Driving for Show and Dough

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Driving stats are never boring. And, no, we're not talking about cars here.
 
We're talking about the fact that nine events into the 2004 PGA Tour season Hank Kuehne is once again hitting it farther off the tee than anybody else. But his average of 306.2 is more than 15 yards less than his season-ending average of 321.4 in 2003.
 
And, please, no jumping to conclusions about the fact that voluntary testing for hot drivers is behind the drop in the numbers for Kuehne (or anybody else). This is golf, not baseball. And besides, golf manufacturers have much more to lose than players if somebody gets caught with a hot driver that has their brand on it.
 
'Let the sample run out,' says Joey Sindelar.
 
What Sindelar means to say is that it's too early in the year to draw conclusions. The players need to play on more courses and under different conditions for the numbers to come back into line.
 
Still, it's interesting to note that John Daly, who finished second to Kuehne last year at 314.3, has dropped to fourth so far this year at 303.8. That's more than nine yards. Yet Daly, who has already won once in 2004, is having his best year in almost a decade.
 
Phil Mickelson is having an even better year than Daly. He won the recently completed West Coast Swing on the strength of five top seven finishes in five events including a victory at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. Last year Mickelson wound up fourth in driving distance. This year he ranks 26th.
 
The conclusion: Mickelson is hitting it shorter, but much straighter.
 
Tiger Woods, convinced in 2003 that there were drivers on Tour exceeding the legal coefficient of restitution limit of .830, has gone in the other direction. Woods finished last season 11th in driving distance. Currently he ranks second behind Kuehne at 304.7.
 
Woods 'flies' the ball farther than all but a very few. Wet conditions have been frequent so far on Tour in 2004. The cause and effect here is clear.
 
The 45-year-old Sindelar may be the most interesting case of all. He has picked up approximately 12 yards off the tee this year since switching from a TaylorMade 360 driver to a TaylorMade 510 Tour model. That gain in distance had jumped him from 109th at the end of last year to 10th so far in 2004.
 
'The ball,' Sindelar says, 'rolls farther in the fairway.'
 
In other words, he is hitting it straighter since the switch. 'For the first time,' he said Tuesday at Doral, 'I have a driver that is my 'go to' club.'
 
Sindelar still isn't sure how the measuring process works. And he says there are a lot of players who love the Tour's Shotlink yardage system but don't completely trust its distances yet.
 
'I'd also like to know if these number are for when I hit driver or not,' he said. 'Or do they count it as a driving distance stat when a player hits a 1-iron or a 3-wood off the tee?'
 
To that end, the Tour has requested that caddies fill out cards after rounds recording a player's club selection on every hole. Sindelar's caddie is complying with the Tour's request but said not all caddies are. The Tour has threatened to fine the caddies who don't cooperate. Sindelar's caddie said nobody he knows has been fined yet.
 
Expect the Shotlink issues to be cleared up by the middle of the year. But don't expect the kind of interesting stories you can find by crunching the driving stats to end any time soon.
 
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