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Column: The driving distance report that didn't go very far

The Associated Press — By DOUG FERGUSON - AP Golf Writer

PALM HARBOR, Fla. (AP) — Whatever was said between Jack Nicklaus and USGA chief executive Mike Davis didn't show up in the annual report on driving distance.

Nicklaus has said for nearly half his life that the ball goes too far, an opinion based more on the 415 golf courses his company has designed than the record 18 major championships he won. He believes the culprit is the ball, not the clubs used to hit it or the players swinging them.

Two weeks ago, Nicklaus sounded an alarm that change might be on the way.

"I had dinner with Mike Davis, and Mike said, 'We're getting there. We're going to get there,'" Nicklaus said at the Honda Classic.

Nicklaus said he figured that would mean another 10 years of research, but that Davis told him the USGA was getting closer to agreements with the R&A "to do something and be able to help."

After two weeks of anticipation, the governing bodies delivered data that showed an average gain of 3 yards across seven tours worldwide in 2017, enough of a spike in one year for them to describe it as "unusual and concerning," and one that requires closer inspection.

More research.

The PGA Tour, the only tour with laser technology to measure every shot, had an increase of 1.9 yards. Throw out the eight different courses used in 2017 — expansive Erin Hills instead of Oakmont, Quail Hollow instead of soggy Baltusrol — and the increase was a half-yard.

What does it all mean?

That nothing has changed when it comes to advancements in golf, and the resistance primarily from architectural circles.

It's a conflict nearly as old as the Royal & Ancient game.

The debate over golf balls in particular surfaced in the mid-1850s when Allan Robertson was making the featherie and had a falling out with his apprentice, Old Tom Morris, when he switched over to the gutta percha.

Tiger Woods used a replica of the gutta percha during a practice round at St. Andrews before the 2000 British Open. He drove his Nike golf ball to the edge of the ninth green. He hit driver and a 5-iron just over the green with the guttie.

One more anecdote from St. Andrews: The R&A was so concerned about how far players were hitting the modern golf ball that it lengthened the Old Course, along with adding pot bunkers, to protect against low scores. That was the Haskell golf ball, which replaced the gutta percha. The year was 1905.

"It's not like we're making the game too easy," said Dustin Johnson, described by his peers as an athletic freak. "Because I've never felt the game was easy."

Davis expressed his own concerns at the USGA's annual meeting last month when he looked ahead to the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. The course was 4,423 yards for the first U.S. Open there in 1896. The USGA has lengthened it to just over 7,400 yards for 2018.

"Don't read into this that we are proposing going back to hickories and gutta percha balls in the future," Davis said. "But it does make you wonder what golf courses will look like if we stay on this trajectory."

Is the spike of 3 yards across seven tours a concern?

The fact this "annual" report is only 3 years old suggests that the USGA and R&A need more study — just what Nicklaus wants to hear — before doing anything drastic. That could include anything from rolling back the overall distance standard for golf balls, reducing the size of drivers or finding a way to shrink the players.

Anticipation of the report led to a memo from PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan to his players. He pointed out there were three instances of a significant gain in distance since 2003, and five cases where average distance decreased.

He also noted that the average clubhead speed had increased by 1.5 mph in the last 10 years.

"We do not believe the trends indicate a significant or abnormal increase in distance since 2003 or from 2016 to 2017," Monahan said.

Those might have been the most powerful words Monday.

Because while the USGA and R&A set the rules, the PGA Tour delivers the product that draws people to the game. The PGA Tour delivers the players to the U.S. Open and British Open, tournaments (with TV contracts) that financially support the governing bodies.

The entertainment level of the sport is strong. Equipment companies pay players handsomely with hopes consumers will want to play the same products.

Most fans don't care what club is used to hit the shot. The care about whose hands are holding the club.