News & Opinion

Rookie Champ gives golf a new yardstick

The future of golf is here.

His name is Cameron Champ. He averaged 343 yards per drive last season on the Web.com Tour, which I believe is terrible misuse of the word “averaged.”

Champ now competes on the PGA Tour, and he is going to obliterate every driving-distance record that the Tour has on the books. Remember how you oohed and aahed about Rory McIlroy leading the tour in driving distance last year at 319 yards per blast? Champ typically hit it 24 yards past McIlroy, or about the length of a good-sized convenience store.

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Cameron Champ

You will not escape noticing Champ, despite his nondescript 6-foot, 175-pound physique. Distance-wise, he’s the love-child of Happy Gilmore and a young John Daly. Say it again for effect: 343 yards. A Texas A&M University alumnus, Champ has game. He won on the Web.com Tour last season, finished top six on that tour’s money list to graduate to the big tour … and, oh, yeah: He won the Sanderson Farms Championship on Sunday in Jackson, Miss. (Champ’s swing).

The future of golf has arrived, and it is Champ and all of the other young, big hitters like him. They are the answer to the question of why it mattered that the U.S. Golf Association and the R&A got it wrong throughout the past two decades when golf’s governing bodies repeatedly assured us that the ball did not need to be reined in and that distance gains were under control. Those birds have come home to roost.

Pick your jaw up off the floor. Wait, others like him? Yes, actually. Wall Street isn’t the only place where inflation is a growing problem. The same goes for golf, where distance numbers keep inflating.

Last season, Web.com Tour players averaged 304.9 yards per drive, about 8 yards longer than PGA Tour players. 101 Web.comers averaged 300-plus yards; only 61 PGA Tour players did. While McIlroy led the show at just under 320 a pop, 10 Web.com players averaged 320 or higher, including Brandon Matthews, who finished at 333.7, still a full 10 steps behind Champ.

I’ve seen three distance evolutions on the PGA Tour. The first was Daly when he came out of nowhere, which we now call Arkansas, to win the 1991 PGA Championship with an assortment of unimagined power and deft short-game play.

The second was Tiger Woods when he won the 1997 Masters by 12 strokes, was 25 yards longer than the next-longest player in driving stats that week, Scott McCarron, and made Augusta National look like an executive course, hence Tiger-proofing.

The third came a few years later when a fitness mania, inspired by having to go up against Woods led most Tour players to the weight room to catch up, came together with a revolutionary golf ball known as the Titleist Pro V1.

Champ and the others chasing him are the tip of the Fourth Wave. It seems like a prophecy fulfilled to me. I had a conversation with CBS golf analyst Gary McCord about a decade ago when I was reporting a story on sensational World Long Drive champ Jamie Sadlowski. I’ll paraphrase McCord, who lives to shock with his comments. He said it was just a matter of time before some long-drive star, possibly Sadlowski, got onto the Tour and started hitting 400-yard drives. McCord expected to see it happen in the near future. His quotes were outlandish then. Not now. Not when we’ve become inured to 350-yard drives from all sorts of players, from big athletes such as Dustin Johnson to smaller players such as McIlroy, who is 5 feet 10 inches, and Rickie Fowler, who is 5-9. McCord once again was ahead of his time.

The difference with this distance revolution is that we could see it coming. Daly came out of left field and hit it so far and so high that for years, the gallery standing behind me on the tee box would react at first with a gasp and then, after a pause, with laughter. Because anyone hitting a ball that high and that far was impossible. The same was true of Woods. He was a quantum leap for golf.

But Champ has been mashing the ball since high school golf in Sacramento, Calif. Did you spot him as a 22-year-old amateur at the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills? He was a contender after two rounds and led the field in driving distance at that point with an eye-opening average of 339.2 yards. He tied for 32nd in the Open and played on the U.S. Walker Cup team that fall.

Ernie Els played a practice round with Champ at Erin Hills and marveled about how far Champ could hit it. Els noted, with appropriate awe, that he was one of the Tour’s big hitters once upon a time when he smashed it out there past 290. “All of these youngsters are swinging at 120 miles an hour,” Els said. Nope. Champ’s clubhead speed is 130.

What this means is that Champ is going to have a brand identity as pro golf’s biggest hitter if he does anything at all on the course. And that doesn’t appear to be in question based on some of the tales of the tape he left behind at the Country Club of Jackson last weekend. He belted a 347-yard drive on the opening round’s 18th hole in windy, chilly and wet-with-hardly-any-roll conditions. The next day, he poked one 360. For the week, 39 of his 56 tee shots topped 300 yards, and he averaged 334.1. Maybe that’s why Champ, who has played all of two events as a PGA Tour member, already is on the cover of Golf Digest’s November issue.

George Allen, the legendary late pro football coach, wound understand. His most memorable line? “The future is now.”

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle