At Ben Hogan’s best, there was no more accurate driver of the golf ball. The makers of the 1951 movie about Hogan, “Follow the Sun,” had Hogan’s wife, Valerie, send him off to the course with the daily refrain of “Hit ’em far and straight, dear.” Back in real life, when Hogan was asked which was the most important shot in golf, he sternly replied, “The tee shot, of course; it sets up everything.”
Today, the tee shot still sets up everything that follows, but in a way Hogan would find hard to reconcile. As the PGA Tour prepares to descend on the course most closely identified with Hogan, Colonial Country Club, for the Crowne Plaza Invitational, this is the state of the modern tee shot:
Statistically speaking, long, straight driving on the PGA Tour gets you nowhere.
Here’s the evidence:
The PGA Tour keeps a statistic called total driving. It’s a combination of a player’s rank in driving distance and fairways hit. So someone who ranked fifth in one category and seventh in the other would have a total driving number of 12. The lower the number, the better. So for the Tour’s (and our) purposes, long, straight drivers are defined as those with the best total driving numbers.
You’d think total driving leaders would fare pretty well in overall performance statistics such as scoring average and money earned. But they don’t.
In the last dozen years, the top three finishers in total driving averaged a 77th-place finish in scoring. Only six of those 37 players (there was a tie for third in total driving one year) finished in the top 20 in scoring. Through the HP Byron Nelson Championship, Shawn Stefani is the leader in total driving, but ranks 80th in scoring. Stefani has played only seven events, though, so let’s look at No. 2 in total driving, Derek Ernst, who has played 19 events. He ranks 196th in scoring.
It hasn’t always been this way. In the 23 years from 1980 through 2002, the PGA Tour’s leader in total driving finished inside the top 20 on the money list 16 times. Among those leaders were such luminaries as Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Nick Price, David Duval, Hal Sutton and Tiger Woods.
Which brings us to 2003.
That’s the year Titleist came out with the Pro V1X, and the doom of the wound, balata-covered ball was ensured.
But first, let’s back up to 2000, when Titleist introduced the Pro V1, a two-piece ball that promised – and delivered – startling distance. Short-hitting Billy Andrade, desperate to keep his card, won the Invensys Classic at Las Vegas, becoming the first player to win with a Pro V1. The golf-ball sea change had begun in earnest.
In 2000 one player – John Daly - averaged 300 yards off the tee, and 75 players hit at least 70 percent of fairways. Just two years earlier no one had averaged 300 yards and 90 players hit 70 percent of fairways.
As more players switched to two-piece balls the accuracy numbers went down. Then in 2003 Titleist came out with the Pro V1X, a newer version of the Pro V1. With other ball manufacturers trying to replicate the characteristics of the Pro V1X, the number of players averaging more than 300 yards per drive spiked, to nine, and the number of players averaging 70 percent of fairways dropped 35 percent, to 40.
By 2005, 26 players averaged over 300 yards and only 19 hit 70 percent of fairways. That year, no player drove the ball better than Canadian David Hearn. He played in 24 events, missed 14 cuts and did not record a single top-10 finish en-route to finishing 196th on the money list.
Hearn was no anomaly, either. From 2006 to this year, no total-driving leader finished higher than 67th on the money list.
What was formerly a great predictor of success had become irrelevant, perhaps a better predictor of failure.
How is it that this skill has become so unessential? I have an opinion, based on long-term observation of the habits of Tour players.
Years ago, all players had a preferred shot shape – fade or draw. They would aim down one side of a fairway and try to work the ball back into the middle. They had the entire width of the fairway to work with. The workability of the wound balata ball facilitated this strategy.
The two-piece ball, however, launches higher, spins less and is harder to curve. Since today’s Tour players can’t curve the ball with ease, they aim more down the middle of fairway to allow for a push or a pull, but this effectively reduces by half their target area.
The question remains: Why doesn't the player who can hit this new ball straighter and longer enjoy the same proportionate benefit for his skill that the players 20 years ago did?
Two reasons – swing plane and putting.
Longer hitters are typically more upright swingers, such as Nicklaus, Bruce Lietzke or Woods (2000). Years ago, upright swingers who drove the ball straight began the downswing with a lateral lower body movement that helped with accuracy. Today, realizing the unlikelihood of hitting every fairway, players concentrate on distance, hanging back and spinning their hips and bodies to create clubhead speed. This makes them pop up on their toes. Seeking distance above all else they red-line every swing. Think Bubba Watson, Patrick Reed and, in the LPGA, Lexi Thompson.
The resulting lack of accuracy doesn't cost them as much as it used to because even the straightest drivers are in the rough more than their counterparts of years ago. And hitting out of the rough, the upright swingers have the power and the angle to produce the trajectory and spin to control approach shots. Flatter swingers, several of whom have led the total-driving statistic in the last decade or so, are at a tremendous disadvantage hitting out of the rough.
Furthermore, it’s a curious fact that upright swingers have historically been some of the best putters and flattish swingers have been some of the worst. I believe this is because upright swingers tend to release the club from the top. Because putting strokes are typically smaller versions of full swings, this tendency helps to release the putter head. Conversely, flatter swingers have more bow in their lead wrist and more shaft lean at impact, and creeps into their putting strokes and can be ruinous. There are exceptions to this theory, but the total-driving leaders over the last 11 years, whose swings are flatter than the men of similar rank years ago, averaged 144th in strokes-gained putting.
Which brings us back to 2000. That year, Tiger Woods led in total driving, David Duval was second, Sergio Garcia third and Ernie Els seventh. It would be one of the last years that great driving mattered. Since then, it seems, the whole of professional golf is in the rough. Wild as the weeds they find there.