Its All About the Long Ball

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2004 Lincoln Financial Battle at the BridgesRANCHO SANTA FE, Calif. -- Tiger Woods has always been the big attraction ever since the Monday night made-for-TV golf exhibitions began five years ago.

Now he might be overshadowed by some powerful company.

The theme for this year's edition of the 'Battle at the Bridges' is all about the long ball, featuring four players renowned for their prodigious length off the tee -- Woods and Hank Kuehne against Masters champion Phil Mickelson and John Daly in an 18-hole match.
 
ABC Sports will broadcast it live at 8 p.m. EDT, with ESPN picking up the first hour of the match.
 
Daly led the PGA Tour in driving distance for eight consecutive years, a streak that ended last year when Kuehne won the distance title by averaging a record 321.4 yards off the tee.

'I've played with Hank a lot, but we don't really pay attention to how long we hit it,' Daly said. 'What matters is your score. In the Skins Game in Canada, we hooked up and went back and forth a few times. He hit it five yards past me, I hit it five yards past him. We really don't think about it that much.'
 
Mickelson has sacrificed distance this year in an effort to have more control, and it already has paid off with a victory in the Masters and close calls in the U.S. Open and British Open. Still, he has spent most of his career salivating over distance, and he took some heat last year for joking that Woods 'hates that I can fly it past him now.'

As for Woods?

He might have to get used to hitting first Monday on The Bridges at Rancho Santa Fe.
 
Woods finished out of the top 10 in driving distance for the first time last year, and concedes that he's not as long off the tee as he used to be. 'I kind of dink it around,' he often says.

The better-ball match is all about making birdies and shooting the lowest score, but there is a twist this year. Four holes have been designated for a long-drive competition, with each of them worth $75,000.
 
'Normally, I'd be ecstatic about a long-drive championship,' Mickelson said. 'But against Hank Kuehne, John Daly and Tiger Woods, I'm less than thrilled -- except that my partner, John Daly, is one of the longest guys in the game and probably holds his own.'

Along with the 18-hole match and the long drive contest, the third way of keeping score -- and perhaps the most important -- is the television ratings.

The national rating climbed as high as 7.6 in the second year of these hit-and-giggle affairs, when Sergio Garcia beat Woods on the 18th hole at Bighorn in 2000. Since the exhibition switched to a team format the following year, however, ratings have steadily declined. It dropped to 4.6 last year, when Mickelson and Garcia beat Woods and Ernie Els.

If it's true that everyone digs the long ball, this could be just what Monday Night Golf needs.
 
Woods always draws a big audience beyond regular golf fans, but he now has help from Mickelson, whose popularity soared even higher with his Masters victory. Plus, there is the fascination of two guys who swing from the heels.
 
Well, at least Kuehne does.

The former U.S. Amateur champion has tried hitting less club off the tee, but can't seem to get it in the fairway. After a while, he figured he was better off bashing his driver.

'At this point, I'm not really changing the way that I play golf because I really wasn't hitting the club that you're supposed to hit into the fairway ... into the fairway,' Kuehne said. 'I was actually hitting less fairways with that than the driver. So, I just play golf the best way I know how, and that's how it will be.'
 
Woods has increased his distance slightly this year by going to a larger driver with a graphite shaft. Statistically speaking, he is not the shortest hitter in this foursome, ranked No. 7 in driving distance. Kuehne is No. 2 on tour, followed by Daly, while Mickelson weighs in at No. 29.

'I have sacrificed a little bit of distance and have gained more accuracy,' Mickelson said.

Daly, whose grip-it-and-rip-it method has long been a gallery attraction, has gone to a control cut to keep the ball in the short grass. He's still long off the tee, just not as long as he could be. He can't argue with the results, having won at Torrey Pines in February for his first regular PGA Tour victory in 10 years.

'That's why I've had a better year this year, because I don't care about distance right now,' Daly said. 'If I tried to hit a big draw like I used to, I could probably hit it 25, 30 yards farther. But I wouldn't be able to control it.'

Still, they all figure to reach for a little something extra Monday night -- especially on the four holes where the longest drive will be handsomely rewarded.

Organizers can only hope the ratings come up big, too.
 
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