Before he won the 2018 Sanderson Farm Classic or even secured his 2017-18 PGA Tour card after winning the Web.com Tour’s Utah Championship in July, there already were stories swirling around practice areas on the PGA Tour about Cameron Champ’s ability to hit a golf ball ridiculously far.
Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas just laughed when they saw Champ, who had just turned 21, hit his driver on the range at the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills and create 199 mph of ball speed. People gossiped on the range last season that Ping had to build a higher net in the testing area at its Phoenix headquarters because the guy leading the Web.com Tour in driving distance was sailing it over the old one and into nearby businesses. (That one wasn’t true.) Listed at 6-feet and 175 pounds, Champ finished first in driving distance last season on the Web.com Tour with an average of 343.1 yards.
In 2012, John Wood, who used to caddy on Tour for Ping staffer Hunter Mahan and now is on Matt Kuchar’s bag, told Ping reps about Champ, who is from Wood’s hometown of Sacramento, Calif. Christian Pena, Ping’s PGA Tour manager, said Champ made his first visit to Ping’s headquarters when he was 15 or 16, and he already had swing speed, ball speed and distance numbers that rivaled Bubba Watson’s. Pena has never worked with a player who generates this much distance.
“I’ve seen the long-drive guys but never actually worked with them,” he said. “Cameron is a guy that plays for a living. He’s the fastest.”
After Champ’s Ping G400 Max driver broke before the start of the final round of the Sanderson Farm Classic, Pena and Champ worked on the range at TPC Summerlin the following week to build the Californian a new driver. Pena said Champ’s swing speed reached 130 mph, and he was in the range of 127-129 mph regularly. His ball speeds averaged around 194 mph. (Noted power player Dustin Johnson, for comparison, averaged 121.38 mph in clubhead speed on Tour last season for an average distance of 314 yards.)
At the same time, Pena does not do anything out of the ordinary when trying to fit Champ into Ping’s clubs. For big hitters, the idea is to minimize dispersion and create the ideal combination of launch angle and spin rate.
“We love to put our bigger hitters into the G400 Max because it is the most forgiving,” Pena said. “You can hit it a little off the middle, and the numbers are very similar to center hits. He got into it when he was on the Web.com Tour. But he does not like a shaft that is boardie (too stiff). He has gravitated to low-lofted drivers with shafts that have a little more feel.”
Most shafts that can stand up to the torque and stress Champ creates feel extremely firm, so finding one that feels good but performs properly can be challenging.
“Most of the X-flex and TX- flex (which stands for Tour X) are low-launch and low-spin, so that’s where we start, but Cameron likes a little more kick,” Pena said. “He wants to feel it bend at the top and then come down and whip through.”
On Monday before the Shiners Hospitals for Children Open, Pena built Champ a new gamer driver using the same components as in the driver that broke. However, Champ said he wanted to make the same swing but launch the ball slightly higher. To do that, Pena would need to add loft, which would also increase spin and reduce distance. Instead, Pena made some drivers with counterbalanced shafts that allowed him to make Champ a head with a heaver back weight. That increased the dynamic loft at impact.
Champ’s typical drive had been launching at 7 degrees with about 2,700 rpm of backspin, creating a carry distance of about 325 yards. Using the new shaft in his G400 Max, a prototype Accra TZT 265 M5, he started hitting the ball even farther.
“The first he hit launched at 9 degrees, carried 15 yards farther and the ball speed was almost 198 mph,” Pena said, laughing. “We looked at each other and said to ourselves, ‘What the heck did we just do?’”
Champ wound up tied for 28th at the Shiners Hospitals for Children Open, but he led the field in strokes gained off the tee (7.6) and driving distance (353.2 yards).
Champ’s power and distance are going to be a closely watched storyline throughout the PGA Tour season, especially when the USGA and R&A release their annual distance report, which is expected in early March. With every distance record in danger, the Cameron Champ show is just getting started.