The growing gap: driving distances are skyrocketing on the PGA Tour. So why is the average golfer being left behind?
Admit it. In the deepest recesses of your ego, you believe that with a $500 driver in your hands and the latest miracle ball on a tee, when you really catch one, it’s out there with the tour pros. Nothing wrong with that feeling. Sport psychologist Bob Rotella might even say that’s exactly how you should feel. In reality, you’re nowhere near those guys–and losing ground.
Everyone’s talking about golf’s distance revolution and how it’s changing the game. But the sad reality is, if your name’s not on your bag, you’re almost certainly being left behind. A recent Golf Digest study confirmed that the gap between tour pros and average golfers is wider than ever.
It all starts with talent. But tour pros also are maximizing their skills with the sophisticated technology of launch monitors (see page 142), the latest generation of bigger titanium drivers (page 146), and subtle changes to their technique (page 148). All of it is there for you, too. Applied intelligently, it can improve your game almost as much as it has revolutionized the game on tour.
When pros play, the 400-yard drive is now part of the golf lexicon. And we’re not just talking long-drive competitors, although four-time world champion Jason Zuback recently launched a 425-yard bomb. We mean the guys who have to play their foul balls, too. At The International last year, Hank Kuehne played the longest hole on the PGA Tour, the 644-yard par-5 first at Castle Pines, with a 465-yard drive and a 180-yard 9-iron. During a tour de force at Kapalua in January, Ernie Els, who led the tour in driving distance with a 320-yard average through March, provided the symbolic start to a new era by wowing a prime-time East Coast audience with effortless blasts–one rolling out to 398 yards. Two weeks later in Phoenix (where, by the way, the entire field averaged better than 300 yards), Phil Mickelson drove a 403-yard par 4. Victor Schwamkrug, whose 329-yard average made him Big Dog among the 15 players who averaged more than 300 yards on the Buy.com (now Nationwide) Tour last year, says in his calm Texas drawl, “If a hole is right around 400 yards and sets up so I can go ahead and hit it, well, I’m going to get to it. I’m not the only one out here like that.”
Basically, every player who wants to be competitive in that arena is hitting it farther. Take Rocco Mediate, whose 106-mph swing speed is one of the slowest on tour (an average 80s shooter swings about 89 mph). By getting more physically fit and taking advantage of every technological breakthrough in the golf industry the past few years, Mediate is averaging 289.6 yards, the highest of his career and an increase of more than 12 yards over last year.
“It’s a distance war on tour, and for me to stay in it I need to understand exactly what I’m doing with my swing, my equipment and my body,” says Mediate. “Basically, I have to absolutely max out.”
That phrase could easily be the new motto in professional golf–the reason why these guys are good. Not only have tour players learned how to play at full throttle without fear, they’re swinging at speeds and with a mind-set that average golfers can barely comprehend. And that’s why the distance gap between today’s tour pro and the average amateur is wider than it has ever been.
“While most amateurs still either don’t do–or don’t know how to do–the things necessary to improve, the greater rewards and more intense competition has forced the pros to change,” says teacher and CBS golf analyst Peter Kostis. “They have increased their work ethic and their knowledge of all areas of the game, and with their talent and technique, now the separation is a chasm.”
According to tests by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, the double-digit-handicapper added less than one yard to his average drive from 1996 to 2001. During the same period, tour pros added an average of 12 yards.
Although definitive research is scarce, Golf Digest surveys show that the average golfer’s driving distance increased from 193 to 205 yards in the last decade. In the same period, PGA Tour distances increased almost 30 yards. Even these numbers for average golfers may be generous because a test of Golf Digest Schools students in March still showed only a 195-yard average.
“It doesn’t seem like the average guy has caught on to how to hit it farther yet,” says Joe DeBock, head professional at recently lengthened Torrey Pines. “Every good player I know is longer than he used to be, but it’s not true for the masses. When I play a nassau against a 10-handicapper, it’s tough for me to win giving him five a side from the white tees, but usually easy if I take him back to the blues, even if it means giving him seven a side. Distance remains the thing the average golfer can’t handle.”
