The longest hitters on the PGA TOUR discuss their craft, when they first knew they could go deep and how it leads to success
February 27, 2019
By Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM
The longest hitters on the PGA TOUR discuss their craft, when they first knew they could go deep and how it leads to success
Blasting a tee ball well past the 300-yard marker on the range? Yeah, most of us can’t sniff that distance. Consequently, we’re in awe when the most powerful pros do it with such regularity – and usually with accuracy – in the heat of competition.
The benefits are as huge as the drives. Brooks Koepka, one of the favorites entering this week's The Honda Classic, claimed last season’s PGA TOUR Player of the Year award thanks in part to his ability to overpower golf courses. Rookie sensation Cameron Champ, already a winner this season, may be taking power to a new level. Rory McIlroy’s won a FedExCup; Dustin Johnson, Sunday's winner in Mexico City, has spent more than 80 cumulative weeks since 2017 as world No. 1.
Admit it -- we all dig the long ball in golf. We also like talking about the long ball. And who better to discuss it than players who actually send those tee shots into orbit?
We recently asked some of the TOUR’s most prolific bombers to weigh in on a variety of long-ball topics. “Did you talk to Cameron?” asked Luke List, who knows a thing or two about long-distance drives. “He’s in a class of his own.”
Yes, Luke, we did talk to Cameron. In fact, here’s the lineup for our not-exactly-roundtable discussion (the interviews were conducted individually) along with a quick look at their power credentials:
CAMERON CHAMP – Currently tied for third in driving distance average (316.3 yards) in his rookie season. Longest career drive on TOUR: 409 yards at Plantation Course in Kapalua last month.
TONY FINAU – Ranked top 10 in driving distance each of his first four seasons. Longest career drive on TOUR: 414 yards at Firestone in 2018.
DUSTIN JOHNSON – Ranked inside top-5 in driving distance in first 10 seasons on TOUR. Longest career drive on TOUR: 463 yards at TPC Boston in 2011.
EQUIPMENT INSIDER: Why Dustin constantly switches drivers
BROOKS KOEPKA – Ranked top-10 in four of his five seasons. Longest career drive on TOUR: 420 yards at Firestone in 2017.
RORY McILROY – Driving distance leader in the previous two seasons. Longest career drive on TOUR: 452 yards at Trump National Dural in 2013.
BUBBA WATSON – Four-time driving distance leader. Longest career drive on TOUR: 442 yards at Firestone in 2012.
GARY WOODLAND – Ranked top-10 in driving distance six times. Longest career drive on TOUR: 450 yards at Plantation course in Kapalua in 2012.
Most of the players realized at an early age that they had the unique gift of outdriving opponents.
FINAU: “As a junior, I was always longer than everybody I played with, but you never know how long you are until you start playing against men, adults. When I was 14, 15, and I noticed I was still hitting it further than the competition that was a lot older than me, guys who were in their 20s, in college and stuff, that’s when I knew I was long.”
KOEPKA: “I always had speed ever since I've been little, 12, 13. I knew I was a long hitter.”
WATSON: “As a junior, you just start hitting past everybody and you just saw it. I've never tried to hit past everybody; it's just what happens.”
JOHNSON: “As long as I can remember, I knew I hit it far. I never thought I was really long. I still don't feel like I'm really long. I just hit it like I hit it. As a kid playing in tournament and high school golf and amateur golf, I was always one of the longer guys, but for me, it was just normal.”
CHAMP: “10 to 12 years old, in that range is kind of when I first noticed. Obviously, it was nicer being further up as a kid.”
WATSON: “My dad just said, hit it hard as you can. And so that's just what I've always done.”
FINAU: “My dad taught us from the green back, chipping and putting -- we learned how to do that before anything else. And then I've learned how to hit a wedge and a 9, all the way up until the last club I ever learned how to hit was my driver. … I've swung hard at it for a long time since I was a kid. With my build and my long arms, I generate speed really from nothing.”
