Everyone knows that Tour players are good. We assume that because they are longer—in 1999 the average drive measured 272.4 yards, up from 270.6 in '98 and 267.6 in '97—they're also better. Here's the startling truth: Scores have gone up over the last two years. In 1997 the average score on Tour was 71.15. In '98 it was 71.16 and last year it rose to 71.25, the highest average of the '90s.
What gives? Tour courses are being made more difficult. Forget about the extreme setups last year at the U.S. Open at Pinehurst and at the British Open at Carnoustie. No, we're talking about the weekly Tour stops. In the 33 events played on the same course in 1999 and '98, the winning score was more than one stroke higher in '99 than it was in '98.
Some of the differences in the courses are subtle. Fairways and greens have been firmed up while the rough has been lengthened. Some changes are obvious. New bunkers and other obstacles have been added, and last year 11 venues were lengthened.
All these factors put a premium on ball striking because while shots may be traveling farther, they are finding their target less often. Driving accuracy dropped to 68.5% in '99 from 69.6% the year before, and greens hit in regulation fell to 64.4% from 65.1%.
Perhaps the most dramatic example of how a course can be set up to raise scores came at last year's Sony Open, in Hawaii. After John Huston torched Waialae Country Club with a record 28-under-par total in '98, tournament officials opted for firmer fairways and greens and heavier rough in '99. They also converted two par-5s into par-4s. Voil�! Jeff Sluman won at nine under.
Many pros think the changes have been overdone, to the point of putting the shorter, low-ball hitters at an unfair disadvantage. "Some of the shotmaking is disappearing," says Loren Roberts, whose average drive of 254.8 yards ranked 191st on Tour in '99. "There aren't many places left where you can hit a three-quarter shot into a green and get it close to the pin. You basically have to try to bring it in high and spin it."
That kind of shot comes naturally to powerful, high-ball hitters such as Tiger Woods, David Duval, Davis Love III and Vijay Singh, who finished one, two, three, four on last year's money list. There is even a suspicion among some players that the real reason for the tough setups is to make it easier for Woods to dominate.
Bill Calfee, the Tour's director of rules and competitions, scoffs at that allegation. "There is no agenda to help long, high-ball hitters," he says. "Tiger has an advantage, yes, but that's because of the quality of his shots, not the style of his play. [Being] long and straight is always an advantage."
Nicklaus at 60
New Bear Up To Old Tricks
Among his many accomplishments, Jack Nicklaus owns the unofficial record for most makeovers. Heretofore, his transformation in 1970, when he suddenly went from fat guy with a crew cut to matinee idol with mod blond locks, was thought to be the most remarkable. That view might change next week when fans get their first look of the year at Nicklaus during the MasterCard Championship.