News & Opinion

Drive for dough and putt for show on Tour

Keith Wilson, Waste Management Phoenix Open
Keith Mitchell (USA) on the 18th fairway during the final round of the Waste Management Phoenix Open, TPC Scottsdale, Scottsdale, Arisona, USA.

ORLANDO, Fla. – If you follow the PGA Tour and what it takes to win, Keith Mitchell's "no name" victory at the Honda Classic was no surprise.

Mitchell is the latest ultimate driving machine – oops, that's BMW's tagline – to reach the winner's circle in the past 15 months. Perhaps the most telling statistic to determine Tour success is strokes gained off-the-tee, which measures player performance off the tee on all par 4s and par 5s. Mitchell ranked No. 7 in the category in 2018 and stands No. 9 this season. He probably would have multiple victories if not for a balky putter: No. 205 in strokes gained putting.

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Keith Mitchell

Last year's top 10 in strokes gained off-the-tee featured these prominent names: Dustin Johnson (1), Jon Rahm (2), Gary Woodland (3), Bubba Watson (5), Rory McIlroy (6), Francesco Molinari (8) and Brooks Koepka (9). The only non-winner in the top 10 last season, other than Mitchell, was Luke List (4), who appears ripe for a maiden victory. This season's top 10? McIlroy has climbed to the top spot, and Cameron Champ (5), Jason Day (6) and Bryson DeChambeau (8) have joined this elite group.

To NBC's new lead golf analyst Paul Azinger, this reflects the biggest change in the way golf is played from his prime, when driving accuracy, greens in regulation and dead-eye putting propelled him to the PGA Tour’s player of the year in 1987.

"We used to go down the money list in the ’80s and ’90s, and most guys who were the longest hitters were losing their privileges," said Azinger, 59.

He's spot on. Look at the PGA Tour driving-distance leaders from 30 years ago and it's a who's who of "who's that?" Ed Humenik was the longest in 1989, at 280.9 yards. David Jackson (2), Bill Sander (T-4), Trevor Dodds (6), Doug Weaver (7) and Lon Hinkle (8) fit the bill for guys struggling to keep their cards. None of the four Tour winners in the top 10 – Duffy Waldorf (3), Kenny Perry (T-4), Jodie Mudd (9) and Phil Blackmar (10) – ever won a major.

"It's flipped," Azinger said. "Now the guys that hit it the farthest are the best players. It's made driving the ball so much more important than ever before. It's the foundation for good play."

Last year's driving-distance leader was McIlroy, at 319.7 yards. No. 4 Tony Finau, Johnson (6), Koepka (8) and Watson (9) also were Ryder Cuppers. Mitchell finished No. 10, at 312.6 yards.

During his pre-tournament news conference here Tuesday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Mitchell said he hit his growth spurt early and always was a little longer than the competition in his youth. He recalled that the last time he was at Bay Hill, he competed in an AJGA event at age 16 and played with a SoCal-kid named Patrick Cantlay.

"He didn't hit it anywhere," Mitchell said. "I think I was hitting my hybrid past his driver."

Cantlay ranked T-38 on Tour in driving distance last season, at 303.1 yards, and No. 10 in strokes gained off the tee, three spots behind Mitchell.

Count Charles Howell III among those who have witnessed the game change since he turned pro in 2000. He says length keeps getting more important every year.

"Every good player coming out of college can carry it over 300 yards, it seems like," he said. "It used to be important. Now it's imperative."

Said Hunter Mahan: "It's becoming like the 3-pointer in the NBA. You have to do it."

Azinger says that because the young guys can grip it and rip it, success on the Tour depends more on the wedge game than ever before.

"These guys hit it so far now," he said, "they're going to have 8-10 wedges into greens every single day for the rest of their life. That's a fact."

Johnson is the poster boy for improved wedge play. In 2016, he bought a TrackMan launch monitor, dialed in his distance, improved to No. 1 from 125 yards and in and won the U.S. Open. His prodigious length off the tee is a nightmare for course architects to try to defend.

“Doral, when we redid it in 2013, we were looking at 300-yard carries," Gil Hanse said of the former host of the WGC Cadillac Championship. "When Dustin won it in 2015, we had to start moving bunkers down to 324, 330.”

Length should be an advantage, but has it grown out of proportion to the other skills required to be a champion? Former U.S. Open winner Geoff Ogilvy argues that Tour setups encourage players to bomb and gouge.

"As long as you keep seeing golf courses that length is disproportionately advantageous, we're all going to go home, go on TrackMan and try and hit it as hard as we can," he said. "But if we played the 10th at Riviera 72 times and we did that every week, the longest drive of the year would be 260 because we'd all go work on our wedge play and our shaping and our short game and our putting. We only work on what we need to work on. Golf is just forcing everybody to hit it hard. It's that simple."

Mitchell says he was "decently long" in college at Georgia, but he picked up clubhead speed and a few more yards when he started focusing on his fitness after turning pro. On Sunday at the Honda, Mitchell was coming off bogey at PGA National’s No. 11 when his brute strength came in handy. At the par-4 12th, he pumped driver straight into the wind and covered the bunker 285 yards away.

"I was able to pick a good target and swing," he said. "That was where I started my run of the four birdies over the last seven holes."

Interestingly, Mitchell noted that his length gave him caution at the par-5 18th. Needing birdie to avoid a playoff with Rickie Fowler and Brooks Koepka, Mitchell considered hitting 3-wood – "for a millisecond," he said – because he was concerned that he might drive it through the fairway and bring water into play. But on second thought, he decided to rip driver and try to fly the bunker on the left, which he estimated was a cover of 310-325 yards. Hey, the wind was just off the right, he said.

"I knew if I smashed it and hit it great and with some adrenaline, I might be able to cover the right side of the bunker, and that way would have opened up the fairway," Mitchell said.

But he tugged it into the bunker. In that instance, Mitchell began to say, being able to drive it a country mile was almost a disadvantage. A disadvantage? He stopped and reconsidered.

"It's never a disadvantage," he said.

Not on the PGA Tour.

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf.com and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak