Well before the age of graphite shafts and Strokes Gained, Sam Snead said he “powdered them hard and into possible trouble because the percentage was with me. I’d rather play a wedge second shot out of rough than a 5-iron from the fairway.”
Snead, winner of 82 PGA TOUR titles, was chided for going against the book in an era that idolized the accuracy of Byron Nelson and the cunning of Ben Hogan, who once called course management 75% of the game.
The U.S. Open was golf’s biggest event back then, and Hogan used robotic ball-striking to win a record-tying four U.S. Opens. Add in his miraculous comeback from a head-on collision with a bus and it was easy to see why Hogan became a mythical hero.
In the following generation, Arnold Palmer mesmerized golf’s first television audiences with his swagger and aggressive play. His father, Deacon, famously told a young Arnie to, “Hit it hard, son.” Arnold took that advice to heart, proving to be an anti-hero to Hogan.
“If you can come off the ground swinging at it, and your head has remained perfectly still, then you’re not swinging too hard,” Palmer said in 1962. “Distance is everything in modern golf.”
He even intuited that a shorter-hitting competitor was giving up a stroke to Palmer on longer holes, thinking quantitatively about the importance of length decades before Mark Broadie’s groundbreaking stats were released. Like Palmer, Nicklaus was taught to swing hard first and acquire accuracy later.
“It’s a philosophy that I think Arnie would agree has contributed to both our successes,” Nicklaus wrote in ‘Golf My Way.’ “Because, believe me, whatever arguments those short knockers may throw at you, distance is a huge asset in golf.”
Still, its full value wasn’t yet apparent.
Nicklaus was known for a conservative approach to course management, often teeing off with a fairway-wood or 1-iron. Persimmon drivers and higher-spinning balls were more penalizing of mishits, as well. The U.S. Open’s position as the game’s pinnacle increased the emphasis on driving accuracy because of the USGA’s notorious course setups, which included thick rough. And a lack of statistics made it impossible to quantify players’ games (computers briefly came on the TOUR in the late 1960s but stayed just a couple seasons).
The PGA TOUR began its stats program in 1980, as Commissioner Deane Beman recognized the interest that statistics had added to baseball. A former TOUR player, Labron Harris Jr., headed the program. Harris, who had a master’s in statistics from Oklahoma State, was a former U.S. Amateur champion and son of the Cowboys’ golf coach. The promising career of the 6-foot-4 Harris was derailed, ironically, when he tried to reign in his driving distance in the name of accuracy. Byron Ferguson, a retired aeronautical engineer, drove about 40,000 miles per year to tabulate the stats at each TOUR event.
The names atop the standings in driving distance that first season didn’t leave players clamoring for extra yards and led to headlines like, “Long-ball prowess no lock on success.” Fuzzy Zoeller, who won the previous year’s Masters, finished third in that stat, though, while Tom Weiskopf and Nicklaus, who were in the latter stages of their successful careers, rounded out the top 10. The 1980 Player of the Year, Tom Watson, ranked 24th, just three yards behind Nicklaus.
Throughout the decade, the top 10 in driving distance was dotted with names like Greg Norman, Fred Couples, Davis Love III and Mark Calcavecchia. Norman, Couples and Love were also among the longest players in the 1990s, along with Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, David Duval, Singh and two-time major winner John Daly.
“Golf at the professional level has always been dominated by the longest, most effective, straightest driver,” said longtime NBC commentator Roger Maltbie, who won five times on TOUR in the 1970s and ‘80s. “That’s always been your best player. Everyone has always known what an advantage it is to possess that quality.
“The game of golf was thought about differently then, and how to play it effectively, and only in recent years has that changed. The fairway has lost much in importance to the players.”