21 Sep 2020 | Feature stories | Professional golf |
CLAYTON: Power 1, trickery 0
by Mike Clayton
We wonder what to make of this US Open.
Some would say Bryson DeChambeau’s Winged Foot triumph is a window into a changing game – or indeed a changed game.
But every generation’s long driver has, in his own way, changed the sport by playing with power unimagined to generations past.
When Jack Nicklaus drove and wedged his way to a dominant 1965 Masters win, it prompted Bobby Jones to say: “Jack is playing an entirely different game and one which I'm not even familiar with.”
Something similar happened at the 1991 US PGA Championship when John Daly – with his oversized backswing and extraordinary talent – drove the ball noticeably further than all his rivals.
Then, in 1997, Tiger Woods then did to Augusta National what Nicklaus had done 32 years earlier.
In time, Nicklaus’ distance became the norm, as did Daly’s and then that of Woods.
This week we saw the next step, the latest “window into the future” because the freak in one generation becomes the norm in the next.
It’s as certain as never having to fix a pitch mark at Royal Melbourne or getting a perfect lie on Metropolitan’s fairways.
DeChambeau is seen by many as a ground-breaking force when, in truth, he is no different a force from Nicklaus, Daly or Woods before him.
He’s just the next inevitable step onward.
With the assistance of space-age technology, he and his contemporaries are driving the ball further than most ever imagined.
Not DeChambeau, though.
His body is bulked and strengthened by food and exercise. His swing is technically excellent, if not aesthetically as pleasing as Sam Snead, the longest player of his era. His understanding of how best to take advantage of his length is cemented in formula and data.
He understands that “sending” his driver as far as possible is statistically the best way to attack any golf course. Playing safe with 3-woods and long irons off tees is no guarantee of hitting US Open-width fairways, so why not take the driver and at least get the ball as close to the green as possible?
The numbers tell him it’s the way to play if the aim is to shoot the lowest score.
From afar – and everyone watched from afar this week – it’s impossible to tell just how well DeChambeau drove the ball.
The numbers tell us, shockingly, that he hit fewer than 50 per cent of fairways on a course –and championship – apparently arranged to reward straight driving and be the ultimate punishment for the wayward.
The championship is forever in forlorn search of players replicating the precision of Ben Hogan who, along with Jones and Nicklaus, is one of three four-time champions.
The reality is, though, that no player driving as far as the champion – who averaged in excess of 320 yards – can hope to hit the ridiculously slim slithers of fairways as narrow as 23 yards and rarely more than 30 yards wide.
By the end of the week, fewer than a dozen players had found more than 50 per cent of the fairways. If you put those same players on Royal Melbourne and had them hit the exact same shots, the majority of the field would hit the short grass northwards of 70 per cent from the tee. They would also hit wedges to every green, excepting the par-5s.
There is a subtle difference between straight driving and accurate driving; at Royal Melbourne, “straight driving” is not a prerequisite to play the course. The fairways are wide, but “accurate driving” to specific parts of them makes for easier approach shots.
DeChambeau is a smart, tactically aware player. He well understands the odds are that he will miss a bunch – 30 of them this week – of fairways. His key is to miss those “inevitable” ones on the side of the hole affording him the best chance to advance his ball near or on to the green.
Only once on Sunday – at the 14th hole – did he miss a green on the wrong side and he made the most miraculous of pars from a place from which no one had any right to do so.
The problem is, in this era when ball goes so far, is that those of great power can play the ball from the long grass with short enough irons to get them to the greens. It’s way easier to smash a 9-iron out of the rough than a 4-iron and this is why the game is now so out of balance.
The length of a golf course is now no defence against power. Augusta National in 1965 was no defence against the power of Nicklaus at his best; nor was it in 1997 when Woods wore his wedge out – even hitting it with his second shot to the par-5 15th green in one round.
Winged Foot’s defence was long grass, but so far was DeChambeau driving that he was more than effectively able to play the course from the rough.
The lengthened 505-yard par-4 17th was reduced to a 365-yard drive and a wedge by the winner and if anyone wants to put a middle iron – let alone a long iron – back in players hands, they must either move the tee back another 60m, or regulate the golf ball.
This is not the fault of golf course design. The answer is not to plant more trees, as some have suggested. Nor should architects be making more doglegs or moving all the bunkers. Nor should the game be played down increasingly narrow fairways lined with increasingly longer grass in an attempt to regulate the scores and then argue all is well because only one player broke par.
At the top level, the balance is so wildly out – and DeChambeau showed why this week. My guess is, despite his fairways hit statistic looking low, that he drove the ball very well because he consistently missed in the right places.
We can be sure of two things, though.
The first was that this was a dominant performance and his final round one to remember.
The second is teachers all over the world will be telling kids who watched on television and dream one day of winning a great championship that they had better learn to hit the ball 330 yards through the air, because there is nothing surer than that’s what the next generation will routinely be playing against.
Ultimately, though, watching DeChambeau with a driver in his hand is no more thrilling than watching Nicklaus, Daly, Woods or, indeed Bobby Jones, drive the ball.
DeChambeau's biggest influence on the game is not likely to be his driver; but his understanding of data, statistics, probabilities and how they relate to strategy and the best shot to play.
The key for architects is to work out how best to disrupt the data without resorting to trickery – because this week the winner showed trickery in the form of narrow fairways and long grass can be defeated by power.
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