WOODLAND: “That's how I learned how to play -- you'd go to the driving range and see how far you can hit it. I didn't get a lesson until I was in high school, so I grew up hitting it a long way, and it was cool and fun and that's what we did.”
WATSON: “It was just the way I was brought up. Just swing for the fences as a kid and it developed into the longer swing past parallel. This was before John Daly. I didn't even know who John Daly was. 1984 was when I got my first club.”
FINAU: “I didn't know how to hit it straight, but I knew how to hit it far. And then when I did hit it straight, I was winning golf tournaments, so that was a lot of fun.”
WOODLAND: “I hit baseballs like I was George Brett growing up. Everything on that left side firing forward. I put everything on my right side, fire it forward. That's how I learned how to hit it hard.”
WATSON: “Jim Furyk said one time that he was taught trying to hit fairways and I was taught the opposite. Try to hit it long and if you get good, we'll figure out how to hit fairways. And so we were just taught different ways.”
Amateur partners and curiosity seekers alike want to know – is there a secret to hitting it far? Length off the tee, for some, is simply natural ability, although a certain pro from Northern Ireland insists it can be developed through proper training.
KOEPKA: “You can't create speed -- you either have it or you don't. You might be able to gain a few [yards through training] but you're not going to gain 20, 30 yards.”
CHAMP: “You can maybe pick up a few yards, but you're not going to do much. I mean, I know when Sean’s (Foley) worked with Justin Rose, obviously he's gained, 5-10 yards. But it's not a thing you can just go work out or do this swing technique and gain 20 yards.”
WOODLAND: “A lot of it's natural. Just being lucky. I have a strong lower base, played a lot of baseball, learned how to transition power, transition weight and that's really what it comes from, the force I have in my lower legs and everything loading up on the right side going forward.”
McILROY: “If you go back and look at my stats from when I started on TOUR, I averaged 292, 293. And I average 20, 25 yards longer than that now. It’s something I’ve had to work at, something I’ve learned how to do. That’s between gym work and TrackMan and stuff on my swing. So that’s why I think hitting it long is a skill. I don’t think it’s a natural-born talent you have because I certainly wasn’t long when I was growing up and I developed it over the years. If I can do it at 5-9, 160 pounds, anyone can do it.”
WATSON: “It's natural. If I had a swing coach, I'd say my swing coach taught me, but I don't have one, you know? I think it's natural because if you look at like J.B. Holmes, his swing is compact, but J.B. is just strong, right? He's built like an ox. It's all about the lag of a swing and the power coming through impact.”
CHAMP: “I'm pretty flexible for the most part. ... It's kind of how I move my hips so fast, it creates the lag by itself. I don't really have to do anything. It doesn't look like I'm swinging very hard, but I'm just creating the speed. It's kind of like a whiplash, my hips move so fast that I create the downforce in the leg.”
KOEPKA: “There's only so much you can do. I mean, you've got to be able to use your legs, load them, and a lot of it's just legs. Yeah, mechanics can get you a few miles an hour, but you can't create that much speed. If you don't have speed, you're not going to get speed. It's not like you can swing it a 100 mph and then all of a sudden swing it 120. Equipment can help you a little bit, but you either have it or you don't.”
WOODLAND: “I don't know if there's a secret. Obviously, you need speed, you need a lot of things, but hitting it on the center of the face is a huge deal. I can swing as hard as I want, but if I don't hit center contact, I'm not going to hit it as far.”
JOHNSON: “The best thing that I can tell them is to get to the gym. But you've got to get something that's specific to you, not just go work out. You need to get an evaluation of your body and know where you're lacking in strength or lacking in mobility to understand what you can do to improve as far as to get stronger and get some more club head speed. But you've got to do it the right way. You can't just go into the gym and start lifting weights and think you're going to hit it further.”
