News & Opinion

300 or bust: Power game reshapes Tour

DUBLIN, Ohio – When Kevin Na arrived at the first tee of the final round of the Charles Schwab Championship on Sunday, he looked at the illustrious names on the Wall of Champions at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, and focused on the spot just below that of Justin Rose, the 2018 winner.

"In my head, I engraved my name in it," Na said.

Then he made it official by shooting a 4-under 66 for a four-shot victory and his third career PGA Tour title. This is not meant to be another story on the power of positive thinking, but rather how power has changed the professional game at the highest level. Na always has been one of the shortest hitters on Tour, and he knows he has to pick his spots. Colonial, known as Hogan's Alley, has been stretched like a rubber band to 7,209 yards but still is a place where light-hitting ball-strikers such as Zach Johnson, David Toms and Kevin Kisner have prevailed. At Colonial, Na overcame his deficiencies off the tee by finishing first in strokes gained approach and second in strokes gained putting.

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Kevin Na, the winner of last week’s Charles Schwab Championship at Colonial, says there are only a handful of courses on the PGA Tour where the shortest hitters have a chance to win.

"You don't have to overpower this golf course," Na said after shooting 62 during Friday's second round. “There are seven, eight courses I feel like I can win, and some I feel like I can top 10 but I don't think I can win. There are some golf courses I show up, and if I finish 30th or better, that is a miracle. I'm not saying that I go show up to a golf course throwing my towel in. It's just reality."

Na is a realist. He said the statistics tell the story. Though he has gained 11 yards in driving distance since 2016, his average poke of 290.7 ranks only 123rd on Tour. He also ranks 151st in strokes gained off the tee (126th, in 2014, is his best ranking in the past decade). To illustrate his challenge, Na threw out a hypothetical (and somewhat exaggerated) scenario in which he plays at a two-shot disadvantage off the tee per round.

"That's eight shots that I’ve got to make eight more putts than [another competitor] in a tournament,” he said. “So sometimes stats just kind of speak for themselves.”

It begs the question: Does the PGA Tour have a problem when the world's No. 31-ranked player believes he can win only at seven or eight of the 46 official tournaments on the schedule? Na ticked off Riviera Country Club and Harbour Town as some of the other courses where short-knockers such as he can feast.

Muirfield Village, home to this week’s Memorial, is a place where Na lost a sudden-death playoff in 2014, but he missed the cut last year. The Jack Nicklaus design weighs in at 7,392 yards and continues to be tweaked by its owner, such as when he stretched No. 18 to 484 yards several years ago, after Robert Garrigus blasted a drive to within 76 yards of the hole.

"The next year he came back, he said, 'Hey, guess where I hit it this year? I hit it 66 yards from the hole,' " Nicklaus said. "I know a few other guys did it, too. I said, 'Robert, that's not how the hole is supposed to play.' I can play it the other way. Now he can't."

But holes can be stretched only so far, and length isn't always a deterrent. Most weeks, accuracy has become an afterthought. Vijay Singh turned this philosophy into an art form, winning nine times in 2004, while ranking No. 150 in driving accuracy. This season, four of the worst 14 in driving accuracy already have won tournaments: Max Homa, 192nd; J.B. Holmes, T-194; Cameron Champ, 199; and Phil Mickelson, 207. In comparison, only two of the top 25 in driving accuracy have reached the winner's circle: Matt Kuchar and Paul Casey.

"Can you imagine Ben Hogan playing golf and not having a care in the world about hitting the fairway?" former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman said in my book “Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force.” “He's rolling over in his grave."

The importance of driving has been magnified in recent years. Golf Channel's Brandel Chamblee ran the numbers and found that from 2004 to 2011, the average leader in strokes gained off the tee was plus-.876 per round. Since 2012, the average leader is 1.17 per round. PGA Tour Champions veteran Steve Flesch summed it up in a recent tweet: "The only reason guys hit 3 wood vs driver nowadays is because it goes a shorter distance. It's not because it may go straighter. Modern game is an all out assault on distance and figuring it out from there."

The Corey Pavins of the world are being left behind. At the recent PGA Championship, Justin Rose recounted how about five years ago he and his team came to the realization that to be one of the best players in the world, he had to fly the ball 300 yards in the air. They coined it Project 300.

"That seemed to be just a nice round number, obviously, but that was kind of I felt the metric that would kind of open up a few golf courses for me,” Rose said. “It would make a difference. And I guess the last few years, we've been able to achieve that through technique and through fitness and various other obvious factors."

The numbers support Rose's claim. He averaged 295 yards off the tee in 2014 and 288 a decade ago. As for this season? He's averaging 307.3, 17th on Tour, while ranking 170th in driving accuracy. Since Rose surpassed the 300-yard mark, he has won an Olympic gold medal, the FedEx Cup and its $10 million bonus and reached No. 1 in the world. Coincidence? I don't think so.

Danny Lee is undergoing his own version of Project 300. Through improved fitness and technique, he has found an extra 10 yards off the tee this season, improving from averaging 290.6 (148th) in 2017-18, to 300.9 (43rd) this season despite plummeting to 194th in driving accuracy.

"I'm not like Brooks Koepka long, but I can carry it about 290, 300 now," he said at the PGA. "I'm really happy with my distance at the moment."

With the penalty for errant drives diminished, Lee should find that his distance gain will enhance his chances of notching his first win since the 2015 Greenbrier Classic. To Na's point that there are a limited number of events that he can win, Rose noted that Bethpage Black, site of the PGA, favored the bomber.

"This is the kind of golf course where maybe you're looking at the field not necessarily as 156 but maybe looking at 30, 40 guys that maybe can win this tournament based on the length, and I think driving the golf ball and distance will be a really big advantage this week," he said before Koepka manhandled the layout.

Among the cut casualties at Bethpage was Na, who called it a course where he had "zero chance" of winning.

"I don't play those unless it's a major and I’ve got no choice," Na said.

He didn't want to call out specific courses that he avoids, but consider Torrey Pines, another big ballpark where Na hasn't played since missing the cut in 2011 among the unmentionables.

It makes for a sad state of affairs. Golf used to have a wonderful blend of distance and direction, short and long games, finesse and strength. Wouldn't golf be more enjoyable to watch if shot-making still mattered?

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