How far would golf's legends drive the ball using modern equipment?
In a fourball match at the 2016 Ryder Cup, 6-foot-5 Thomas Pieters belted a drive 324 yards. His ball was the shortest in the group. Rory McIlroy pounded a 383-yard tee shot on another hole. Drives exceeding 350 yards are seemingly routine for Dustin Johnson.
These days in pro golf, power is prevalent.
Today’s era benefits from lighter shafts, larger clubheads with springy faces and a solid core multi-layered golf ball. Players are bigger, stronger, more athletic, pay close attention to nutrition and hone their bodies in the gym.
Still, the question lingers, how far would golf’s legends hit the ball with today’s equipment? Grainy, black-and-white footage on YouTube, books, magazine articles and anecdotes provide a starting point.
First, let’s hear from a six-time major champion who starred in the 1970s.
“If we had (the new) golf ball in my day," Lee Trevino told USA Today in 2007, “The best of us would have hit it 300 yards and Jack Nicklaus would have hit it 360.”
It’s not a stretch to believe Trevino. Nicklaus cranked a 341-yard blast to win the PGA Championship’s long drive competition in 1963 with the “old ball.” When he was 18 years old, he and Arnold Palmer drove the green on a 330-yard par 4 at Athens (Ohio) CC, a story Nicklaus shared at Palmer’s memorial service.
Today, such drives are routine. According to shotlink data, there were 200 measured drives of 375 yards or longer during the 2015-16 PGA Tour season, including eight surpassing the 400-yard barrier.
Study the career of Fred Couples to grasp the impact technology has made on driving distance at the game’s highest level.
In 1982, Couples was a limberbacked 22-year-old with immense flexibility. He averaged 268.7 yards in driving distance, which was eighth on the PGA Tour.
In 2009, Couples was a 49-year-old with a decade-and-a-half battling serious back problems. He averaged 297.5 yards in driving distance, which was 24th on the PGA Tour.
His former World Cup partner, Davis Love III, led the PGA Tour in 1986 at age 22, averaging 285 yards per drive. Two decades later, he’d gained 13 yards. This year at age 52, Love was one of the eight golfers who had a 400-plus drive.
Technology made gradual progress for more than 60 years, according to Nicklaus. In the last 20 years, it exploded.
“Once we got into a wound golf ball and once we got into steel shafts, the game from basically the early 1930s until 1995 changed very little, and all the golf courses that were built needed very little adjustment to be able to handle any kind of a tournament," Nicklaus told USA Today in 2007.
Ben Hogan hit his driver 265 yards, according to an article in the June 10, 1949 issue of Time Magazine. Even 15 years later he still hit drives that distance in a Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf match against the equally long-hitting Sam Snead. Considering their length off the tee would’ve put them in the top 10 in 1980, it’s fair to assume they’d rank at least as high today.
Snead remained flexible and powerful into his 60s due to a daily yoga routine. With his size, strength and fluid golf swing, he’d challenge J.B. Holmes, who led the PGA Tour in driving distance in 2015-16 (314.5 yards).
As Nicklaus states, the ball has played a large role. Driving distances changed little over decades.
IBM recorded driving distance data at 11 PGA Tour events in 1968. The top 10 players averaged 270.2 yards, the average was 264.0 yards and Nicklaus led the Tour at 276.0 yards. Adding 35 yards for increased speed, hotter driver and better ball, Nicklaus would've averaged 311.0 last season.
When Tour pros put the Titleist Pro VI in play in late 2000, they automatically hit the ball 10-15 yards farther with each iron.
A recent study also sheds light on the subject.
Chad Campbell averaged 291 yards off the tee in 2009, ranking 70th on the PGA Tour. At the Byron Nelson Classic that year, he hit Titleist Balata 100 balls on the driving range with a persimmon driver supplied by noted golf author Curt Sampson, according to a blog post published at GolfDigest.com.
The results were startling.
His average drive with the Byron Nelson wooden driver went 247 yards. The ball carried 270 yards off his driver, which measured 45” and 230 off the relic, which measured 43”.
He swung the 150-gram steel shaft in the persimmon at 106 miles per hour. He swung the 75-gram graphite shaft in his driver at 113 miles per hour. A driver two inches longer and two ounces lighter enabled Campbell to generate more speed. According to golf club designer Tom Wishon in a post on GolfWRX.com, each mile-per-hour of clubhead speed equals 2.8 yards of carry. He wrote that advancements in golf equipment account for at best, 25 percent of the distance increase.
The average clubhead speed increased from 104 mph in 1980 to 113 in 2016. Andrew Loupe led the PGA Tour with 125.5 average clubhead speed. He recorded a top measured speed of 130.9 mph. In all, 14 pros averaged 120 mph or better.
Using high-speed film analysis, experts estimate legendary amateur Bobby Jones had a swing speed of 117 miles per hour in the 1930s - using hickory shafts. Only 27 players on the PGA Tour in 2015-16 had a faster average. It’s reasonable to assume Jones, who was one of the longer hitters of the day and the game’s greatest amateur, would have no trouble keeping up if given modern equipment.
While the distance a golf ball carries is important, Wishon also makes another key point. Fairways are mown at roughly ½ inch on the PGA Tour now, significantly lower than in the past, although courses benefit from extensive irrigation.
Brandt Snedeker, who is slightly shorter than average, played back-to-back rounds on the Sea Island Plantation course for an article that appeared in USA Today. He played one round with his clubs and the next with steel-shafted persimmon woods and irons and a balata ball from the mid-80s. With the driver, he observed a 25-30 yard difference on well-struck shots. The gap stretched to 50-60 yards on mishit shots.
Needless to say, Snedeker and his cohorts are glad they don’t have to play for a living with equipment from a previous era. And, the legends from the past would’ve loved to tee up their graphite/titanium beauty and swing away.