Photo source: https://www.baseball-articles.com/
Going into this week’s Masters, many were wondering “will Bryson DeChambeau break Augusta National?” For anyone who follows the PGA Tour, the media focus on Bryson this week comes as no surprise. He has been one of the most talked about tour players for months. While it’s clear now that he did not in fact “break Augusta National” this week, the question of how his analytical approach to golf will affect the rules and golf course design in the years to come still remains.
Bryson’s approach to the game was heavily influenced by Homer Kelly’s The Golfing Machine: The Computer Age Approach to Golfing Perfection, and has earned him the nickname of the “Mad Scientist.” Since his teenage years, Bryson has played a set of clubs unlike any other. All of his irons are same length—that of an average seven iron—each weighing 282 grams and fitted with XL grips. He swings all of his clubs on the same plane in an effort to make the swing more repeatable and predictable.
In 2019, Bryson began a physical transformation in an effort to gain distance off the tee. He started working out twice a day and consuming a staggering 6,000 calories a day. He also began chasing higher swing and ball speed numbers. Since last year, Bryson has gained nearly 40 pounds and now leads the Tour in driving distance by nearly fifteen yards. Even with these results, Bryson has been experimenting with a 48-inch driver—the maximum permissible length. All this effort has paid off. Bryson has used his distance to overpower golf courses, leading to wins at the 2020 Rocket Mortgage Classic and the 2021 U.S. Open.
How this Could Change the Game
In February, the United States Golf Association (“USGA”) released its findings of the Distance Insight Project. The report found that the increased distance of courses over the past 100 years “is undesirable and detrimental to golf’s long-term future.” The reasoning behind this is twofold: (1) increased distance can lead to less variety and creativity of shot types needed on courses, and increase on the importance of distance at the expense of other skills, (2) the overall trend of golf courses becoming longer has adverse effects on golfers at all levels and the game as a whole—including significant capital investment to expand existing courses and environmental impacts of increased water and chemical use.
This trend could be curbed by implementing new equipment rules. The USGA could implement new rules limiting the type of club or ball that can be used. This may seem like an overreaction to one player, but we have seen this before. When Tiger Woods first won the Masters in 1997, he out drove the field by an average of 46 yards. As a result, Augusta, and many other iconic courses across the country, went through significant renovations. In what has been coined “Tiger proofing”, many golf courses added new tee boxes and maxed out the length of their layouts.
Tiger influenced a whole generation of golfers and changed the approach to golf. Long drives became the new norm. If Bryson’s novel approach has a similar effect, courses like Augusta will not be able to continue to add length and the game’s most famous course could be reduced to mere pitch and putts.
The “Tiger proofing” of sports is not uncommon, though. Baseball is another sport that has and continues to deal with limits being pushed and rules being changed in response.
Similar Issues Baseball is Facing
The BBCOR Era
After years of exploding offensive numbers, the NCAA decided that in 2011 to require new bats that did not have the same power or “juice”. After the 1998 College World Series was decided by a 21-14 score that is more often seen in football than baseball, coaches believed something needed to be done. As the director of the American Baseball Coaches Association Dave Keilitz said, “The coaches were feeling the bat was getting way too hot. There were a tremendous number of home runs, and so the ABCA proposed to the NCAA that the bats be studied and looked at and brought more in line similar to the wood bats in terms of performance. Then that year, in 1998 … that was just terrible for the game and that inspired the NCAA to do something.”
The NCAA went from BESR (Ball Exit Speed Ratio) bats to BBCOR (Bat-Ball Coefficient of Restitution) bats. The bats reflected the change of standards by which the NCAA measured its bats. Now the NCAA gauged how much energy is lost when the ball collides with a non-wood bat, instead of just measuring the speeds at which the balls left the bat. The BBCOR bats were limited to .50, which is only slightly higher than how a wood bat would perform.
Source: Chris Spurlock/KBIA Sports Extra
The change in bats brought immediate results to the game of college baseball. As George Watson of mlb.com wrote:
“In 2010, the last year before BBCOR bats were used, the national average for runs per game was 6.98. Teams also averaged 0.94 home runs per game, and the average ERA was 5.95. The first year of the BBCOR bat, runs were down by almost 1.5 runs to 5.58 per game and ERA dropped by more than a run to 4.67 while teams averaged just .52 home runs per game. Those trends continued to fall in each category over the next three years to 0.39 home runs and 5.08 runs per game while ERAs dropped to 4.22.”
The 2011 College World Series was also the lowest scoring event in history, with scores of 2-1 and 5-2 in the championship games.
But after coaches complained that the bats killed offense too much, the NCAA again made changes. In 2015, a new baseball was introduced, one with flatter seams, more like what is used in professional baseball, and the result was an increase in offensive production. The home run average increased again to 0.56 per game and the runs increased to 5.44, while ERAs jumped slightly to 4.57.
The NCAA recognized it had a problem, addressed it, and then adjusted it once again once they went too far. The NCAA provides precedent for adjusting rules to change with technology in the sport. It will be interesting to watch what rule changes the USGA chooses, if any, in an attempt to preserve the game, and what that will mean for the average amateur golfer. I am sure amateur golfers won’t be big fans of Bryson if they have to watch their drive distance go down because of equipment modifications around the sport.
Co-Authored by John Conti and Trent Citarella