The Deeper Questions Behind Rory's Long Drives
Post by Golf Writer Kieran Clark
Rory McIlroy is an incredible player - likely the finest of his generation - with four major championship victories to date. Boasting an athletic and powerful golf swing that is the envy of the world, the 27-year-old Northern Irishman his the ball prodigious distances at key moments in a round, and has the ability to bring the longest and most challenging courses on the planet to their knees.
We saw evidence of that during the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, where the world number two made a vailiant charge for the title on Sunday, before a three-putt on the last ended his chances of a first victory in 2017. What most stood out about his performance was the eye-watering length of his tee shots.
On the difficult 15th, last year's FedEx Cup winner took on an aggressive line and challenged the corner with a drive totalling 371 yards, leaving him with just a flick onto the green. Following that up with a 363 yard effort on the par five 16th, the Ryder Cup hero was left with a mere 142 yards for his second. Admittedly, he had missed the fairway and was blocked by a tree, but he had effectively reduced one of the PGA Tour's best known venues into a drive and pitch course.
It once again raises the question of distance within the professional game, which has seemingly been underplayed by the R&A and USGA in their recent report on the subject. When top golfers can hit the ball this far - at sea level without the aid of noticable breeze - then issues are presented to us about the potential effect on the game itself.
Golf courses have been stretched beyond their limits - tees on the legendary Old Course at St. Andrews are literally outwith the boundaries - and Augusta National has been considering buying nearby property to once again extend their iconic layout, particularly the classic 13th, which was infamously reduced to a drive and wedge by two-time champion Bubba Watson.
20 years ago, Tiger Woods won the Masters by 12 shots on a course that measured 6,925 yards. Next month, it will play almost 500 yards longer, and that only looks like increasing in the future. Technology has continually progressed within golf, from the formative days of Old Tom Morris through to Harry Vardon and Bobby Jones in the early 20th century, and then from Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus in the 1950s and 60s, when the situation remained relatively stable until the Millennium. Since then, previously modest hitters can regularly hit drives over the 300 yard mark.
Progression is one thing, but sadly it has now dramatically outpaced the game itself. It's problematic for golf and the courses that we most revere, making the game explosive, yes, but ultimately less nuanced and interesting as a result. There are also ramifications for the best players, like McIlroy and Dustin Johnson, whose unique talents should provide them with a sizeable advantage over the pack from the tee.
However, modern technology has brought fields closer together, making it more difficult for the dominant talents to separate themselves. How much of the depth on tour is a result of fitness and improved techniques, or does the lion's share of the influence come down to the clubs and balls that are now available? Just ask Greg Norman, one of the game's most impressive drivers, who found his greatest advantage reduced when the wooden persimmon driver disappeared.
We still marvel at the remarkable and creative talents of the late great Seve Ballesteros, who could do just about everything with any club, but the advent of lofted wedges has allowed the rest to produce the short game magic that only he could previously achieve.
And what of Tiger Woods, who managed to achieve an extraordinary record *despite* technology bringing those lesser players closer to him after 2000. His distance off the tee and towering trajectory with longer irons became less important, as suddenly more players were able to do it. The fact he won 14 major championships is even more astonishing in that context.
It's harder now for a Norman, Woods, Ballesteros or McIlroy to dominate. The game no longer offers the freedom for a special and unique player to adequately separate himself from the rest. In that respect, golf is more democratic and competitive than ever before, and is yet somehow less compelling with these existential questions only becoming louder.
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