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Big hitters are in driver's seat at PGA

WP: As golfers continue to hit it farther, courses get longer
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

It has come to this in golf's eternal struggle between the encroaching power of technology and the sustained integrity of some of the sport's most storied courses: When the 87th PGA Championship begins Thursday at Baltusrol Golf Club, the 156-man field will be confronted with sights never before seen at a major championship. A pair of 500-yard par-4s. A 650-yard par-5. A total distance of almost 7,400 yards for a par-70 course. Hit it long or perish.

But what if the added length is not enough? What if Tiger Woods and the rest of this week's field, with their gargantuan drivers and space-age golf balls, lay waste to grand old Baltusrol? How long before we see the first 700-yard hole, or the first 8,000-yard course? Where will it end?

"The short answer," said Jim Awtrey, the PGA of America's chief operating officer, "is whenever the players stop making the ball go so far forward, you'll see a stabilizing of the yardage -- or we just flat-out run out of [room]. And then we'll just have to accept the result."

Baltusrol, where Jack Nicklaus won two of his four U.S. Opens, presents an illustrative case-study in the changes the sport has undergone in recent years.

The last time the course hosted a major championship, the 1993 U.S. Open, Lee Janzen won with a score of 272, and the course measured 240 yards shorter than it does today. Janzen's driver had a club head that was about half the size of today's monsters, and his ball had a soft balata cover and traveled nowhere near as far as today's balls do.

"Now, we play solid, multi-construction, double-cover balls that go forever," said Janzen, shaking his head. "My driver head would be the size of today's 3-woods."

Paradoxically, by adding distance in an effort to counteract the game's longest hitters -- a group that is headed by Woods, the world's top-ranked player and the second-longest driver on tour this season -- golf's ruling bodies may actually be creating an atmosphere in which only those longest hitters have a chance to win, and in which a short hitter like Janzen probably has no chance.

"The longer you make it," Nicklaus said, "the more you make it a power game. . . . It's a totally different game than I played."

Said Woods: "It does eliminate a lot of the guys who can't hit the ball long and high. . . . I don't see why they won't continue making the golf courses longer, just because guys are going to continue to hit it farther, and it's just kind of the nature of the game until there's a speed limit on the faces and on the balls. We seem to every year find something a little bit faster and a little bit longer."

In 1993, John Daly led the PGA Tour in driving distance with an average of 288.9 yards. This year, Scott Hend is leading with an average drive of 318.3 yards, and 15 players are averaging 300 yards or more. Assuming that swings have not changed much over the years, that means technology has added almost 30 yards to the drives of the game's longest hitters in a little more than a decade.

That change has had a chilling effect on the game, leading clubs to spend millions of dollars to lengthen their courses in an effort to maintain the integrity of par.

Two months ago, Augusta National announced yet another renovation, with six holes being lengthened by a total of 155 yards, giving the course a total yardage of 7,445. Its green-jacketed members should count themselves as lucky, in that they have the luxury of extra real estate in which to expand. By contrast, Merion (Pa.) Golf Club, a historic course that has hosted four U.S. Opens and will host the U.S. Amateur later this month, has no such room, and thus has been determined obsolete in regards to hosting another professional major.

"It's no secret [that] the PGA [and] the USGA, we'd all like to have a championship at Merion," the PGA's Awtrey said. "It's a wonderful course. But it's difficult when you're looking at the yardage."

The only way to stop the trend, of course, is to restrict the technological advances, but that has proven to be a difficult task. The USGA, which sets the official rules of golf, long ago set limits on the spring-effect of golf clubs (restricting their coefficient of restitution, or COR), but until recently, the technology was not advanced enough to reach that limit.

"What is happening now is, not only can you get to the limit, but you can get to the limit and spread it out across the club face," said Larry Bischmann, director of North America for Mitsubishi Rayon shafts. "It all comes down to physics. The ball is leaving the club head at a certain velocity, at a certain angle, with a certain spin. And what's happened is, because of the face, that velocity is higher. And because of the ball, you can launch it at a higher angle with less spin."

Asked whether there are still technological advancements to be made -- in the design of the ball, club head or shaft -- to increase distance even more, Bischmann said, "I would say there are opportunities in all those places."

Nicklaus, among others, has proposed using special balls in tournament play that would carry less than normal ones, and the USGA recently asked manufacturers to produce some prototype balls -- with 15 to 25 percent less carry -- for a proposed study.

"Our view is, if you're concerned that the ball is going too far, and you feel the need to limit it, you really only need to limit it for the top professionals," said Larry Dorman, senior vice president of Callaway Golf, which supports the idea of a special tournament ball. "And then you can solve all of your problems about the great old courses being made obsolete."

Meantime, at Baltusrol this week, fans will marvel at the rocket-launch drives of the world's best players. They will exhort Woods and Daly, most likely in vain, to take a stab at trying to reach the par-5 17th hole, the 650-yarder, in two. And when the week is over, all will know which side -- technology or the course -- has won this round in the eternal battle.