News & Opinion

Distance quest comes up short on LPGA, and for good reason

LPGA rookie Bianca Pagdanganan of the Philippines
LPGA rookie Bianca Pagdanganan of the Philippines leads the women’s tour in driving distance, at 286.21 yards per drive, but don’t look for her to adopt a DeChambeau-like transformation any time soon.

Sure, those extra yards matter in the women’s game, but the power players don’t dominate as much as their male counterparts

At the recent KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, former world No. 1 Lydia Ko talked about using the COVID-19 break to work on her fitness and put on a little muscle.

But don’t think she was entering Bryson DeChambeau territory.

“I am a one-protein-shake-a-day person,” Ko said with a smile. 

While Ko, a major champion herself, said what DeChambeau did in winning last month’s U.S. Open was “pretty incredible,” she wasn’t quite sure whether his approach was one she’d be following, too.

In his total body transformation, DeChambeau has inspired many of his contemporaries to chase swing speed, but it hasn’t quite become what the women of the LPGA Tour are doing – yet, at least.

DeChambeau has seven top-10 finishes since June, when the PGA Tour returned from a three-month COVID-19 break, including two victories – one his first major. His feats prompted many of the game’s top players to begin taking to social media to post their “gains.”

Fitness and strength-building long have been part of the regimen for top golfers on the LPGA Tour, as well. A quick browse of the Instagram accounts for Lexi Thompson, Nelly Korda and Ko, who posts photos from the gym, yoga studio, and recently the tennis court and rock-climbing center, confirms it. But we’re unlikely to see any golfer on the LPGA Tour do the Bryson bulk-up.

“With females … just tightening the core and getting core strength is a huge deal for them,” said Leah Miller, an assistant professional at Interlachen Country Club in Winter Park, Fla. “I see a lot of ladies doing yoga and barre and building up that core strength to generate speed and get distance.”

Tristan Mullally, Golf Canada’s national women’s team head coach, says the women’s game is moving in the same direction as the men’s in terms of distance and speed. The average swing speed of an LPGA Tour member a decade ago is now the minimum expectation for one of Canada’s junior-team members, he said.  

Mullally expects the average swing speed on the LPGA Tour – it’s 94 mph, according to TrackMan data, compared with 114 on the PGA Tour – to exceed 100 mph in the next few years.

“Longer hitters in the female game have potentially more to gain than their male counterparts as rough and overall length play a bigger factor,” he said.

However, there is less of a bomb-and-gouge attitude on the LPGA Tour for now. And, Miller said, it doesn’t sound as if female golfers are keen to go the route taken by DeChambeau, who added 40 pounds of muscle, to build strength.  

“The females I teach are always wanting more distance …, but it’s hard to tell ladies to bulk up 20-40 pounds,” she said with a laugh.

South Korea’s Sei Young Kim, who put on a DeChambeau-like clinic at the KPMG Women’s PGA to win by five shots, averaged just 266 yards off the tee (that’s still a good 20 yards longer than a low-handicap male amateur, according to the USGA Distance Insights report). That put her near her season-long average of 266.83 yards, which ranks 13th in LPGA driving distance. It’s not short, relative to her colleagues, but it’s 20 yards shorter than tour leader Bianca Pagdanganan, a rookie from the Philippines, who averages 286.21 yards per drive.

Pagdanganan, who notched her first top 10 as a professional at the Women’s PGA, is one of only three LPGA members averaging more than 280 yards off the tee.

Pagdanganan said at the KPMG Women’s PGA that she has not tried to follow DeChambeau’s approach to gain distance.

“I kind of just rip it,” Pagdanganan told at Aronimink Golf Club near Philadelphia. “I try not to think about it too much. I just try to hit it hard.”

Though none of the three longest-driving women on the LPGA – Pagdanganan, Mexico’s Maria Fassi (282.12) and the Netherlands’ Anne van Dam (281.63) – has won on the LPGA Tour, hitting it farther than opponents always will be regarded as an asset in golf.

Three LPGA players rank among the top 10 in driving distance and also among the top 10 in the Rolex Rankings: Nelly Korda, Brooke Henderson and Lexi Thompson. That fact parallels the PGA Tour, on which three players ranked among the top 10 in driving distance and the Official World Golf Ranking: DeChambeau, Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson.

But there’s a big difference on the accuracy side.

Webb Simpson was the only golfer ranked in the top 20 on the PGA Tour in driving accuracy during the 2019-20 season and also in the top 10 in the world. On the LPGA Tour, three of the top 10 in the world – including No. 1 Jin Young Ko – count themselves among the top 10 in accuracy, as well.

“[Length] is an advantage out there, but it’s not all about distance,” Pagdanganan said. “You’ve got to have everything intact. There’s still a lot of things to work on.”

So, while DeChambeau attempts to change the men’s game with a physical transformation, the top women on the LPGA Tour are taking a more balanced approach to getting better. 

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