Identified Flying Objects

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The official 2004 PGA Tour season has concluded and the annual mountain of statistics are all set in stone. It is impossible to ignore the ones that inform us on driving distance.
 
Fact: All seven of the longest drivers from 2003 averaged less off the tee in 2004.
 
Fact: Only three players from the driving distance top 10 in 2003--Hank Kuehne, John Daly and Mike Heinen--made it back to the top 10 in 2004.
 
Fact: Only four of the top 20 longest drivers in 2003--Tiger Woods, Davis Love II, Heinen and Harrison Frazar--actually increased their average distance in 2004.
 
Hmmm.
 
Remember now, this was the year the PGA Tour instituted a driver testing program aimed at discouraging the use of non-conforming clubs. At least one well-known Tour swing coach has informed me that there is a cause and effect here. The inference, he is suggesting, is that the presence of driver testing, deterred cheaters.
 
All of which, says the USGAs Dick Rugge, is a bit of a leap and a bit harsh.
 
What can we infer from the longest driver stats? says Rugge, the USGAs Senior Technical Director, We can probably infer that some of the longer driving Tour players have learned that they get better results when they throttle back a little. Phil Mickelson is the poster boy for this--especially early in the year. His early success with a more controlled game may have inspired others to follow suit.
 
It is not unusual for the list of top 10 or 20 longest drivers to substantially change from year to year. One of the reasons is that driving distance alone does not equate with success on Tour. Some of the longest dont keep their Tour cards very long. Four of this years 10 longest drivers didnt keep their card.
 
It is not surprising that few players in the top 20 didnt show much increase. There was very little increase across the board this year.
 
And as to driver testing as a deterrent, Rugge was even more specific. It is very unlikely that the decreases shown by the top 10 distance guys resulted from driver testing. Two reasons: First, highly unlikely that any of these guys--much less all seven--were using non-conforming clubs. No evidence to suggest that. Second, the amount of distance decrease shown by many of them could not be accounted for by a change to a lower spring effect driver. While it is possible that a driver being used by a Tour player in the past may have been inadvertently slightly over the limit, any such driver would have added feet, not yards, to their distance.
 
I believe there were two or three clubs found on Tour all year--prior to play commencing--that actually exceeded the spring effect. And that was by an amount that would have added a few feet to a perfectly struck drive.
 
So there you have it: Numbers from the Tour. Suspicion from a swing guru. And abnegation from the USGAs voice of authority on the matter.
 
In the end, I suppose it all comes down to whether or nor you believe in conspiracy theories or not. But there are no UFOs in professional golf. Players must be able to identify their golf ball when they arrive at it.
 
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