One of the memes trotted out by Malcolm Gladwell in the Big Think roundtable with Time magazine last week was this one:
A lot of what we’ve been talking about falls in the category of change, not progress. To use a prosaic example, technology related to golf has improved and will continue to improve dramatically. Golf clubs are way better today than they were 10 years ago, and will be way better 10 years from now. Golf scores, however, have remained absolutely stable.
There is some truth to this statement, but it is more interesting than the way Gladwell phrases it. The idea that people usually trot out is that average golf scores have stayed remarkably stable over time, despite dramatic improvements in club performance.
Well, that’s true and false. In some ways golfers have improved immensely over the last twenty-five years. For example, the longest driver on the PGA Tour in 1980 would have been around 184th in distance in 2005. At the same time, however, accuracy has fallen off a cliff, with the top five money-winners in 2005 hitting 62% of fairways, while the top five money-winners in 1980 hit 68% of fairways.
With the preceding in mind, another way to think about golf improvement is that players are actually playing much better. They are hitting the ball considerably further than they used to, to the point that it worth trading accuracy for distance. Because instead of having scores deteriorate given crummy accuracy, players are so skilled and strong today that, despite missing roughly 70 more fairways a year than they did 25 years ago, the average score on the PGA Tour has declined almost a full stroke over the same period.
Instead of saying that technology has improved and scores have stayed the same, as Gladwell does, it is much more interesting to get dirty in the details and understand the dynamics of how technology improvement has altered the game of golf, masking the real skill improvement that has gone on.