Fred Funk, one of the shorter hitters on the PGA Tour (which, at 49 years of age and 5'8", is not altogether shocking), is feeling left out these days. He believes that the modern golf ball gives players who swing 115 or 120 MPH a "boost." More specifically, as he said in a recent interview, "You just get this huge gain hitting the ball a certain speed."
Unfortunately, despite what Fred and others believe, the facts on this issue have recently been made quite clear. The USGA, on April 11, dispelled some commonly held beliefs in an article called "Myths About Golf Equipment and Performance." The first myth was "Golfers with faster swing speeds get disproportionately greater distance benefits from new golf balls that have been introduced after 2000."
The USGA explained the falsity of this myth as such:
False. Physics, scientific tests, and actual results on the PGA Tour all confirm that faster swinging players have not gained a disproportionate amount of distance from modern golf balls. An example: Corey Pavin, the shortest hitter in 2000, gained about the same amount of distance from 2000 to 2005 (7.4 yards) as the longest (John Daly at 8.7 yards).
Now, even the most ardent supporter of the modern golf ball and technology in general could find holes in that argument. Simply limiting the "proof" to two golfers leaves a gaping chasm.
The real proof came barely a week later. The USGA on Wednesday, April 19 published a scientific article that fills the holes. This article asks and answers the question: "Do Long Hitters Get an Unfair Benefit?" This article, published with an accompanying technical document, strongly refutes the claim that players get a "boost" from the golf ball if they reach a certain swing speed. In fact, the report indicates that ball distance demonstrates a law of diminishing returns as clubhead speed increases, as evidenced in this graph:
Who are you going to believe? Someone who argues that the game is in ruins because technology has gotten out of hand or an organization who has the means and know-how to conduct a scientific study and which publishes the results, both in laymen's terms and in a scientific document, for all to see? As a scientist, there's no doubt which way I lean: I'll side with the facts every time.
Fred Funk's Perspective
But even still, Fred Funk may have a point, and to see where he may be coming from we have to look at his opinions more closely. Fred says "with the golf ball going when I first came out on Tour, it was 30, 35 yards between me and the longest guys on Tour, and now it's 70, 75 yards. It's all the golf ball."
In other words, this "boost" Fred perceives is not limited to the modern golf ball, but more in how the golf ball has changed since he came on Tour. We already know the modern golf ball does not provide a boost (given the USGA's study discussed above), but relative to the golf balls of, say, 1995 let's look at how a relative "boost" might be possible.
The USGA did not publish a similar study in 1995, but had they, I suspect we'd see a graph like the hypothetical graph above. As you can see, I've retained the red line from the USGA study and I've added a green line indicating how the golf balls of 1995 might have performed.
If you look at graph, you'll see that Fred Funk, who swings at around 105 MPH, has "gained" only about three yards from the golf ball alone from 1995 to 2005, while Tiger Woods (in the 125 MPH area) has gained over 20 yards. That's not a proportional response.
In 1995, hypothetically, golf balls were actually less fair to golfers with high swing speeds, and the "boost" Funk perceives is merely a matter of the golf ball becoming more fair. Remember - the straighter the line, the fairer and more proportional the distance gains relative to the swing speed increases.
This hypothetical graph jives not only with statements from Jack Nicklaus, who has often said that even in his prime he was only 10-15 yards longer than most guys (indicating a severe law of diminishing returns), but also Fred Funk's assertions that higher swing speeds get a "boost." They do, if you consider 1995 to 2005 and if the hypothetical graph is at least reasonably close to the truth.
The 1995 numbers, again, I made up. But think back to 1995. Titleist's "Tour Balata" still ruled the professional game. These balls spun like crazy. They were softer and had liquid-filled centers. Golfers associated the term "smiley" with a bladed iron shot, not a symbol used on the Internet. Launch monitors didn't even (really) exist.
These balatas, when struck hard, tended to balloon. Players with high swing speeds in 1995 had 7° drivers in large part to minimize this spin. Also, the harder a golfer hit the Tour Balata of 1995, the more they got into the "squishy liquid center" of the ball. It's not hard to imagine that the law of diminishing returns played a bigger role in limiting the proportional response of the ball to clubhead speed in 1995 than with today's solid-core balls.
The point here is that Fred Funk may be right - the modern golf ball may give players a boost relative to the balls of 10 or 20 years ago. But for Freddie, it's a matter of perspective. But Funk is also wrong, because for the USGA, their perspective in this study is confined to only one year: 2005. Freddie's perspective spans his career. If anything - and again if my hypothetical graph is even close to the truth - the distance the modern ball travels is fairer for players of every swing speed than it was 10 years ago.
The Fight Goes On
In the end, where does this leave us? With more facts, more knowledge, and a better understanding of the physics of golf. The USGA's study contains those for anyone who cares to read it.
Unfortunately, it also leaves us with no shortage of naysayers and doomsmen. The game, after all, is in ruins. Or didn't you get that memo?