Long hitters at odds with course setups

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Jack Nicklaus has been a constant critic of modern golf technology, harping about the golf ball’s power combined with driver faces the size of frying pans that produce force akin to a sumo wrestler jumping on a trampoline.

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As recently as 2002, only one player on the PGA Tour averaged at least 300 yards per drive — John Daly at 306.8. That number jumped to eight players just one year later, all the way to 26 this year. There have been 17 drives of 400-plus yards this season on the PGA Tour.

There’s little doubt the PGA Tour has become a bombers’ paradise. Distance is also growing on the LPGA Tour.

Only five players averaged 260 or more yards off the tee in 2000. Fast-forward to 2017 and there are 32, led by Joanna Klatten’s 278-yard sledgehammers.

Jack Nicklaus AFP PHOTO

“The longer hitters — the Lexi Thompsons and the Brittany Lincicomes — they’re super long now,” said Laura Davies. “You can compare them to the Bubbas and the Dustin Johnsons. Everyone is hitting it further, but the bombers are a lot further.”

Davies took the golfing world by storm, much like Daly, with booming drives that seemed unfathomable, eliciting oohs and aahs from the gallery. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, she was hitting drives that approached 300 yards, nearly 50 yards longer than the average distance on the LPGA Tour.

The 53-year-old Davies, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, is one of the all-time greats in women’s golf.

She’s won 84 tournaments worldwide, including 20 on the LPGA Tour, and four major championships (seven if you count her Women’s British Open and Evian Championship titles when the tournament wasn’t considered a major).

Players search for more distance in various ways, most notably upping their workout regimen and tinkering with their clubs.

“With better technology with the clubs and golf balls, it’s important on this tour to hit it further,” said Kelly Tan, whose average driving distance is 245 yards. “You have a lot of advantage. You have shorter irons into the greens and can put more spin on the ball. I’m not a long hitter. I wish I could hit it 10 or 20 yards further. I’m constantly working on fitness and technique. There’s only so much I can do.”

Tan said she would sacrifice accuracy for 20 extra yards. She reasoned that even if she hit it off line, if you’re 20 yards farther, you are hitting a club with more loft.

Major champion Morgan Pressel disagreed. “Accuracy is still important,” she said. “For the most part, on the courses we play, it’s still important to hit the fairway to have the best opportunity to make birdie. I don’t know if there’s any more emphasis on [hitting it further]than when I first started.

“No matter what level you’re on, players are always searching for distance. But technology has come a long way over the years — the ball, the driver, physique, everything.”

Distance doesn’t always equal victory. In 17 events through July 9, only two of the 10 longest hitters on tour won — Thompson (third) and Lincicome (sixth). Four winners rank in the top 20 in driving distance, but nine are outside the top 40, and two are outside the top 100.

Long hitters are at odds with the tour on course setup. Players have stated their desire for two reachable par 5s each tournament, which minimizes those who have a distance advantage. Driveable par 4s also appear more frequently, zapping any benefit long hitters might hold over the field.

“It’s almost a disadvantage now [to be a big hitter]because of the way they set up courses,” Davies said. “I’ve played my whole career with my hands tied behind my back. You get to a hole where you’d love to be two tees back and you need a driver, but you hit a 2 iron. The PGA Tour is all about the long bombers. The LPGA is all about the straight hitters, unfortunately.”

The LPGA Tour’s taken on the moniker of “Wedge Tour” in the past, and the stats lend credence to that nickname. Of the 16 winners this season — So Yeon Ryu has won twice — eight are ranked in the top 20 in greens in regulation.

“One hundred percent it’s a wedge tour,” Davies said. “The par 5s are too long, the par 4s are too short, and the par 3s are too samey. I’ve always said that, but no one’s ever listened. It’s a shame because obviously I’d rather see courses set up for the long bombers, but it’s never happened. I can’t remember a golf course in the last 20 years that’s an advantage for the long hitters.

“Lexi’s dominating at the moment, and she’s a long hitter, so that’s a good sign. But I think it’s just because she’s putting so well. Her short game is as big of a contributor as her driving. Her putting is amazing. But obviously she’s reducing the par 5s into two shots. She’s super long.”

Even big hitters realize the need for placement. Thompson and others will hit irons on holes that require accuracy, instead of unleashing a drive that could go wayward.

“If you’re a good wedge player, it gives you an advantage,” Tan said. “But you still have to hit the fairways and hole some putts.”

Added Mi Hyang Lee, who ranks 44th in driving accuracy: “If you hit the ball further, golf is easier. But hitting the fairway is more important. I’m always trying to look at hitting my driver further, but I want to be able to execute around the green with wedges.”

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