With Tiger Woods restored to his familiar place among golf’s major winners, it’s tempting to allow the sports nostalgia to seep in. Tiger’s back! It’s just like the 1990s again! But as is the case in every sport, the game that Woods played 20 years ago is very different from today’s version and, if anything, makes his win at the Masters last month all the more impressive.
Perhaps the biggest difference involves the sheer power of modern hitters. In 1995, Woods’s last season before turning pro, the average qualified PGA Tour golfer hit the ball 263.6 yards per drive; the leader, John Daly, checked in at 289.0 yards per drive. So far this season, the average is 292.9 yards per drive, and tour leader Cameron Champ checks in at 315.7. That’s right — the average drive distance from 2019 would have led the PGA Tour each season through 1996. Woods’s mark in 19971 of 294.8 ranked second only to Daly’s 302.0. A 294.8-yard average today would rank just 86th of the 214 golfers on tour — tied with the slumping former World No. 1 Jordan Spieth.
What once was a massive distance advantage that Woods used to rack up a -13 score relative to par on par-5s at the 1997 Masters is now nothing special. These days, just about everyone hits it like Tiger — if not better.
So what happened? For one thing, pro golfers took Woods’s lead and became much stronger and more athletic. Although Daly was a freak of nature — he never worked out and bombed drives while chain-smoking and pounding Diet Cokes — today’s top players have a lot more in common with current World No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who stands a lean 6-foot-4, hits the ball 305 yards per drive and proudly posts shirtless Instagram photos. As we’ve written before, Woods’s current pursuit of majors has been made more difficult by an influx of younger athletes to the game that he himself helped inspire. And a big part of that younger generation’s success is linked to hitting the ball really far.
But another, even bigger factor is a drastic improvement in equipment over the years. Before the 1990s, driver clubheads were significantly smaller, made of heavy material like persimmon (instead of metal) and attached to the ends of shorter, heavier metal shafts (as opposed to graphite). As more and more players began switching to modern clubs — the last major won with a persimmon driver was Bernhard Langer’s victory at the 1993 Masters — the tour began to see a massive increase in driving distance (and, interestingly enough, a decrease in driving accuracy). More than just the introduction of fitter players, established golfers were also hitting the ball harder: The 60 players who qualified for the PGA Tour driving leaderboard in both 1995 and 2005 saw an average increase of 18.6 yards per drive over that span.
Simply put, lighter clubs with a longer shaft and larger clubhead surface area generate more power. As a fun exercise last year, YouTuber and PGA club pro Rick Shiels hit 10 drives with both a top-of-the-line club from about 20 years ago (the Ping TiSi Tec) and 2018 (the Ping G400 Max) and measured the results using tracking analytics. On average, Shiels estimated to have hit the ball 16 yards farther in the air (and 19 yards farther in total) with the modern driver, thanks in part to a ball velocity 4 mph faster off the clubhead:
Of course, the ball itself has also made it easier to drive for huge distances. The introduction of Titleist’s Pro V1 model in 2000 — which features a “multilayer” design with a solid rubber core and thin polymer casing — instantly revolutionized the way balls were manufactured, optimizing power without sacrificing accuracy. When Shiels ran a similar test between 1998 and 2018 golf balls (using the same club for each), he drove the ball 11 yards farther through the air — and 12 yards farther in total — with the current Pro V1, thanks again to a nearly 3 mph boost in velocity off the face.
These clear technological improvements have led to questions over whether such advantages should be dialed back at the pro level to make the game harder again. Although the golf ball debate rages on, many top-tier courses have been remade since the ’90s, “Tiger-proofing” themselves by adding more distance to their layouts. Par-72 major championship courses in the 1990s averaged 7,006.1 yards in total length; by the 2000s, that average became 7,319.3 yards, and this decade it’s 7,456.6 yards — a 6.4 percent increase that mirrors the change in average driving distance since the early 2000s.
And just like the existing players increased their power through technology, existing major hosts have added length to offset it. Sixteen courses hosted a major in both the 1990s and 2010s; those courses averaged 7,011.6 yards back then and 7,307.9 yards now — an increase of 296.3 yards on average. Even the Black Course at Bethpage State Park in Long Island, which hosts this weekend’s PGA Championship, has increased its length by 222 yards since it hosted Woods’s U.S. Open victory back in 2002.
We should note that both the boom in driving distances and the Tiger-proofing craze have largely leveled off since the mid-2000s. The average PGA Tour drive continues to creep up by a couple of yards every few years, but today’s long-drive leaders, such as Champ, Johnson and Rory McIlroy, are mostly hitting it the same distance as Bubba Watson and Robert Garrigus were a decade earlier. In that sense, the game Woods left when his 11-year major drought began in 2008 was actually similar to the one he climbed to the top of again last month.
Just the same, when Tiger tees off Thursday at Bethpage in the PGA Championship, the modern sport’s power will be on full display. Woods might still smash it a solid 300 off the tee like he did in the late ’90s, but he won’t be vying for the tour lead in distance; instead, that part of his game makes him just another golfer in the middle of the pack.
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