WATSON (when asked how to hit it farther): “I say, ‘You can't.’ As an older golfer, if I'm teaching a kid, I can kind of guide them in the direction. But if I'm teaching an older pro-am partner, I would say that, you're going to have to work on the timing. Comes down to timing, comes down to hitting the ball in the center of the club face. Just a lot of things that have got to go right. As you've seen the greatest players in the world, everything has to be working right or that long ball goes way off-line. So it's not easy. That's why I believe it's just more God-given talent or God-given swing that's created it.”
The guys share their thoughts of what it’s like to hit one on the screws.
KOEPKA: “When you hit one, you know it's going and that's high, just stays up there. It keeps going. I don't think there's a better feeling.”
FINAU: “It's euphoria for sure. There's a special feeling when you hit it solid and you see it in the air and know it’s going in the middle of the fairway and know it's going to be way out there. It's really cool. And then when you're playing with competitors and their tongues are kind of sticking out with how far you can hit it and how straight you can hit it. It’s a feeling that never gets old.”
McILROY: “You can feel when you hit one right on the clubface and it feels a little better. It almost feels like you don’t hit anything.”
WATSON: “You don't really feel the ball. The ball's almost like a marshmallow because you hit it dead center on the club face where it's going to have less feel to it because you smash everything.”
FINAU: “It's almost like a hole-in-one kind of thing -- not that you want to celebrate it, but it's a momentum-builder for me. Whenever I'm hitting my driver good and hitting it in the fairways, I know I have a big advantage. That feeling never gets old, the feeling of a solid drive. It's something that's very special.”
WOODLAND: “For a long time I got annoyed by that's what I was known as, but … until you prove everybody else differently, everybody knew me as the guy who hits it a long way. So it's nice for people to start realizing I can play a little bit more well-rounded game. But people like it -- it's entertaining. They want to see you hit it a long way, want to see your cover bunkers and the noise and the sound. It does add some excitement.”
McILROY (on 350-yard drives): “Geez, I probably hit a 100 of them every day when I’m practicing. It’s nothing out of the normal.”
Each player was asked to ID the drives that stick out in their memory banks.
FINAU: “There's a couple. I drove a 520-yard par-5 in Utah, about two-club downwind. My brother and I both drove the hole, and that's always memorable because anytime anybody asks me what's my longest drive, well, it’s over 500 yards. And then, my first PGA TOUR event, it was the U.S. Bank Open, which was in Milwaukee at the Brown Deer Golf Course. No. 16 is about a 385-, 390-yard hole with a lake in front of it. The no-brainer thing to do is everybody just lays up. But I drove that green all four days as a 17-year-old. I Monday-qualified into the tournament, drove the green all four days. It's like 360 over the water, and I flew it onto the green all four days. I remember after I drove the green the first two rounds, they decided to put some stands back there so people can actually watch on the weekend because I made the cut. The people came and watch me. So when I got there in the third round, I told my caddie, ‘Hey, I, I want you to hand me the iron when we get to the tee box’ so then all these people would be disappointed. We get to the tee box. I pulled out my 4-iron and people are just, ‘Ooh,’ and I just look back and shake my head. I pulled out my driver, people went nuts and then I end up hitting that onto the green., So that adrenaline, that was a cool feeling, even up to this point.”
McILROY: “16 at Valhalla on the last day [of the 2014 PGA Championship, which he won]. It’s a 500-yard hole, soaking wet, and I think I had a 9-iron into the green. I was pumped up. I was in contention. Just one of those drives that you hit and you’re like, ‘Yeah, that was good.’”
WATSON: “No. 10 at Maui a few years ago [at the Sentry Tournament of Champions]. It was downwind and I just reared back and hit driver and it just caught it. I knew I could get over [the waste area] with a halfway decent hit. But I hit it really good and it flew obviously with that wind, it flew all the way to the green, went about 10 feet, 12 feet from the hole. So that one because you had to fly it to the green. That's the only way to get it to the green. So it's one of those, it just came off perfect. The hit, the wind -- everything was perfect for that situation.”