While the typical amateur is still struggling with the 200-yard standard (even if he thinks and says he hits it 250), the PGA Tour driving-distance average has jumped from 260.4 in 1993 to 279.8 in 2002 to 287.8 this year. Ask a veteran tour player and he’ll say that in the last three years he’s picked up yardage that previously wouldn’t be gained in a decade.
“Now even I can reach par 5s,” says Jay Haas, 49, who after jumping from an average of 266.3 yards in 2000 to 273.7 in 2001, is up to 280.4 this year. “I’m thinking: Wow, is this what it’s like to finally be long? No wonder these guys have been kicking my butt for so long.”
The game’s arms race has purists calling for a cease-fire. The most decried weapons are ever-enlarging drivers, or more often, the increasingly refined multilayer solid-core golf ball. Both, they say, help the tour player far more than the ostensibly intended user, the average amateur.
“It’s all backward,” says instructor Jim McLean. “Take some guy who swings 80 miles per hour, give him a 1955 MacGregor driver and any old ball, then let him hit the biggest driver and the hottest ball, and I doubt there would be more than a yard of difference. Do the same thing with some young pro who swings at 120 mph, and he’ll hit it 50 yards farther. It’s unbelievable how far the ball is flying for pros, and eventually it’s going to hurt the game.”
Hal Sutton, who remembers playing with persimmon, believes it already has. “If you were to ask everybody out here whether they wanted distance or accuracy, they’d all tell you distance,” he says. “Forget accuracy. The fairways are soft, the greens are hard, and there is no rough. Let’s kill it. There’s no such thing as thinking. It’s just grab your driver and hit it as far as you can.”
That viewpoint inevitably blames the game’s ruling bodies. “The R&A and the USGA have just blown it,” says Nick Faldo. “The horse has bolted so far past the gate that it’s at stud.”
USGA executive director David Fay’s quick answer to such comments is a sly “check the birth certificate,” referring to the fact that critics like Sutton and Faldo, Jack Nicklaus and Nick Price are in various stages of their golf dotage and as such nostalgic for the equipment of their primes. But that doesn’t take into account that even Els believes “something has got to be done about the ball.”
Conservative by definition, the USGA has taken a wait-and-see stance. “The first few months of this year have given us a snapshot, but it’s not the full picture,” says technical director Dick Rugge, correctly noting that weather conditions during the tour’s West Coast swing were mostly ideal for producing long drives. “That’s not burying our heads in the sand. We know that where there is smoke there can be fire. But it doesn’t mean the sky is falling.”
The latest data got the attention of PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, however. Aware of the growing distance gap, and concerned that modern equipment could make professional golf as muscle-bound and monotonous as big-headed rackets have made men’s tennis, Finchem early this year issued his most direct challenge ever to the USGA’s and R&A’s shared tenet that a crucial part of golf’s enduring appeal lies in one set of rules for amateurs and the best players in the world.
“There is some point–nobody knows where it is–when the amateur player feels divorced and really doesn’t appreciate the game at this level, just because it’s so different that it doesn’t become particularly relevant,” Finchem told the Palm Beach Post. “The second thing is, if everybody is driving every par 4, it’s not particularly interesting to watch.
“We are anxious, because we are continuing to see some distance enhancements in a short period of time. Unless something happens, we may have to move to-ward bifurcating the equipment specs for amateurs and professionals. In that case, we would be more involved.”
There is no debate that the biggest reason for the largest increase in tour driving distance has been the advances in golf ball technology. When the majority of tour players switched from Titleist wound balls to Titleist’s solid-core Pro V1 in late 2000, driving distance increased by more than six yards. That more than doubled the largest one-year gain since stats were first kept in 1980. Now another hot ball, Titleist’s Pro V1x, is routinely cited as fueling another distance surge this year.
Of course, tour players have benefited more from the new balls than average golfers. The new tour-caliber, multilayer, solid-core balls, which hit the scene in 1996 with the Top-Flite Strata, essentially combined the feel characteristics of the wound ball tour players had been using with the solid-core distance ball most weekend players already were using. In short, the average golfer already was maximizing distance potential with the ball; the tour player wasn’t.
