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Big Guns

A closer look at oversized drivers.
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
"24", Jan/Feb 2006

(continued from page 2)

The Cobra golf company sponsors a long-distance driving team of which Sellinger is a part along with four-time long driving champion Jason Zuback of Calgary, Canada, who also happens to be a licensed pharmacist. Zuback's longest drive in competition is 412 yards, 3 feet, 3.5 inches. He knows that by heart. "I've hit it over 500 in certain conditions," says Zuback. "It's a gift to me, a natural ability that I've taken to another level. I've been able to make a career out of it, which shows how much people love to see a player hit it long." Zuback, like so many of the long hitters, was once challenged by an amateur for money. Zuback hit first. The amateur backed out of the bet.

The Long Drivers of America has adopted rules that correspond to USGA rules for drivers. Among the many specifications, a driver head must not exceed 460 cubic centimeters. The USGA limits the coefficient of restitution, the trampoline effect of the clubface itself, expressed as a figure of .830. The height of the clubface, from the sole to the crown, cannot exceed 2.8 inches, while the distance from the heel to the toe cannot exceed five inches in length. The same five-inch standard applies to the width of the club head as it applies to the clubface to the back. The USGA and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews have jointly adopted the same specifications for drivers and publish a list of conforming drivers annually.

Among those drivers (with names like Nike's Sasquatch, what does that tell you?) are clubs produced by Jim Yeh's Alpha Golf Co. in Chatsworth, California. His Alpha C830, and versions of it, are used in many long-distance competitions. It's through the big hitters at these competitions that Yeh gets the word out about his drivers. A Taiwanese with a degree in physics from the University of Rochester, Yeh sells about 50,000 drivers a year for around $300 apiece. Though his company also produces irons and fairway woods, Yeh has found a niche for himself in the long driving market. "Hitting long brings joy to a lot of people," says Yeh. "Especially to senior players. Our drivers allow them to keep up."

The USGA has an Overall Distance Standard, first adopted in 1976 and pegged then at a total of 297 yards, including rollout. The USGA's current standard is 320 yards using a 120-mile-per-hour swing speed at its testing facility in Far Hills, New Jersey. "We are satisfied with the standard," says Rugge. "But we are always evaluating whether we should go to a ball that doesn't fly as far. There has been talk of having a different ball for tournament play, but the USGA has always operated under one set of rules for the best players and for the everyday players. The main reason we don't go to a shorter ball is that golfers don't want it."

Ever hear a 20-handicapper say he would like to hit it shorter? Or a 10 or a five, or even a scratch? The new drivers, at the very least, allow less accomplished players to still move the ball a respectable distance when they don't make contact with the center of the clubhead. The late Eli Callaway tapped into the desire for more distance in the 1980s when he came out with his Big Bertha driver, named after a monumental piece of German artillery in the First World War. He never talked about distance, really. In Callaway's mind, he was putting more pleasure into the game by providing amateur players a tool that would allow them to hit more consistently even if they didn't have a consistent swing. The Big Bertha and the subsequent spate of larger and larger metal-headed drivers suddenly made the average guy feel as if he were Freddie "Boom Boom" Couples or Davis "Long" Love III.

"When I play in pro-ams, that's the one thing that everybody's likely to comment about, how far I hit it," says Love. "The amateurs are looking for the right club, the ball, maybe the shaft. All that's important, but you have to have a swing, too. I've always been naturally long and the technology has made me longer. Is it bad for the game? I don't really think so. Being able to hit the ball long piques a lot of interest and the amateurs have a lot of fun hitting it farther."

Love has the PGA Tour's longest-ever recorded drive of 476 yards, set in 2004. That was on the par-5 18th hole of the Plantation Course at the Kapalua Resort on Maui during the Mercedes Championship. In fairness, the 660-yard 18th is basically a ski jump, straight downhill, but big hitters still benefit by being able to carry past a flatter area before another steep decline. Drives near 400 yards are commonplace on the hole. The Guinness Book of World Records says the longest drive ever was 515 yards by the late pro Mike Austin during the 1974 U.S. National Seniors Open in Las Vegas, where he used a persimmon driver and a balata ball. With a following wind estimated at 30 mph, Austin hit a drive that finished 65 yards past the flagstick on the par-4 hole.

There has been talk that technology has rendered some classic old golf courses obsolete. The Merion Golf Club near Philadelphia, a founding member of the United States Golf Association and a host to U.S. Opens, is often mentioned as a course that has been outstripped by technology. But Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head, South Carolina, the site of the PGA Tour's annual MCI Heritage Classic, was one of the most difficult courses on the Tour during the 2005 season even though it is one of the shortest, at 6,973 yards. "It goes to show that accuracy still counts," says Love, who has won the event four times. "Harbour Town has small greens and some narrow entrances [to them]. It doesn't pay to drive it 350 yards there if you are behind a tree."

Colin Montgomerie can remember vividly the third round of the Masters in 1997, when he was paired with Tiger Woods. At the end of the day, he had his tail between his legs and knew that he had just played with someone who would go on to greatness; Woods went on to win that Masters, his first major. Woods's drives outstripped those of Montgomerie, then Europe's leading player, all day. And they still do. The 42-year-old Monty has been working with his club company, Yonex, to see if a new club and shaft combination can could put some more oomph in his drives. Still, Monty is content to be 40 yards back, if it means he's in the fairway. "I can't go out there and beat Tiger doing what he does," says Montgomerie. "I can't swing 150 miles per hour. He's going to beat me at that game every day. I think we've all been affected by what Tiger has done, and the length he hits the ball. Then you realize you're not going to do that. You're not going to beat him at his game. So I'll play my game."

After Fred Funk was invited to play in the 2005 Skins Game with Woods, Couples and Annika Sorenstam, Woods routinely gave Funk the business about how embarrassing it would be if Sorenstam outdrove him. Funk, winner of the 2005 Players Championship, is one of the shortest hitters on the Tour at about 270 yards. He's also one of the Tour's most accurate drivers. When Sorenstam nudged a drive by Funk on the third hole, she got a floral skirt out of her bag (all prearranged) and Funk put it on to play out the hole in one of the Skins Game's most memorable moments. But all kidding over his driving distance aside, at the end of the second day, Funk had won the most money by far: $925,000.

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