By: Dave Hill WGCA contributing writer
Tiger Woods averaged 342 yards off the tee at the 1996 Masters, his second year playing the event. We all know how the story went in 1997 with his dominating 12-stroke margin of victory. Pictured below were his tools of the trade. What is remarkably noticeable are the two steel-shafted small-headed woods. His driver was 43 5/8 inches in length, with which he once again dominated the field in driving distance with a 324-yard average for the tournament.
On holes 13 and 15, both reachable par-5s for most (but not all), Tiger had no more than a 7-iron in his hands for his second shot throughout the tournament. The ’97 Masters prompted both Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus to state Tiger would go on to win more Masters than the two of them combined. Coming from them, we believed it. “Tiger-proofing” Augusta National was now the modus operandi.
As Augusta National reworked the length of its layout to prevent his assault on the record books, it appeared to be working; however, true to form, Tiger always found a way to win as he did so in 2001 and in 2002. Although he never slowed down winning majors through 2006 with his last victory coming in 2008, his only victory at Augusta since his 2002 victory 14 years ago was in 2005.
So what happened? This is certainly a far cry from the predictions from two of golf’s greats. Was it the lengthening of the course? I believe not. Was it his competition who stepped up? Not in my opinion. Was it the equipment changes that helped golfers gain yardage overnight once a better understanding of ball speed, launch and spin conditions came about? Yes, I believe to some degree, but not for obvious reasons.
The changes in equipment may have helped other players catch up to Tiger in terms of his dominance over them due to his length advantage. He may not have always been the longest on tour, but he was definitely in the top five prior to the high-tech-driver equipment era. Not only was he long, but fairly accurate, as he always led the tour in overall driving. The new equipment didn’t particularly aid Tiger in developing extra length, and if anything, it was probably a detriment with longer and lighter shafts and overall club weight.
Tiger always treated the game as an athletic endeavor for which he trained physically. The advances in driver/ball technology definitely hurt Tiger against the field as it adversely affected his athletic prowess advantage, and hence affected the psychological advantage he had over the field. He may have still been able to hit the par-5s with short- and mid-irons, but now more of the field could, as well, accompanied by shorter hitters giving the par-5s a go when in the past this was not an option.
The other caveat to the longer-shafted driver was a loss of accuracy for Tiger. Yes, he was Houdini with his ability and creativity in escaping precarious situations, but these were situations he found himself in less often early on his career. With the field catching up, Tiger knew he could always outwork everyone and he did, particularly in the gym. We witnessed his body change. His sinewy build became thick like that of a linebacker. Is it possible the advances in equipment were a catalyst for Tiger believing he needed to work harder in the gym in order to regain his length advantage? With the build of a superhero, was it his way of creating a physical and psychological advantage over his competitors? He was not the first to embrace fitness in golf, but it’s one of the main legacies Tiger brought to the game. However, did he overdo it?
Looking back, we can say he lost some of his natural speed due to his thickly-muscled frame. The stats don’t lie, however. Was it truly his fault or the fault of the advances in research and development within the equipment arena? The high-tech world of golf gear today has made the game easier for most; however, it may have compromised the opportunity for us to witness the best career in the history of the game.