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On the PGA Tour, distance is the new measure of a master

Oct 27,2017
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Dustin Johnson, No. 1 ranked golfer in the world, tees off during a PGA Tour event. Johnson was ranked second in driving distance last season. [JOONGANG PHOTO]
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There’s an old saying in golf, “drive for show and putt for dough,” but on the PGA Tour in the 21st century, this no longer seems to be the case as long-hitters now dominate the money list.

As of Thursday, five of the top six world golfers, aside from Jordan Speith of the United States, are among the longest hitters on the Tour. Based on statistics from the 2016-17 season, Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland had the longest average driving distance, at 317 yards. Dustin Johnson of the United States is second, at 315 yards, and Justin Thomas of the United States is sixth, at 310 yards.

The average driving distance of the top 11 golfers in the world is 305 yards. Aside from Speith and Henrik Stenson of Sweden, nine others hit over 300 yards. Also, the overall average driving distance has gotten longer, increasing by 13 yards in the 2015-16 season compared to the 2001-2002 season. In addition, the number of players hitting their drive over 300 yards has increased. Only one player was able to hit their drive over 300 yards in the 2001-2002 season, but last season, 43 players managed that feat.

As a result, it has become more difficult for shorter hitters to win a tournament on the Tour. Of the 43 PGA tournaments last season, 24 were won by players who hit drives over 300 yards. Only eight were won by players whose driving distance was below the Tour average. And three of the four major tournaments were won by long hitters - Sergio Garcia won The Masters, Brooks Koepka won the U.S. Open and Thomas won the PGA Championship.

Speith won the The Open, but since the course was played shorter with a lot of runs and bunkers, distance wasn’t an important factor.

The sudden change comes from improvements in equipment and physique. Most players today have personal trainers who travel with them throughout the season. Another reason, according to Austin S. Na, Kevin Na’s brother who works as an SBS Golf commentator, is that these effects come from Tiger Woods, since young golfers on the Tour today grew up watching Woods.

“They tried to hit their ball far and built their bodies like athletes,” Na said. “While hitting far, these players have high accuracy. It’s not true that long hitters have less accuracy.”

For a while, greens in regulation percentage was considered more important than the number of putts or average driving distance. But that is no longer the case.

“Since long hitters are given wedge shots as their second, they tend to be more aggressive even when the pin is located in the corner, which leads to them having their shot land on the fringe,” Na said. “Also, to have an uphill putt, they intentionally miss the green, so they have a lower greens in regulation percentage compared to players who aim for the center of the green, but this allows them to make more birdies.”

BY SUNG HO-JUN [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]