Drive for Show

Distance is the golfing equivalent of junk food. You love it, so inevitably the golf media is going to sell it to you, but don’t let them feed you on a diet that consists of little else.

Long hitters have always fascinated golf fans. In the early 1900s, crowds flocked to watch Ted Ray perform the seemingly impossible task of driving a golf ball more than 250 yards. Arnold Palmer staged the greatest comeback in US Open history in 1960, but the main thing I know about it without searching is that he drove the green at the par four first. In the early 90s, John Daly drew a crowd by smashing his driver unprecedented distances.

Then Tiger came along and said “Hello, world,” but no one could hear him because he was so much further down the fairway than they were. He hit it so far past most of his contemporaries when he turned pro that designers started to Tiger-proof their courses. (The fact that they tried to do that by making the courses longer is a topic for another day.)

The new kid on the distance block is Bryson Dechambeau, who has emerged from lockdown looking like he’s eaten Netflix and created a whole new statistical metric: Strokes Gained – Protein Bar.

The fascination with distance is obvious in many ways and comes from something that is strangely hard to define: the difference between the game you play and the game the best in the world play. If you play off ten and have the day of your golfing life, you could shoot a couple over par around your home track. Then you could go home, switch on the TV and watch Tiger Woods – arguably the best to have ever played the game – shoot a worse score.

There are all sorts of reasons why your respective rounds can’t be compared to one another in any meaningful way. The course you played was almost certainly shorter than the course Tiger played. The greens were slower, the rough was lower and no one was broadcasting your efforts on television to a global audience of millions.

You had a live audience of three. Tiger had one that was three-deep lining every hole. One of your pals might have used his phone to surreptitiously video you nearly falling into a lake. Tiger probably had a camera and sound person covering his every move from the moment he arrived at the course. You probably played for a few quid, maybe even enough to make you uncomfortable, but unless you’re an idiot, there weren’t hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake.

And yet, there will be a part of you quietly thinking to yourself that you beat Tiger that day. I can’t think of any other sport where that can happen. It’s that illusion of comparability that muddies the water when it comes to defining the difference between them and you. But the one aspect of the game that can be compared is distance. You might have beaten Tiger’s score, but you definitely didn’t outdrive him.

The first time you stand next to a professional golfer hitting a golf ball, you immediately know they’re special. The noise alone would do it in many cases. You hear the ball getting squashed into the turf and exploding out to rip a hole through the sky with a fizzing sound that has never graced your Sunday fourball. If you’ve never done it, get to a tournament and get as close as you can to a top player hitting a full shot with an iron. It’s usually enough the first time to make the most sober person come over a little silly.

Watching them hole a six-foot putt doesn’t give you that visceral reaction. Their technique may even look inferior to your own.

As a caddie, I have been asked what the difference really is between them and you. The answer isn’t straightforward. It isn’t just that they hit it much further than you. It isn’t just that they’re straighter than you. It isn’t just that their short games are much better or their mental games sharper. It’s all of those things, and a lot more besides (preparation, fitness, experience, belief, coaching, equipment… it’s a long list).

To steal Bobby Jones’s line about Jack Nicklaus, they play a game with which you’re not familiar, but the one thing you can quantify, on TV or in person, is how far they hit it. That clarity is what gives the manufacturers a toe hold in your wallet and the media an easy headline. They know you’ll click that link or buy that club if they can make it about distance. So they feed it to you. And you eat it.

Sometimes, the story beneath the headline keeps giving – like Palmer driving the green at a par four and going on to overturn a seven-shot deficit in the final round to win the US Open – but sometimes it’s junk food.

Bryson has been making more headlines than most lately with his transformed body and newfound clubhead speed since the PGA Tour restarted. One headline screeched that he had driven a ball more than 400 yards. I read the article and had to get almost to the end of it to discover two things that made me think the headline had been a little disingenuous. Firstly, his drive hit a cart path, and secondly, he took four more shots to get the ball into the hole.

There’s more to golf than distance, just as there’s more to food than McDonald’s. And remember, the next time you’re weighing up which new driver to put in your bag and the manufacturers are dangling the carrot of extra clubhead speed, if you can’t get the middle of the club squared up to the back of the ball with the one you’ve got, what makes you think you might be able to do it with something that’s moving through the air 10mph faster?

Take the money you were about to spend and give it to your local professional. In exchange, get him to give you half a dozen lessons with the driver you have. With the money you have left over, you can buy a shirt that actually fits you and isn’t likely to cause an accident if you get out of your car next to a busy road.

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