JOHNSON: “The 18th hole at the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay [in 2015]. It felt good, and it was straight and into a really small fairway.”
WOODLAND: "It was my rookie year, my first tournament of the year, Sony Open [in Hawaii]. I was right on the cut line. I hit driver almost every hole then. So I hit driver on 15 at Sony and drove the green. Now I wouldn't even think about anything more than a 4-iron, but I drove the green, hit it up over the out of bounds. My first hole I ever saw on the PGA TOUR, I drove 10 at Sony that year. That was the first shot I ever hit, and I was like, this is actually easy when the golf courses are short.”
CHAMP: “15th hole in Utah when I won on the [Web.com Tour]. It's a very, very tight hole for me and somehow all four days I hit it right down the middle because I have to basically aim at the OB and tried to play it off of it. Every day I hit it dead straight kind of where I was aimed. One day, it went 430 after I hit the cart path.”
KOEPKA: “Hnmm, no certain drives where I'm like, man, I crushed it.”
Which other big hitters impress these guys – and is there an unofficial competition among the bombers?
KOEPKA: “Bubba is really impressive in how he can work the ball and control it and still hit it that way. The ball shape is 40, 50 yards, sometimes even more. And the fact that he can find a fairway, it's pretty impressive. It's just fun to watch. He's very creative and he's good at what he does.”
WATSON: “I think they're more impressed with the curve that it actually goes in play and that I'm trying to do it, you know?”
FINAU: “Pound for pound, the longest guy I've ever played with is Justin Thomas. When I played with him on the [Web.com Tour] and in our rookie year out here. He's gotten a lot bigger and a lot stronger now that he's on TOUR. He's maybe 160 pounds and can fly the ball 310. That's kind of ridiculous. You know, you look at guys like me and DJ and Gary, we're bigger, stronger guys, just built a lot bigger. We're taller. I'm probably seven inches taller than JT, but every time I play with him, to see his length, how high he can launch a golf ball, how far it can fly it for his size, it's pretty cool.”
WOODLAND: “When we were younger, Tony and I played a lot of Monday qualifiers together. We played a lot of golf together when we were trying to get out here and we tried to hit it a long way. Now we both laugh. We're both just trying to hit the fairway now. We're just trying to find it because we know we can hit our irons as far as anybody. If we get it into play, we'll be all right.”
KOEPKA: “I could care less if a guy hits it 50 short of me. Oh, I'll let them know when I walk by them. I'll just stop at this ball and look back at them, just for fun. Especially if I know them, if they're a good dude. If I don't know the guy, I'm not going to say anything. But there's plenty of people that are longer than me.”
WATSON: “It's truly a friendship out here. I love seeing it. Playing with Dustin, seeing some of the shots that Dustin can hit. What does he got, 19 wins? I mean, he's about to be a lifetime member with one more. [DJ notched his 20th on Sunday at the World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship and will be eligible for lifetime membership after his 15th season]. So watching him play, watching him hit, it's just impressive.”
FINAU: “We all know what matters most and that's what your scorecard shows. But we know who all the guys that are longest out here and I think we enjoy playing with each other and at certain stages throughout the season, some guys will just be hitting it further than other guys. You know, like I played with Gary last year and through a couple of months, he was hitting it further than I was. And then towards the end of the season, I was hitting it further than him. So sometimes you go through stretches where you’re just swinging a little better, you're hitting it more solid. … We know that we have a distinct advantage because of our length, but at the end of the day you’ve got to put in the hole.”
WOODLAND: “I haven’t played with Cameron. Tony said he's the longest one we've seen. If Tony's saying it, I'll take his word for it.”
FINAU: “He's a whole different animal. He's not as big as me either, a lot smaller, but he generates a lot of power and really fun and impressive to watch.”
CHAMP: “Obviously distance is a great advantage, but if you can't do all the other things, it doesn't really matter.”
Editor’s note: PGATOUR.COM staff writer Cameron Morfit contributed to this story.