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At a corporate outing three years ago in Carlsbad, Calif., Michelle McGann sent one five-iron shot after another soaring past the 175-yard marker at the La Costa practice range as Fred Couples stood nearby watching. He was surprised by how far she hit the ball. "He was just kind of shaking his head," says McGann, whose big hats and big drives make her one of the LPGA's most recognizable players. "He asked me, 'How many times have you won?' I said, 'I haven't won yet.' And he said, 'I can't believe you don't win every week.' " Now 27, McGann has six victories—including last week's HealthSouth Inaugural in Orlando, where she defeated Karrie Webb in a sudden-death playoff—and is at the forefront of a competitive makeover of the LPGA. Long driving used to be a guy thing, but not anymore.
LPGA players are not only getting longer, but also the longest among them are beginning to dominate the tour. "Women's golf has gone from a finesse game to a power game," says Hall of Famer Pat Bradley, once one of the tour's longer hitters but not among the top 100 in driving distance last year. "These kids bomb it by everybody now. I don't know what vitamins they're feeding them, but I'd like to get some."
Patty Sheehan, another member of the LPGA Hall of Fame, won the Nabisco Dinah Shore last year, her sixth major, but nothing else. "Being short and kind of cagey works sometimes, but not as consistently as it used to," she says. "Players out here are getting bigger and stronger. So are people in general. It's the wave of the future."
This long-distance phenomenon must be seen in relative terms. PGA Tour players still drive the ball 35 to 50 yards farther than their LPGA tour counterparts. Take Laura Davies, the LPGA's alltime home run queen, for example. No one has been able to use length to such an advantage—not even JoAnne Carner in her prime. But Davies's tour-leading average drive last year, 262.3 yards, would have put her in a the for 134th with Justin Leonard in the men's rankings.
Still, the days when the women's game was dismissively characterized as grunting and bunting are over. Gripping and ripping is in. Webb, who tied for seventh in driving distance last year (249.6), and Davies each won four times in 1996. Kelly Robbins, who is nearly as long as Davies (254.0), only won once but finished sixth on the money list. "Webbie is not a very big girl, but she hits it long enough," Davies says. "Everyone is getting bigger and stronger, especially the younger players. They must eat raw meat or something."
The trend toward the long ball has not gone unnoticed, particularly among those on the opposite end of the power stats. "It makes the rest of us have to get longer, too," says Jenny Lidback, the '95 du Maurier champion. "I used to be average, now I'm toward the bottom in distance [216.1 yards in 1996]. I haven't kept up. It has definitely become a power tour. You need to be long."
That need has increased. Since 1992, when the LPGA first began keeping track of driving distance (tee shots are measured on two holes per round), the tour as a whole has added 10 yards in length. In 1992 seven players averaged more than 240 off the tee (not including Davies, who often used a two-iron to keep her ball in play). Last year, 38 players averaged 240 or better. McGann (255.5 in 1996) was the only player who averaged more than 250 yards in '92. Five players did last season. A more important stat: Five of last year's top 11 money winners—Webb (1st), Davies (2nd), Robbins (6th), MeGann (8th) and Jane Geddes (11th)—ranked among the top seven in distance.
Why are women getting longer? There are a number of reasons. Improved equipment is an obvious one. Titanium club heads, better balls and superior shafts all help. Some players also use extra-long shafts. Emilee Klein, for instance, swings a massive 50-inch-long driver that is only 14 inches shorter than she is. But there's more behind the surge in the numbers than technology. "The sheer athleticism on this tour has increased enormously," says LPGA commissioner Jim Ritts. "That's something you saw happen on the PGA Tour sometime during the 1980s. I see it in the pro-ams each week. A good amateur player will hit a drive, and then one of our players, who may not be physically very large, hits it 12 or 15 yards past him. On the next hole that guy is gripping it just a little tighter. Our player still hits it 10 yards past him. On the 3rd hole I'm watching the veins come out of his forearms. It's fun. By the 4th hole he usually admits, 'Man, they're pretty good, aren't they?' "
The changes taking place in women's golf are part of a bigger evolution in women's sports. "If I walked into a press room in 1974 and said I was lifting weights, guys would've thought I was trying to be an East German," says Bradley. "Nowadays you're weird if you're not doing Nautilus."
The latest generation of LPGA players was exposed to organized sports at an early age and encouraged to compete, the same as the boys, throughout elementary and high school. Many older players did not have as many opportunities. Also, college and national programs now take advantage of advances in physiology.