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.
"Is all this length good for the game?" asks Irwin, rhetorically. "Other sports have basic equipment that evolves pretty gradually. Our sport is always in evolution with equipment. It seems like the ability to hit the ball far is the one thing that matters. Tiger and Vijay [Singh] are way down the list in driving accuracy, but they are still winning lots of tournaments. They would rather have a wedge from the rough than a 7-iron from the fairway. It seems to me that length is taking a lot of the intangibles out of the game."
"It's how the game has changed," says Woods, coming off a 2005 season in which he won the Masters and British Open and was named the PGA Tour Player of the Year for the seventh time. "The long hitters are able to carry bunkers that the average guy can't anyway. That's how it used to be anyway. The [fairway] bunkers on 18 at Augusta weren't put there until Jack [Nicklaus] went deep. Jack and Tom Watson, when he came out, were superlong. They could cut the corners at par 4s and par 5s. We're able to do the same thing, but it's longer distance now."
Big hitters always attract attention. Just the sound of the ball coming off Woods's or Daly's club is enough to quicken the pulse, snap the head and induce a sense of awe. Nicklaus was that way in his day, overpowering courses with length that he coupled with remarkable accuracy (it helped that he was a marvelous putter), prompting legendary player and Masters founder Bobby Jones to say, "He plays a game with which I am not familiar."
There have always been players more legendary for length than tournament victories. Jim Thompson, George Baer, Jim Dent and Jim Barnes were prodigious hitters in previous generations of golfers who used wooden clubs and what by today's standards were primitive balls.
But today, a small cadre of players make a living driving it deep; their game is devoted to cashing in by smashing it. Art Sellinger, a national long drive champion, is the owner of the Long Drivers of America. He puts together events like the RE/MAX World Long Drive Championship and the Pinnacle Exceptional Driver Championship. Sellinger and his fellow demons of distance make quite a decent living by swinging for the fences in competitions, clinics and exhibitions worldwide. Basketball has its slam dunk, baseball its home run, hockey its slap shot. They are aspects of their sports that put excitement into the game, but taken away from the entirety of the sport, they exist as mild amusements.
Not so long driving. "Everyone likes to see someone bomb it," says Sellinger. "I used to love to watch Jack Nicklaus when he could bomb it. It's a power game right now and the best players all kill it. America's consumed by distance and that's, thankfully, why we are in business."
One of the first well-known long drivers and a man who made a living out of it was Evan "Big Cat" Williams, a New Jersey professional who realized that people were in awe of how far he could hit the ball, and who had a friend who encouraged him to capitalize on it. In 1974, the once famed Grossingers resort in the Catskill Mountains of New York held a driving contest between Tour pro Jim Dent and amateurs Jack DePalo and Dick Middleton. London Lee, a stand-up comedian and friend of Williams, convinced the promoters to let the 26-year-old club professional have a go at it. Lee had played enough golf around Tour pros, and had played plenty with Williams, to know that the "Big Cat" had some serious claws.
Dent's longest drive was 359 yards and the two amateurs were well back. On Williams's fifth drive he hammered 366 yards. "It was actually 368 on the fly, but it spun back two yards," says Williams, now a teaching pro at an indoor practice facility in Michigan. "I got a lot of publicity out of that. Joe DiMaggio was in the crowd and told the papers that I ought to be put in a cage. There were newspapers all over the world that ran the story. It led to a career I never thought I would have. I was putting on exhibitions for $1,500, which was serious cash at that time, and $6,000 when I quit 10 years later. It was first-class air, hotel suites. It was amazing how just hitting the ball far drew everyone to you."
Sellinger knew he was a long hitter when he was a junior. "It was God's gift to me; my ball just went farther," he says. When Golf Digest picked up on the long drive craze and sponsored a championship, Sellinger won it twice. His success spawned a business for him, of exhibitions and clinics, of showing off at Fortune 500 company outings and creating events like the RE/MAX World Long Drive Championship, considered the official competition to determine the world's longest driver. The winning drive in this event often approaches 400 yards hitting to flat ground with USGA conforming clubs. Despite his own prodigious talent, Sellinger thanks John Daly for making big hitting legitimate.
"People went bonkers when John won the PGA," says Sellinger. "It just opened so many doors for people who could hit it, gave it a legitimacy. It meant that we could actually have a sport within a sport. You know, for the Tour, John was crazy long then, and he's still superlong now. But for us he isn't. Our players are good players with good swings who condition themselves to hit it long."
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.
"I wish I could hit it as long as those guys, but I don't, and I make do with what I have," says Funk. "To play against those guys, to be wearing a skirt, to be the short guy and still come away with the most money, that was a pretty neat deal."
Still, there's nobody who doesn't want to hit it farther. Even Tiger would take an extra yard. "The technology in shafts and heads, to be able to marry up the shaft and the head and the ball, that never was the case," says Woods, who is old enough at 30 to have used wooden-headed drivers. "We all had persimmon drivers and hopefully we [could] get it out there. But now you match it up and you don't have to change your swing at all. You hit it and you have the perfect ball flight."
That perfect flight? Long.
Jeff Williams is the golf columnist for Cigar Aficionado.