If what the USGA tells us is true and the U.S. Open is the ultimate test to identify the best in the game, then hitting the ball long off the tee must not be that important. And bombing tee shots 300-plus yards could be more of a detriment than an asset when it comes to being the best you can be.
Just look at the numbers. None of the top finishers in this year’s Open were among the game’s longest hitters. In fact, the top 30 leaders in driving distance were nowhere to be found on Sunday.
Bubba Watson, the No.1 long-ball hitter, didn’t make the cut and said Olympic Club was "too hard" for him. Jamie Lovemark (No.2 in driving distance with an average tour tee shot of 309.1 yards) wasn’t even in the field at Olympic, while the tour’s third-longest bomber, Robert Garrigus, shot 72-77 and spent the weekend at home.
Of all the players who average more than 300 yards off the tee, only Jason Day made the cut. Long-ball aficionados like Gary Woodland, Jhonattan Vegas, Ryan Palmer and J.B. Holmes didn’t make the top 70 and ties after two days, or they missed qualifying for the field all together.
Dustin Johnson (top-10 in driving distance with an average tee shot of 303.7 yards) went home early, while Zach Johnson (154th in diving distance with an average tee shot of 280.4 yards) played the weekend and had a respectable 71 on Sunday.
Woodland, who averages 300.4 yards on his drives, was 11-over for the first two days in San Francisco, while David Toms, who hits it 275 and is ranked 173rd in driving distance, and Jason Dufner, who is 63rd in driving distance, just squeezing past the 290 mark, finished tied for fourth.
Of those who were in contention late into the back nine on Sunday, Webb Simpson ranks 112th in driving distance with an average tee shot of 285.8 yards, while Graeme McDowell sits at 145th in the bomber ranking. McDowell’s average poke is 281.9 – not short by amateur standards, but nowhere close to the towering tee shots that have come to exemplify the modern game.
Then there is Jim Furyk, the man who controlled his own destiny until the final three holes on Sunday. Furyk averages 277.7 yards per drive, a number that puts him 165th among his long-hitting peers.
"I go from spot to spot," Furyk said of his approach, not just to playing Olympic Club, but to the game in general. Granted it was a hooked tee shot that killed Furyk, but that had nothing to do with length. He was hitting a hybrid off the tee at the par-five 16th when he made his worst swing of the week.
Of course there will be those who argue that statistics are misleading – many players hit less than driver off the tee in an attempt to keep the ball in play while others take a more aggressive approach – and the U.S. Open is a unique animal, unlike any other golf tournament in the world and, thus, an outlier when it comes to statistical lessons that can be learned.
But that doesn’t explain the fact that Jason Dufner leads the FedEx Cup race with tee shots that no one on tour would call long. Zach Johnson, Matt Kutchar, Webb Simpson and Hunter Mahan are also near the top of the FedEx standings, and none of them are in the top 50 in driving distance. Of the top 10 contenders in the FedEx Cup, only Tiger Woods, Bubba Watson, and Rory McIlroy are on the first page of the driving-distance stat sheet.
If those facts don’t make the point clearly enough, look at the last two winners of the FedEx Cup. Bill Haas is the 83rd longest hitter on tour, while Furyk, who won in 2010, at his long-hitting best never cracked the top 100.
"The game has been sold as a distance game with the idea that the farther you hit it the better you’ll play," said PGA National Teacher of the Year, Mike Malaska. "That’s just not the case. You don’t have to hit it that far. Distance, in and of itself, does not make you a better player, even though hitting driver a long way is what the average amateur wants to learn to do."
The most important statistics, and the ones most amateurs never examine, are how close you hit it to the hole, and how well you putt once you get there. Tour leaders in sticking approach shots close are Dufner, Steve Stricker, Furyk, and Kutchar. Three of those four – Kutchar, Dufner, and Furyk – are in the top four in scoring average.
Granted there is no sex and sizzle to hitting 8-irons inside 20 feet, or making all your three footers, and there are certainly no club companies telling you to hit it shorter and straighter. But numbers don’t lie: especially those numbers you have to put in the little boxes on your scorecard.
"I have played in U.S. Opens, and I’ve played in a lot of corporate outings," Malaska said. "And with the corporate guys, I often play an entire round where I never hit any club longer than a 7-iron. When I do that, I always shoot somewhere between 73 and 80."
His point is the simplest one in the game:
"Never hitting it more than 150 yards and always being in the fairway is lot more important than trying to hit it 300 yards and being in the trees," Malaska said.
That is true whether you are playing your home course with buddies on Saturday, or teeing off in the final group on Sunday in the U.S. Open. The numbers prove it, even if we find it hard to accept.