It might seem incongruous that 158-pound Tiger Woods can hit a golf ball so far, and part of the phenomenon is un-explainable, particularly in light of the fact that Woods hasn't taken advantage of the most recent innovations in equipment. Although Woods is the first PGA Tour player to average more than 300 yards (302.8) after 30 rounds, he uses clubs that are geared for accuracy, not distance. His driver has a stainless-steel head and a conventional steel shaft, not one of the lighter titanium heads or graphite shafts that many players have turned to for more distance. Tiger's driver is also only 43 inches long, an inch shorter than what most Tour pros use, which cuts down on the potential for club-head speed. And while some players have gained distance by switching to a harder two-piece ball, Woods plays a softer-covered three-piece ball that spins more and rolls less. It's fair to say that if Woods used a longer driver with a graphite shaft and a two-piece ball, his driving average would be several yards higher.
Nor does Woods swing for the fences. At the suggestion of his coach, Butch Harmon, Woods strives to use no more than an 80% effort on most tee shots, a level of force that keeps him in balance, makes his swing more repeatable, enhances his timing and promotes accuracy.
Then how can the 20-year-old Woods—a 6'2" string bean with a backswing too short to reach a position parallel with the ground—hit drives that frequently travel more than 350 yards? Woods's single most valuable asset is a near-perfect swing. "The most fundamentally sound [swing] I've ever seen," says Jack Nicklaus, whose tremendous power was also rooted in superior technique. Woods has an excellent grip, ideal posture and no quirky moves in his backswing. Incorporating a tenet of modern swing theory, he is able to store remarkable energy on his backswing by making a massive shoulder turn of nearly 120 degrees while limiting his hip turn to less than 30 degrees. When Woods starts his downswing, the torque he produces is clean and uncomplicated, and it's unleashed as swiftly as an arrow from a bow. "Tiger's move is so solid and simple it's like watching an Iron Byron hitting machine," says Mark Calcavecchia.
Such a machine needs an engine, and Woods has a good one. Tiger might not be a big man compared with former long-drive kings like George Bayer and Jim Dent, both of whom weighed well over 220 pounds, but his slender frame is tightly wrapped with dense muscle. He has broad shoulders, powerful thighs, a 35-inch sleeve length and an exercise-hardened, 28-inch waist, all of which explains the speed with which Woods rotates his torso and hips on the downswing—"the fastest I've ever seen," says swing coach Rick Smith.
Woods has been a long hitter since his early teens but has gotten longer as he has filled out and added muscle. During his two years at Stanford he was a regular in the weight room, where he focused on developing overall strength. "Tiger's lean body type allows him to handle a lot of resistance without getting too bulky or losing flexibility," says Karen Branick, the assistant strength coach who oversaw his workouts. According to Gary Wiren, a PGA of America master professional with a Ph.D. in sports science, Woods's physical development contributes to his length off the tee. "Strength is an advantage in golf," Wiren says, "because it lets a player swing easily without a lot of tension or quick moves. That improves timing, which helps produce distance."
Slender yet explosive athletes are nothing new to stick-and-ball sports, in which coordination, leverage and timing are paramount. Baseball's Henry Aaron and Ernie Banks and tennis's Arthur Ashe and Pete Sampras are classic examples. Golf, as much as any sport, has always been populated by wiry little guys who could kill the ball. Ben Hogan and Chi Chi Rodriguez, who each weighed less than 135 pounds in their prime, are two notable examples.
But none of those athletes were ever considered the most powerful player in his sport, which Woods is. And that brings us to the unexplainable part. What makes Woods unique is his ability to put the club head on the ball as near to perfectly as has ever been measured. Not only does Woods make contact in the dead center of the club face with amazing regularity, according to tests conducted by Titleist, but he also comes closer to achieving optimum launch conditions—a combination of swing speed and angle of impact—than any of the more than 300 touring pros the company has tested over the last 20 years. With his driver, Woods sweeps his club head into the ball on a shallow rather than a steep angle and makes contact slightly on the upswing. His drives are thus launched with a minimum of backspin and at what is generally considered the ideal angle, nine degrees.
Although Fred Couples, John Daly and Davis Love III produce almost as much club-head speed as Woods when swinging hard—about 122 mph—it's Tiger's ability to achieve pure contact that makes him the longest hitter in the group. "Tiger imparts the lowest ball spin of anyone we've ever tested who produces ball speed of more than 165 miles per hour, which is what you need to hit a drive 280 yards or more," says Wally Uihlein, the president of Titleist. "His ball bores through the air instead of ballooning, and it hits the ground hot. He optimizes the efficiency relationship between speed, launch and spin."
Woods's genius probably comes from having swung a club efficiently since he was a toddler. That, and being the kind of student of golf that Ted Williams was of hitting. "It was never one person," Woods says when asked if he modeled his game after Nicklaus or another player. "I've tried to pick 50 players and take the best out of them and make one super player."
For a work in progress, he's awfully close to becoming his own model. "Here's the deal," says Art Sellinger, a two-time national long-drive champion. "Tiger is technically perfect, and he's so grooved, so repeatable, that he can go full metal jacket and still be consistent. I've said for a while that somebody was going to come along with the ability to hit it as long as we do and get it in the fairway, and that guy is going to rewrite the books. Guess what? He's here."