Youth hitting harder, farther

More and more, young pros are wowing veterans with their monster drives.

Published March 3, 2006

MIAMI - The distance professionals hit a golf ball today has elicited words of wonder from many. But when those words start coming from the mouths of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, then you know what they are talking about must be impressive.

A trio of rookies has joined the PGA Tour this year, fearing no one and bombing the ball into oblivion. J.B. Holmes, Bubba Watson and Carmilo Villegas have made quite a splash, with Holmes winning the FBR Open, Watson posting two top fives and Villegas finishing runnerup to Holmes.

For Woods and Mickelson to be in awe says something. Neither bunts the ball around a course.

"We talked about this five years ago, that the next generation of players was going to be an athlete who can take advantage of the technology. They hit bombs but they can also chip and putt," said Mickelson, who shot 7-under-par 65 Thursday to trail Woods by one after the first round of the Ford Championship at Doral. "Basically, long-drive guys who can play.

"That's what we're seeing in J.B. Holmes and Bubba Watson and Villegas, they have great touches with wedges and putting and short game. They are very difficult to beat."

Villegas (pronounced b-JAY-gahs) stepped up with 65 on the Blue Monster course, part of a five-way tie for second.

It is just the sixth tournament for Villegas as a member of the tour, but already he has become a popular figure, wearing the same clothing line made famous by Jesper Parnevik and hitting 300-yard drives as if it's no big deal.

"I don't think I hit it that far," said Villegas, who made eagle and eight birdies, including four birdies in a row on the back nine. "I swing hard at it, but I ain't Bubba Watson or J.B. Those guys kill it."

Yeah, but so does Villegas. He is fifth on the PGA Tour in driving distance, 306.7 yards per measured drive. (Watson is first at 320.1, followed by Holmes at 313.1; Woods is sixth and Mickelson is 20th.) Although he is hitting less than 50 percent of his fairways to rank 190th, that stat becomes less meaningful, it seems, the farther players hit the ball.

Tour veteran David Toms just shakes his head. Toms is an average-length hitter who shot 66 Thursday and was playing a group behind Villegas a few weeks ago at the FBR Open.

"I kept looking at Villegas out there in those yellow pants, about 340 yards down the middle, right in front of me every hole," Toms said. "I said to Mark Calcavecchia, "Man, that's the future of our tour there. These young guys just bombing it out there. I wish I could do it.' "

Villegas, 23, lives in Gainesville, where he played for the Gators. Golf coach Buddy Alexander somehow found Villegas in Colombia, a country that has fewer than 50 golf courses.

In Villegas' home of Medellin, the third-largest city in Colombia, there are just four courses, one of them nine holes. "My dad joined a club and I had a chance to start playing golf," he said.

At Florida, Villegas broke Chris DiMarco's school record for individual titles, winning eight times, and he was the Southeastern Conference player of the year in 2004.

Villegas turned pro later that year, and played the Nationwide Tour last year despite no status. He started the year qualifying for events on Monday and had enough success early to earn temporary member status. He went on to earn $233,218 to finish 13th on the money list and earn a promotion to the PGA Tour. He's earned $337,571 this year.

And the future appears bright.

"As they continue to get more experience and get better and learn the courses and understand the cities and understand what preparation allows them to play their best golf, they are going to be the guys who are going to be the top players in the world," Mickelson said. "The guys who are up there are not going to be there forever, we're going to transition out eventually. We're just trying to hold on as long as we can."