevalent in the 1920s, the game has been divided into the “dead ball” era, i.e., before Babe Ruth and his ilk started the homer craze, and the various iterations of the “live ball” to the present. While Major League Baseball claims all balls used are the same (fans love to argue the point) the main change in baseball, it seems to me, has been in physical conditioning, once sometimes enhanced with chemicals. Stricter drug testing has mostly eliminated the latter, so New York Yankee Aaron Judge’s 61 homer season last year is generally thought to be legitimate.

            Physical conditioning and strength training have had, it seems to me, the biggest effect on pitching. Today’s pitchers throw harder and faster, resulting in lower batting averages overall. While I haven’t looked carefully at the statistics, I have the feeling that pitching careers are shorter, despite sophisticated arm and shoulder surgery. When I was a kid, it was assumed pitchers would be able to pitch all nine innings. Complete games are now rare.

            The same physical factors have contributed to more serious injuries in what I would call the inflated-ball sports – our football, what we call soccer, and rugby, among others. The balls players kick and throw around haven’t changed much in many years, but players size and strength has. In American football, this has been a mixed blessing. Serious injuries – particularly concussions – go hand in hand with a faster, more violent game. Rule changes to minimize injuries have only been partially successful.

            I may be proved wrong, but I think setting new records in sports like track and field may be increasingly difficult. How much more sophisticated can we actually get in diet and exercise regimes? Usain Bolt’s world records in the 100 and 200 meter races were both set in 2009; Noah Ngeny’s in the 1000 meters in 1999!

            In the animal kingdom, Thoroughbred horses have been bred and raced since the mid-18th Century. In North America, the most recent record for the common one-mile distance was set in 2003; for 1-1/8 in 1988; for 1-1/4 in 1980; and for 1-1/2 in 1973, which was Secretariat’s legendary Belmont Stakes victory. With today’s emphasis on deeper and safer tracks, I don’t see  these broken any time soon, nor do I think substantial improvement in the Thoroughbred is even possible after nearly 300 years of selective breeding.

            Anyway, in golf, we will never know if Tiger Woods is really better than Jack Nicklaus; or if Nicklaus was better than Bobby Jones. Is it the player or the equipment?  How would Rory McElroy do at St. Andrews using irons with wooden shafts, and drivers with real wood heads? I’d even let him use today’s balls. I’d love to watch that!

Copyright 2023, Patrick F Cannon

4 thoughts on “The Long and Short of It

  1. This must come as welcome news to retirees and others who have bought homes on golf courses only to have their property pelted with golf balls. While I have little interest in golf, it can be an excellent way to socialize and get exercise in the fresh air. For those who play for that reason, the new limitations should make little difference.

    Baseball under its corporate lawyer Manfred has mandated a series of changes to make the game move along quicker, from pizza box bases to a pitch clock. Time is money, they seem to reason, and the less time players spit tobacco juice and adjust their jock straps, the more money to be squeezed out of valuable TV slots. The viability of baseball as a sport hinges on a delicate balance of time and distance: the time it takes for a pitch to reach home plate, the distance a runner must go before reaching a base safely. In recent years the game has become one of strikeouts and home runs, as pitches approach and exceed 100 mph and batters swing hard for the fences, obscuring the play of situations and strategies that make the game interesting. I doubt the pitch clock will make the game better, and I’m not even sure it will make it shorter. It might make it more sanitary with less time for spitting, but I can’t quite grasp MLB’s rationale: People find baseball boring to watch, so let’s give them less of it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not sure it will help either. Baseball has been the only major sport without a clock. As a kid, we went to Comiskey for a double header with the St. Louis Browns. It went 18 innings, with the Browns scoring a run in the top of the 18th, and the Sox failing to answer. It didn’t take as long as you might think, because there were so few hits. We didn’t stay for game two.


      1. You only worry about the time if you watch a game on TV (the commercials remind you!). At the ball park, time sort of vanishes, as it’s innings not minutes or seconds that count. As a kid in NY I used to love double headers, especially at Yankee Stadium after the Dodgers decamped to LA (I always rooted for the visiting team). As Ernie used to say, let’s play two. Night games on TV put an end to that.

        Liked by 1 person

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