Big hitters try to make big impact on Tour Championship 

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Big hitters try to make big impact on Tour Championship 

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Justin Thomas takes the lumber to Conway Farms in last week's BMW Championship. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Brian Harman, the pugnacious Georgia Bulldog who will be starting among the earlier groups Thursday at the Tour Championship, is slight of build and correspondingly modest of length off the tee.

He regards that as no limitation at East Lake, or elsewhere.

“I never found it to be a disadvantage, so I don’t think that it is,” said Harman, 119th in driving distance on the PGA Tour (289.8 yard average).

“They all have fairways and greens. You make enough putts, you can play with anybody,” he said.

Dustin Johnson, an NBA two-guard in golfer’s clothes, puts his stature to considerable good use on the tee box, where he really should wear a bomber jacket as a part of his work ensemble. If only to accurately announce his intentions.

He’s No. 2 in Tour driving distance (314.7 yards), and – surprise, surprise – the guy who’s longer than Tolstoy thinks that’s a pretty darn helpful trait.   

“Distance is a big factor in the game of golf,” said the world’s No. 1 player. “If you look at the top 10 (in the rankings), every guy up there hits it far. There’s no short hitter among the top guys in the world.” All but one player among that group with enough measurable drives on Tour to be ranked are in the top 43 in driving distance, meaning they all average better than 300 yards.

Exhibit A Through Z for the many blessings of length came in the first event of FedEx Cup playoffs in New York, where Johnson dusted Jordan Spieth on the first extra hole. He humbled all in attendance by ripping the longest drive of the week – 341 yards – cutting the corner of the fairway over water and leaving himself just 94 yards to the pin. Playing in the tournament’s Slightly More Mortal Flight, Spieth took the only route he could, which left him back twice as far. Closer is better. Johnson won the tournament with a birdie.

And who is that one player among the world’s top 10 who doesn’t quite measure 300 yards on average? Spieth (at 295.6 yards).

Spieth is also the only player among the last 30 standing for this Tour Championship who has won the thing, along with the FedEx Cup. He has three quarters of a career Grand Slam at the under-ripe age of 24. So, we’ll waste no time lamenting the sweep of his ball flight or his clubhead speed. 

How length will play at East Lake is a slightly more pressing question here one year after the great course flip. In switching nines, the idea was to create a more frantic finish on a par-5 18th rather than the par-3 in the former configuration. And the new No. 16 has big teeth, too, a 500-plus-yard par-4 that requires a muscled-up drive. 

When asked about the need to drive like a long-haul trucker at East Lake, one former caddie who has looped the place dozens of times wouldn’t say it was an absolute requirement.

“You wouldn’t call it a bombers paradise. Anyone is capable of winning there,” said Jim “Bones” Mackay, Phil Mickelson’s guy until joining NBC this year. 

“If you have a good week off the tee – whether you hit it 280 or 320 – if you’re playing out of the fairway, you’re way, way ahead of the game. You can’t compete out there consistently playing from the rough.”   

It is worth noting, though, that the first champion here since the course flip happens to be the guy currently No. 1 in driving distance (Rory McIlroy, who didn’t make the final 30 this year).

In general, it’s safe to say that hitting it far – as long as one also is hitting it somewhere it can be found – is preferable to not gripping and ripping.  

Otherwise, why would everybody be trying to do it?

Spieth is the exception to the portrait of a new generation of player who prefers exceptionally long walks between shots. “All the younger guys coming out, they’re all long,” Johnson said. Players like rookie Jon Rahm (22nd in driving distance), U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka (seventh), the world’s third-ranked player Hideki Matsuyama (26th) and, of course, McIlroy, still two years removed from his 30th birthday. They’re all driving for show and dough.

Overall this season, there were 43 players who averaged more than 300 yards driving. There were 27 drives of 400-plus yards on the PGA Tour, mostly limited to a select few places where the topography and climate were helpful. But, still.

The most fascinating case is Justin Thomas, No. 2 in the FedEx Cup point standings but the No. 1 candidate for player of the year. The 24-year-old winner of five tournaments this year is listed at 5-foot-10, 145 pounds – taller but actually lighter than Harman. Given the build of a Dickens waif, he still hits it like a no-handicap stevedore. Thankfully Einstein never got a chance to meet Justin Thomas, because they guy simply defies all physics. 

So baffling is Thomas’ length off the tee that the Wall Street Journal this year went all scientific trying to explain it. Quoting from a Golf BioDynamics study of Thomas, it was found he rotates his pelvis 25 percent faster than the average PGA Tour pro (didn’t they say the same about Elvis).

His launch angle differs from most, the brains concluded, angled far more upward, creating more a more efficient flight. Or something like that.

From the Wall Street Journal account, for those who like their golf to sound like a doctoral thesis: “Thomas is getting around 2.6 yards of carry distance on his drives this season for every one mile per hour of club head speed, the second-most efficient ratio on Tour.”

Thankfully, for his part, Thomas can put it all in more gallery-friendly terms. “It definitely surprises everybody,” he told the Journal, referring to his length. “It surprises me, honestly. It doesn’t make sense.”

The kid who showed up at Alabama even 10 pounds lighter with a passionate aversion to the weight room was college golf’s player of the year and has become one of professional golf’s alpha wolves.

However it is managed, the big drive is all the rage.

From the fans’ viewpoint, what they’ll crave this weekend from their golf tournament is not so different from what they like in their football. It’s all the same, and can be condensed to two words: Go long.

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