Compounding the distance gap are so-called high-swing-speed balls, which the USGA’s Fay has characterized as “nonlinear.” In a graph matching swing speed to distance, these balls would not produce a straight line, but one that gets steeper as clubhead speed increases. To make the USGA ball test reflect the way tour pros play, there is a proposal to update the test parameters, including a change in the clubhead from persimmon to titanium and an increase in the swing speed from 109 mph to perhaps 115-120 mph. The USGA’s Rugge says: “The issue is not whether a ball is linear or nonlinear, it’s whether drives are going too long on tour. The causes of that are almost secondary.”
The new ball has encouraged many of the game’s power players to swing harder. “There is an exponential increase in distance the faster you swing,” says Mickelson. “With the greens getting firmer and pins getting cut tighter, it pays to hit as many short-iron and wedge approaches as you can. On most nonmajor courses, it’s not a difficult decision to go after the tee shot as hard as I can.”
Mickelson has become the leading exemplar of the new tour style of all-out assault. While that approach invites mistakes, Mickelson has decided that for him, the upside outweighs the down. He is the latest link in the evolution that has its roots in the styles of Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson, but which really began in the early ’90s with Greg Norman, Fred Couples and Davis Love III. They, along with John Daly, were the game’s longest hitters, and that foursome’s success began the shift away from the style of control players like Nick Faldo and Nick Price. Since the emergence of Tiger Woods, the tour has been dominated by power players.
Length and power translate into a high percentage of subpar holes, which other than scoring average is the tour’s best statistical indicator of success. Throughout his pro career, Woods’ biggest statistical edge over the competition is his better-than-50 percent birdie conversion on par 5s, a direct result of power effectively applied.
Beyond the modern ball, other key factors that have led to more clubhead speed are oversized drivers with larger effective hitting areas, lighter shafts, more efficient swings, bigger and better athletes coming into the game and intense workout regimens. The data from sophisticated launch monitors has helped players find both the optimum-performing club and the swing that produces the ideal launch conditions.
“Everything is telling today’s player to swing harder,” says Price. “The nature of professional golf has always been to play on the edge of power and control, but it used to be you’d fall off the edge swinging at more than 85 percent power. Today the young guys are learning with equipment that lets them go at it 95 percent, and 95 percent of what they’ve got in terms of equipment, technique and strength is a hell of a lot more than the 85 percent of what guys from my era had. I mean, it’s 50 yards. It’s made the game change so much and so fast.”
Of course, that’s the pro game. Almost all amateurs lack the time, knowledge or talent to, in Mediate’s words, max out. But the technology is there for everyone.
“I’ve approached my career like the woodcarver who, when somebody asked him how he made this beautiful duck, said, `I cut away everything that didn’t look like a duck,’ ” Mediate says during a session on the launch monitor at Callaway’s test center in Carlsbad, Calif. “For anybody, getting longer or just better starts with finding out as much as you can about what a golfer is, then cutting away everything that isn’t a golfer. It’s addition by subtraction.”
Taken to the extreme, it’s the formula the world’s best will keep using to hit drives 400 yards and beyond. Applied even in moderation, it’ll help the average golfer join the revolution.
Ball speed: 176 mph
Ball spin: 2,600 rpm
R510, 9.5 degrees
Ball: Titleist Pro V1x
Ball speed: 168 mph
Ball spin: 2,673 rpm
R580, 8.5 degrees
Ball: Callaway CTU 30
Ball speed: 161 mph
Ball spin: 2,390 rpm
R580, 8.5 degrees
Ball: Srixon Hi-Brid Tour
Ball speed: 178 mph
Ball spin: 2,200 rpm
Driver: Titleist 983K,
Ball: Titleist Pro V1x
Ball speed: 174 mph
Ball spin: 2,400 rpm
Driver: Titleist 983K,
Ball: Titleist Pro V1x
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