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Driving Ahead Of The Game
I could have done without the 40 or so unsolicited e-mails that appeared as a result of last week's column. The weather here in St Andrews has been great for golf and nothing lifts the game like an early spring morning.

But I did dutifully respond to all except those who disagreed with my contention that, in the absence of any apparent constraints being placed upon the aerodynamics and physical properties of the golf ball, the great game is being changed irrevocably.

Most interest was generated from the data that I presented from the long driving contest that was held here in St Andrews at the first professional tournament on the New Course. This showed that in 1895 a 200-yard drive, in benign conditions in summer, was considered prodigious driving.

I think that I was right in claiming this to be the first long driving contest, but a gent from Kent was quick to point out that it was not the first time that driving distances had been measured. Some two years earlier measurements were made at Sandwich during the course of a contest round between John Ball, the amateur from Hoylake, and the redoubtable Douglas Rolland from Earlesferry or anywhere else that he could hang his hat. The results of their drives with gutta balls and bulger drivers were published in 'Golf' on May 20th 1892.

'No little trouble' was apparently taken to measure their drives on six holes chosen to negate the effects of wind and terrain. Condensing their results, Balls' average drive was 206 yards while Rolland the mighty managed to average 213. The spread was from 175 to 242 yards. On the previous evening, Dougie Rolland and Hugh Kirkaldy had drives of 270 yards as paced out on the 18th with a following breeze.

The next sets of figures that have been sent to me concern a 'test of driving' made at Woodcote Park, Epsom, in 1919. James Braid (pictured) George Duncan and Sandy Herd participated, playing over five fairways chosen to provide a variety of wind and slope. They did it both in the morning and afternoon and they were of course using the rubber-cored Haskell ball.

Braid averaged 235 yards, Duncan 239 and Herd 227. Clearly this reflects an increase of about 20 yards over Ball and Rolland and what Braid could manage over the New Course at St Andrews some 20 years earlier with the gutta ball.

Over the next five years it would appear that another 20 yards was added to the drive. At the Open at Troon in 1923 all of the best amateurs and professionals entered a driving competition which was won by Roger Wethered with a drive of 278 yards. The average drive was 255 yards and the spread from 247 to 278 yards.

The advent of the steel shaft did not bring about any more length off the tee than time itself had accrued over the first 30 years of the 20th century. Eric Brown and Harry Weetman were considered long when compared to their contemporaries and American counterparts yet their best recorded drives are not significantly different from Wethered's.

But although the 18th on the Old was being driven with routine annual frequency - most famously when Nicklaus dramatically peeled off his jersey in 1970 - neither driving distance nor total aggregate winning score was changing significantly.

Bobby Jones won on the Old with a total of 285 in 1927 and Nicklaus won in 1970 with a total of 283 - albeit over a suitably track suitably lengthened after Tony Lema's win in 1964. Lengthening seemed to be keeping apace with driving distance and there was general optimism that it had all gone as far as it could go.

That all changed when Tom Watson took the Claret Jug at Muirfield in 1980 and we heard the first rumbling calls for greater legislative control of clubs and balls.

Lengths off the tee and winning aggregate score have been inversely and linearly related since the 19th turned into the 20th century. At the start of the 21st century, however, the rate of change has been dramatic. Now, 300-yard drives are commonplace and 350-yards unremarkable. The number of genuine par five holes on championship courses is diminishing fast and those being built are stretched to safari-going lengths.

The best figures available for recent months come from the Johnnie Walker Classic at the Kerrinyap course in Australia where Ernie Els won after two rounds with back nine scores of 29 -which Jack Newton rightly described as monstrous.

Els' drives averaged 314 yards. That is the average of all of his par four and par five holes and not simply those in which he played a driver off the tee. His longest drive was recorded at 376 yards. Ernie was using his new Titleist driver with the new ProV1x ball, a ball over which Faldo has expressed amazement that it has passed the R&A and USGA testing procedures.

At the start of the year Els himself was staggered by the technology at his disposal.

After having struck with a TaylorMade to great effect, Els switched to a new Titleist driver last December. With this weapon safely in his bag he then took delivery of the ProV1x ball. The two in tandem, he reckoned, gave him an extra 25 to 30 yards: what was more important, however, was that he could hit it straight more frequently.

No one should forget that Els, like the great and the good, announced only a year ago that technology had taken club and ball as far as it could go. But this sentiment has been repeated as generally held at significant intervals for over a century and what it tells us is that we can be absolutely sure that the only limitation on how far a golf ball can be made to fly is concerned with mn's inventiveness.

©    17 - MARCH 2003

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