By Dan Reardon
An old British proverb reads “There are horses for courses and courses for horses.” On the PGA Tour, most stops are well suited to Clydesdales. Only a couple accommodate the ponies on the Tour.
Leading into last week’s RBC Heritage, I asked former Open Champion and CBS Sports analyst Ian Baker-Finch about one of those Clydesdales in the field on one of the season’s shortest courses. World #1 Jason Day has demonstrated in 2016 that his talents around the green allow him to capitalize on his amazing length off the tee. I wondered if Harbour Town’s demand on precision off the tee and around the small greens was a sort of ‘kryptonite,’ even for Day.
“I don’t think Jason relies so much on his length as much as it is a huge asset,” Baker-Finch said. “I don’t think it means he can’t win on a golf course like this. I just think he will use his three-wood and three-iron on a golf course like this.”
Whether the course, or a more likely hangover from the first major of the year, Day carded a 79 on Saturday and finished outside the top 25.
Over its 49-year history, the Heritage has had its share of champions who could impress with the driver. Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Davis Love III and Greg Norman all have a plaid jacket in a trunk or closet somewhere. But the list of more than 40 past champions is more heavily weighted to players of moderate length and tactical skills. Hale Irwin has a couple of wins, as does Payne Stewart, and neither are noted for their length.
Courses have been added to the Tour or modified for the “bomb and gouge” crowd that makes up men’s professional golf. A course like Harbour Town doesn’t take away from big hitters as much as level the playing field for the placement gang.
Leading into the 2016 edition, one could argue that the last 12 winners were players who had average length off the tee. Jim Furyk, absent this year because of surgery, has won twice in the time period, along with Boo Weekley, Brandt Snedeker and Matt Kuchar. Rounding out the roster are Graeme McDowell, Carl Peterson, Brian Gay, Aaron Baddeley, Peter Lonard and Stewart Cink. Davis Love, the 2003 champion, was the last real masher to win.
RBC Heritage’s final leaderboard this year offers even more evidence. South African Branden Grace ranks just outside the top third on Tour in driving distance at 57th (295.4). As he hoisted the trophy at Sea Pines, fans probably weren’t talking about the new champion’s prowess with the driver. When the Tour goes to Hilton Head, the most important drivers are on sailboat tillers in Calibogue Sound.
Digging even deeper into the stats shows the strongest evidence. Only one player in the top 15 — Jason Kokrak, who tied for sixth and ranks fourth on Tour in driving distance — can claim real length. Only one other player on the list — Kevin Chappell at 40th — cracks the top 100. The top five included Jeff Knox (134), Luke Donald (180), Kevin Na (183) and Bryce Molder (192). (Making his professional debut, Bryson DeChambeau was also in the top 5 but doesn’t have enough stats to justify a ranking.)
This week the Tour heads back to Texas for the Valero Texas Open, where the bombers will feel more comfortable on an AT&T Oaks course stretching over 7400 yards. The ‘little’ guys will have to wait patiently until the end of May, when Colonial Country Club levels the Tour playing field.
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 32 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.