PGA Tour becoming the land of driver-wedge

Pebble Beach winner Arron Oberholser might call the heavy California air he grew up in "the land of the 150-yard 7-iron," but the most indelible image of the West Coast swing was J.B. Holmes strafing 350-yard drives across the desert outside Phoenix.

It would be easy to say Holmes played a game with which we are not familiar, but the point is that it's getting more familiar all the time. Increasingly, the PGA Tour has become the land of driver-wedge.

Not just piping it and pinching it, but even spraying it and flaying it. The majority of players have decided that most weeks, a sand wedge from the rough beats an 8-iron from the fairway. What's different is that more than ever, "big ball" is the percentage play in which even long and wrong can be right.

The movement's founders are Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh who, it's safe to say, arrived at their conclusions independently. (Their forerunner was John Daly, but he made too many 11s to be a model.) Mickelson went overboard in 2001 when he came out talking about trying to birdie every hole and seemingly rebutted himself eventually by riding an educated cut to his first two major titles. But his current experimentation with a 47-inch driver shows where his heart always has been. Singh never has vacillated in letting the big dog eat.

With Hank Haney's encouragement, Tiger Woods has bought in. After falling behind in driving distance for several years, he was back to second place with a 316-yard average last year and didn't seem to mind that his driving accuracy came in at a career-low 54.6 percent.

"The best player always gets followed, but especially Tiger because you know he thinks everything out," says Geoff Ogilvy.

Like all drastic style changes in the history of the game, this one started with advances in equipment. Specifically, multilayered balls that go farther and curve less and 460cc clubheads that increase distance and mitigate misses (Holmes frighteningly claims the driver is his straightest club).

The new tools have emboldened players to attack from the tee, knowing that even if their ball does end up in the rough, their increased strength and the latest square grooves usually will allow them to get the wedge or short iron they have to hit to stay on the green. At the same time, firmer greens with increasingly remote pin positions have raised the incentive to make the approach shot as short as possible.

Statistics from ShotLink further tell the tale. Average PGA Tour driving distances keep going up, reaching 288.9 yards last year, when for the first time, more than a fifth of all measured drives (22 percent) traveled more than 300 yards.

Average driving accuracy keeps going down, reaching a low of 62.9 percent in 2005, with the numbers in the last two seasons representing the biggest single-year drop since the tour began keeping such stats in 1980.

And according to extensive information gathered from their caddies for the past two years, most tour players hit some kind of wedge to an average of at least four of the 10 par 4s on a par-72 course.

Don't mistake all this for mindless bombing. The best players know where they have room to miss and where power most easily translates into birdies. They also have the improvisational skills and short games to compensate for egregious tee-to-green mistakes. Woods in particular excels at this combination of brawn, brains and touch.

And the new game doesn't work as well for the tour's shorter hitters. Especially as the tour keeps lengthening courses to accommodate the distance increases, such players don't have wedges left when they hit it in the rough. Their mid-iron games still need plenty of short grass.

It's evident the decision to bomb is most problematic in majors, when the rough is higher and the greens more firm. But still monster-long Davis Love III said that during last year's U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, he got frustrated watching 7-iron approaches fail to hold greens and successfully switched to a long-ball strategy on the weekend to produce as many wedge approaches as possible.

"It's a lot like the way tennis players today really need to burn that serve," he mused. "Sure, [Roger] Federer has all the shots. But if he didn't have a big serve, he wouldn't be winning. In our game now, it's try to get it down there as far as you can, and if you have a good driving week, you should make a bunch of birdies. If you hit it in the rough, you might get by anyway. It all starts with hitting it long."

As the tour heads to Florida, and soon to the further-lengthened Augusta National, the analogy with a sport made less interesting by the proliferation of power should give pause.

Jaime Diaz is a senior writer for Golf World magazine