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Big Guns

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

When Tiger Woods and John Daly arrived at the 18th tee of the Harding Park Golf Course last October, the electricity in the air could have powered San Francisco for a day. Woods and Daly were playing off for the American Express Championship, and thousands of fans at the course and millions watching on television were getting just what they wanted: a clash of the titans. Was all this electricity being generated because Woods is a great putter or Daly a great wedge player?

Was it because Woods is golf's No. 1 player and Daly is the game's No. 1 character?

Not really. What generated this buzz was pure power itself. Woods and Daly, the two biggest hitters in championship golf, were squared off and in launch mode. Woods was first to drive, whipping his lithe body into the ball at warp speed. His drive: 346 yards. Then came Daly, his overswing making you think the clubhead would smack him in the face. With his uncanny timing, Daly ripped into the ball and rocketed it 352 yards. Two drives, 698 total yards, complete bedlam.

No matter how accomplished and complete a player's game is, no matter how well he putts, no matter how he steers his irons, no matter how he recovers from the rough and the sand, only one aspect of golf will draw a crowd on its own—driving the ball long.

When Daly won the 1991 PGA Championship, no one remembered how he putted or how he hit his irons. What was unforgettable was his nuclear power. Daly outdrove the Crooked Stick Golf Club, flying the ball 300 yards past bunkers and trees and creeks designed for trouble. In doing so, he drove his persona, his Grip-It-And-Rip-It mantra, straight into the heart of American golf. Then came Woods, the Golden Child who won three straight U.S. Amateurs, two straight NCAA Championships and two PGA tournaments in an abbreviated 1996 rookie season after turning professional that August. Though he was honed in every facet of the game, it was Woods's power that shaped his charisma.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is power that shapes the professional game and gives that extra kick to the amateur game. Who hasn't gotten a rush by whacking a drive past your opponent ("Did you see where that went? I lost it in the air"), cutting off a dogleg ("What am I, 25 yards past you?") or reaching a par 5 in two ("You only had 85 yards for your third").

Consider that in 1980, the first year that the PGA Tour compiled statistics, Dan Pohl was number one in driving average at 274.3 yards and the Tour average was 256.9 yards. In 1990, it was Tom Purtzer who led at 279.6 yards and the Tour average was 262.8 yards. In 2005, Scott Hend led the Tour with an average of 318.9 yards. Tiger Woods was No. 2 at 316.1, John Daly was fifth at 310.1. Twenty-six players averaged at least 300 yards, 86 who averaged at least 290. The Tour average was an astounding 288.9 yards. There were 475 recorded drives of at least 365 yards, with D. A. Points posting the longest at 442 yards. Woods's longest was 408 yards, Daly's 399. (It must be said that nearly all of these superlong drives are struck on holes that are significantly downhill and yield plenty of roll.)

"It's really technology," says Dick Rugge, the United States Golf Association senior technical director. "It's a combination of technological advances in the driver head, the shaft and the ball. You put that together with better conditioned [professional] players with fine-tuned golf swings and you get this result."

Rugge also believes that equipment technology is behind the steady decline in amateur handicaps. The average handicap in 1995 was 16.5. In 2005, it was 15. "For the amateurs it's not just a case of hitting it longer, which they do, but the fact that clubs are forgiving [for mishits] and the ball goes straighter," says Rugge.

Just how much these advances have impacted the game is difficult to measure, and there's a significant generational opinion gap between players on the PGA Tour and players on the Champions Tour. At the Charles Schwab Cup Championship at the Sonoma Golf Club in California, the culmination of the Champions Tour season last year, a persimmon-headed driver (that would be wood, for those of an entirely different generation) was used on the first tee during the pro-am event. Hale Irwin, the 60-year-old king of the Champions Tour, took a swipe with it and hit it decently, maybe 230 yards. Then he hit his regular high-tech, perfectly tuned driver and flew that ball at least 50 yards past that first drive.

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