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Punch Shot: Drivers we love to see and really want to be

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The World Long Drive Championship is this week so we asked the GolfChannel.com writers to identify the best – and most admired – drivers on Tour.

WEEK IN, WEEK OUT, THE BEST DRIVER YOU'VE EVER SEEN?

REX HOGGARD: Tiger Woods. It would be difficult to convince anyone who has watched Woods struggle off the tee in recent years that there was a time when he ruled the golf world with a combination of power and precision, but it’s true. In 1999, Woods finished the season ranked third in driving distance (293 yards) and 65th in driving accuracy, hitting a career-best 71 percent of his fairways. He’s always been among the game’s longest players off the tee but during this window of relative accuracy he was unstoppable.

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RYAN LAVNER:  Dustin Johnson. The numbers support this: DJ has been ranked in the top 6 of the Tour’s strokes gained statistic in each full season this decade. But what’s so awe-inspiring about Johnson’s driver swing is that it looks effortless. Though his swing speed routinely checks in the low-120s – or annually near the top 10 on Tour – it never looks like he’s out of control, and then he’s still able to reach back for that extra gear when he needs to clear a bunker or dogleg. What a weapon.

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RANDALL MELL: Greg Norman could bomb it more than 300 yards back when they were still playing with persimmon woods in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, back when driver was the toughest club in the bag to hit, not the easiest, the way technology has changed the skill set today. Norman was one of the longest and straightest hitters of all time, which made him so much fun to watch in all those events I got to see on the Florida swing while working in South Florida. In a 14-year span in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Norman ranked among the top 20 in total driving 12 times. He was among the top six nine times. Butch Harmon called Norman the best driver he ever saw. So did Nick Price. Jack Nicklaus mentioned Norman first when asked just last year who the best drivers he ever saw were. Who am I to argue?

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WILL GRAY: Adding in the degree of difficulty, I’ll go with Greg Norman. The Shark bridged a technological transformation, ripping drives with both persimmon woods and larger metal faces. But his talents transcended the equipment in his hand, as each stage of his career showcased a man who was equal parts long and straight. The optimization of distance and accuracy gave him a huge leg up on the best in the world for more than a decade, and it’s why his prowess off the tee is still mentioned with reverence today.




FINAL HOLE OF A MAJOR AND YOU HAVE TO HIT THE FAIRWAY, WHO DO YOU WANT WITH THE DRIVER IN HAND?

HOGGARD: Francesco Molinari. In 2018, Molinari proved that he’s arguably the game’s most clutch player off the tee when the pressure is on. During his victory at last year’s Open Championship, Molinari didn’t hit every fairway but he did find the fairways that mattered the most. His performance at the ’18 Ryder Cup on the year’s most demanding tee-to-green test only solidified his status as the game’s best pressure performer off the tee.

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LAVNER: Francesco Molinari. Sure, he might leave himself a little farther back for his approach, but Molinari has added distance and still ranked inside the top 50 in driving accuracy each of the past five years – a rarity in this bomb-and-gouge era. The Italian has proven his mettle on some of the biggest stages in golf, including at The Open and Ryder Cup, and statistically there’s no one in the top 10 in the world who has a better chance of finding the fairway.

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MELL: Lee Trevino, so fearless under pressure, with that remarkably reliable fade, could drive it through tunnels other players wouldn’t dare. He won two U.S. Opens splitting fairways with persimmon woods, six majors overall. You can’t call any of today’s players the best drivers of the ball ever, not with the forgiveness built into the ball/club technology now. Today’s best drivers, even the straightest of the big hitters, are more accurately called the best sluggers of the ball. Trevino thrived when the sweet spot was small on the club head, and when balata balls spun the smallest of mistakes off line. He was truly a great driver of the ball, not a slugger.

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GRAY: You’d think Tiger Woods here, but he has actually won a few majors in spite of 72nd-hole gaffes off the tee. So give me Justin Rose. The drive he hit on the final hole at Merion in 2013 still sticks out as one of the most clutch performances with a tournament hanging in the balance, as he faced a difficult closing hole and essentially bisected the fairway. Throw in his final-hole performance in Rio and it’s clear that Rose, already a strong driver, finds a way to up his game when the stakes are highest.




IF YOU COULD HIT THE BALL OFF THE TEE LIKE ANYONE, WHO WOULD IT BE?

HOGGARD: Rory McIlroy. We’ve seen it countless times since his victory at the 2012 PGA Championship, but it was the Northern Irishman’s performance at Kiawah Island that separated him from the other power players. With a three-stroke lead through three rounds, McIlroy kept hitting driver on Sunday on his way to an eight-stroke triumph. With a rare combination of power, precision and poise, McIlroy’s swing is perfect.

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LAVNER: Rory McIlroy. We’re roughly the same size – um, give or take a few body-fat percentage points – and yet McIlroy pounds it at least 50 yards farther. It doesn’t compute. McIlroy can be such a frustrating player to watch because the same swing qualities that makes him such an elite driver also cause him to be a sub-par wedger. But wouldn’t it be fun to wind up, have such lovely rhythm and unleash a 330-yard high draw, just once?

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MELL: Matthew Wolff. You could win a lot of money in local games making a swing like that on the range before your match begins. It’s so delightfully unorthodox, the kind of swing that puts a smile on people’s face. He has a move that makes you want to stop and watch him practice (while scratching your head). It’s as wonderfully powerful and effective as it is unconventional.

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GRAY: Look, it may not be the most effective tee-shot strategy, but I can’t turn down an opportunity to drive it like Bubba Watson. The southpaw seemingly has as many hits as misses, but to be able to step to a tee and curve a ball 30 yards in either direction on a whim holds great appeal for those of us who have plenty of practice with the 30-yard curve but lack the predictability aspect.