2005: Newsmakers - NEC fuels distance debate

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Akron, Ohio

The topic of length has provided an ongoing hot-button discussion on the PGA Tour, and the WGC-NEC Invitational, played on the South Course at Firestone Country Club, provided further fodder. When Tiger Woods shot 4-under 66 in the opening round, he had nine drives that measured 300 or more yards; for the week, he hit 40 drives that exceeded 300 yards.

Eleven times during the tournament Woods claimed the longest drives measured on par 4s and 5s (a total of 56 holes over four rounds); on the other 45 holes, 19 other players were represented. Thomas Levet averaged 301.5 yards off the tee for the week – and ranked 50th out of the 72 players.

Stuart Appleby registered three drives on the downhill, 667-yard, par-5 16th hole that measured more than 400 yards, including a massive 427-yard drive in Saturday’s third round.

“Guys are flying it downwind 300 yards, and downwind you can get another 30 or 40 yards of run in these fairways,” Appleby said of the driving numbers at Firestone. “I’m only 10 or 15 yards longer than I was six years ago. And six years ago I was top 10, but I’m just run of the mill now.”

(Appleby ranks 20th on the PGA Tour in driving distance this season, averaging 299.2 yards.)

Woods, who slipped to ninth in distance a year ago but ranks second this season (315.2 yards, or 3.7 yards behind leader Scott Hend), has become reacquainted with the long ball in 2005 en route to winning five times.

At Firestone, he hit driver every chance he could, playing with renewed confidence that he can keep his ball in the fairway. On Sunday, when he missed two fairways late (at Nos. 16 and 18), he was far enough down to be able to recover from the trees unscathed.

“If you look at my days when I had some good years there, I was always hitting 2-irons off the tee and 3-woods, and trying to get the ball in play,” Woods said. “Now I know I can drive the ball. Look at how well I drove it this week. I hit some bad shots, yes, but they’re not like they used to be.”

Woods’ average driving distance on 12 of the 14 driving holes was longer than 300 yards, with his longest average, 368.8 yards, on the 16th. In all, he hit 29 of 56 fairways (52 percent), the same number he hit at the PGA.

“As far as I’m hitting it, and as many fairways as I’m hitting and as many balls that end up in the fairway and roll through, that was never the case before,” Woods said of his control with the driver.

“I’ve never had so much confidence to be able to pull out driver. I did it at Baltusrol (finishing fourth at the PGA), I did it here and I’ve done it at major championships – and that’s cool.”

Woods, who has switched from steel to a longer graphite shaft (45 inches) in his driver, as well as to a 460cc head, said he has been carrying the ball 20-25 yards farther in the air than just two years ago, when he was concerned about players driving balls by him and when devices were developed to determine if clubs were “hot.” But eventually Woods made the transition to the newer technology, and now he’s back to hitting it well past most players on a consistent basis.

On the season, Woods ranks 180th in driving accuracy (56.5 percent) but fifth in greens in regulation (70.7 percent). For all his prodigious driving at the NEC, Woods’ winning score (6-under 274) was the highest at Firestone since 1997, his first full season on Tour.

“I wasn’t using the ‘hot’ ball. I wasn’t using a longer driver with lighter shaft and bigger head. I did that (resisted the transition to newer technology) for close to almost 2-3 years,” Woods said. “Now that I’m swinging better and hitting the ball straighter with more fairways, now it’s perfect.”

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