Anyone who has stood behind the tee-box as Rory McIlroy lets fly with the driver, his ball fizzing through the air and then arcing in a giant, graceful parabola to its resting place in the next postal district, can attest to the majesty of the sight.

Distance gives the purest satisfaction in golf: it is why there are long-drive competitions at every junior golf day in the land, why Bubba Watson's pink blunderbuss is such a coveted instrument of power, why John Daly made a fortune from his Grip It and Rip It videos despite subsisting on industrial quantities of Diet Cokes and Marlboro Lights.

Propelling the ball a monstrously long way has become an end in itself for manufacturers, who are enabling the biggest hitters to shatter once-unthinkable barriers. While the back fence at a municipal driving range is usually around the 300-yard mark, the free-swinging lumberjacks of the modern game are now routinely passing 400.

Brooks Koepka, whose wide stance over a drive calls to mind Popeye after several cans of spinach, managed it twice at Carnoustie in his first three holes.

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It is tempting to regard such absurd length as a feat of conditioning. Koepka, after all, shares the same personal trainer as Dustin Johnson, a golfer strong enough to deadlift 143kg and explosive enough to dunk a basketball. But this never was a sport where Adonises alone could thrive. Thomas Pieters, the slender Belgian, succeeded on Thursday in reaching the 396-yard first in one.

So why are the leading golfers of today unleashing drives that cover the best part of a quarter of a mile? The answer lies, overwhelmingly, with the technology. From the 1930s to the mid-1990s, golf equipment evolved only in the gentlest increments, so that courses needed little adjustment to cope with any kind of tournament. If only that was still the case today.

Take last month's US Open at Shinnecock Hills, a course whose total length of 7440 yards would once have offered a daunting challenge on its own. But such was the ease with which players gobbled up even 600-yard par-fives in two, the United States Golf Association was forced to trick up the layout with daft pin positions and greens so glassy that Phil Mickelson resorted to an illegal hockey shot to keep his ball from sliding off.

The sport is confronting a crisis, where the qualities of guile and subtlety are becoming secondary to smashing the ball into orbit. Even Tiger Woods, for whom huge drives have long been a crucial part of his armoury, believes the ball needs to be reined back.

"Now, if you want to have a championship venue, the course has to be 7400-7800 yards long," he said recently. "And if the game keeps progressing the way it is, the 8000-yarder is not too far away. That's pretty scary."

Some are even more vocal in their alarmism. Ian Woosnam, the 1991 Masters champion and a true craftsman who refined his trade in the period of persimmon woods and balata balls, observes the new-found fetish for power over touch with disdain.

"I watch Rory a lot," he told Golf Digest. "He drives the ball beautifully, but he doesn't get as much benefit from that as he should. The average driver is now so much closer to the best driver."

One solution rests in the idea of bifurcation. Usually this is a term reserved for rivers, when they separate into two separate streams, but it could soon be a word that applies to an entire sport.

Woosnam is an advocate of a future where there is one ball for elite professionals and another for mortal amateurs. In theory, the tournament ball would fly roughly 10 per cent less far and be more liable to curve, thus bringing great courses back from the edge of obsolescence.

Such is the relentlessness with which driving distances are climbing, the Old Course at St Andrews, where the Open returns in 2021, will be so ripe for plunder that Koepka, Johnson et al will have to tee off from the beach.

The evidence is clear: the out-of-control ball is making for less imaginative golf all round. A course such as Hazeltine, Minnesota, setting for the last Ryder Cup, is one with a premium on bludgeoning hitting rather than improvisation and intelligence.

Not that the authorities do much to counter the trend, preferring to cultivate thick rough as the first line of defence, as opposed to taking the radical but necessary step of taming development of the ball.

So when you purr over the next 400-yard heave at Carnoustie, consider whether this is a game still true to its essence, or one enslaved by distance.

- Telegraph Group Ltd