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It pays to grip it and rip it

Long, errant drives not costing golf's best, and that raises an issue

By BOB HARIG
Published March 24, 2005


PONTE VEDRA BEACH - Given a choice, a pro golfer will take a ball in the fairway over one in the rough every time. But that is assuming everything is equal. What if the ball in the tall grass is 30 yards closer to the hole than the one in the short grass?

In today's game, players keep pulling out the lumber, hitting it as far as they can, and don't seem concerned about where it comes to rest - as long as they can find it and play it.

"What's happening in the game of golf, in the pro game, is to just flog it out there," said NBC golf analyst Johnny Miller. "Vijay (Singh) did it last year. He didn't care if he hit the fairway or not. If he hits the fairway, it's a birdie hole. If he doesn't, he can still make birdie half the time."

The Players Championship that begins this morning at the TPC-Sawgrass might test that theory, but so far this year, it pays much better to be long and crooked than to be short and straight.

None of the top five players in the world - Singh, Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson or Retief Goosen - has a better driving accuracy percentage rank on the PGA Tour than his driving distance number. Only Singh and Goosen rank among the top 100 in driving accuracy, and Goosen is the best at 76th.

And yet, all are ranked among the top 20 in greens in regulation.

If you look at the top five on the PGA Tour money list - Mickelson, Singh, Woods, David Toms and Adam Scott - only Toms is ranked higher in accuracy than in driving distance.

"I've gone online and looked at the stats from all the long hitters on the PGA Tour. None of us are very good," Woods said. "When you hit the ball that far, especially nowadays, it's going 330 yards, you're not going to hit a whole lot of fairways. As long as you miss in the correct spots, it's fine."

This has many long-time followers of the game concerned.

"It's absolutely absurd," said Jack Nicklaus, who in his prime had a considerable length advantage on his peers. "Who dominates the game today? 100 percent bombers. It doesn't make any difference where you hit it anymore. You just hit it as far as you can. You're hitting it so close to the green, they can't put enough rough out there to make any difference.

"Tiger and Vijay and Phil and Retief can all still play golf shots. But I may have had this much advantage (several inches) over my field and they've got this much (several feet) advantage. I think it's more than the game really should be. Do you want to watch a half-dozen guys every week really be the only guys who can win. They're going to dominate. The bombers are the guys who do it."

Nicklaus, who also designs golf courses, has long advocated that the PGA Tour adopt a "tour" ball that does not go as far. Arnold Palmer has said the same thing.

Former PGA Tour commissioner (and player) Deane Beman recently wrote U.S. Golf Association president Fred Ridley, imploring the game's ruling body to put limits on the golf ball.

"I think the technology has taken away from the players' ability to develop their skill level as high as it could be," Beman said this week. "These guys are better athletes than we ever were, but they're not as good ball-strikers because they don't need to be. They're not working on the kind of precision game that Jack had when he played.

"We're turning golf into basketball and tennis, where power is everything. It's not a matter of what's popular or not - I just don't think it's right."

This trend is particularly disappointing to course designers, who are forced to plan courses that stretch the limits of space while knowing the average player can't handle them. To continue building longer courses, they say, is expensive and not feasible.

"What's unfortunate is with the elite caliber of player, the importance of angles in design seems to be very much reduced," said Brian Silva, a golf course architect. "You can't begrudge these guys their ability, but these guys have great advantages, playing courses that are in absolutely pristine condition. Every bounce, every lie is perfect. Rub of the green hardly comes into it.

"When somebody like me says the ball goes too far, I think that's something they can legislate. But how do you say to a club, "Don't cut your grass so smooth.' "

"Well," said six-time major championship winner Nick Faldo, "you just have to join the party. I was taught a certain way to play. I was taught with rhythm. Obviously it's totally ingrained in my swing tempo. To think I'll stand up and get another 10 miles an hour out of it, it's impossible. So I'm stuck with what I've got."

Not everyone believes distance is everything. Kenny Perry just won the Bay Hill Invitational where he was fourth in driving accuracy, hitting 83.9 percent. But he was also fourth in driving distance at 286.8 yards.

"I think the only way you really honestly can say that driving (accuracy) is not important is when you putt well," said Stuart Appleby, who is eighth on the PGA Tour money list, 71st in driving distance (283.9 yards) and 28th in accuracy (69.4 percent). "It's the putter that does the talking. That's the one that really puts a score on a card. You are not hardly going to win many tournaments hitting it in the rough. You are going to have to putt unbelievably well."

That might very well be the case this week at the Players Championship, where narrower fairways and deep rough are more of an issue. By today's standards, the course measures a relatively short 7,093 yards. That could make finding the fairway far more important.

"(This) plays very much like a major championship," Els said. "Accuracy is a bit more of a factor and at probably all of the majors. I think we play a little bit different in the majors, where golf courses set up for accuracy. But the rest of the time ... you can really have a bit more of a go and you can get away with it a little bit more."