Throughout the history of the game golf has essentially been about two clubs. Success was primarily dictated by what you did at the start and the end of each hole. While the putter and mastery on the greens remains a critical element in the completion of a golf talent, the driver, the sexiest club in the bag, on the professional level has become a less and less relevant fourteenth club.
Exhibit A. Consider the current Open champion and Number 2 player in the world, Phil Mickelson. Unless the left-hander decides to use Sunday’s final round at Oak hill as a chance to practice, Mickelson will have played every round of his 2013 Majors without ever putting a driver in the bag.
Mickelson has always looked at creatively configuring his bag for those four weeks each year. His 2006 win at the Masters featured ‘two’ drivers in the bag to cut or draw tee shots depending on the shape of the hole.
In 2008 he played the first two rounds at Torrey Pines and the US Open with no driver in the bag, only changing when the strategy proved counterproductive.
At Augusta this year he loaded the ‘juiced’ three wood dubbed the “Phrankenwood” into his Masters set up, a variation of what was once the two wood or brassie. The plan was to have a club hot enough to use off the tee but accurate enough to guarantee fairways. The dual purpose club opened the chance to add an additional wedge to Mickelson’s assortment.
At Merion Mickelson eschewed even the hot three wood for a traditional three realizing that a course under 7000 yards could be nuanced from the tee without the need for a driver.
For his dramatic Open win at Muirfield, the highlight moment came when he rode consecutive three woods on the par 5 s 17th in his final round for a birdie and control of the championship.
This week at Oak Hill Mickelson has once again a three wood with some “hot” qualities in play, although the production has been less than satisfactory.
In the case of Number 1 in the world, Tiger Woods, the driver, with Frank on display, has been ever-present, but like the American labor market, more of a part-time employee. At Augusta, its 7400 plus layout demands for the most a driver on no less than half the fourteen fours and fives and Tiger used the club this year with moderate success.
Like most at Merion, he was conservative in the number of times he pulled the driver and at Muirfield he eve joked about using the driver about eight times for the day, all on the range.
The reality in the professional ranks is, with an enhanced golf ball, hybrids and strong irons todays Tour players are able to concoct a formula for distance and accuracy that obviates the need for the blunt force trauma of the driver, even though weekly stops float course yardages beyond imagination.
The game still has its roster of bombers who tie their destiny to a good week off the tee with the ‘one’ wood. Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson are the faces of the bomb and gouge brigade, who when they are, on need less than half the fourteen club maximum to be competitive.
At the other end, the players of moderate length need to tailor their schedules and hope to be peaking when stops like Colonial come up on the calendar. But between the Johnson’s, Zach and Dustin there is a whole army of players today who see the driver as an important but not essential tool in their arsenal. The options mentioned earlier enable them to hide from the driver when the club goes off the rails.
In 2014 the first two majors, Augusta and the Masters and Pinehurst and the US Open should be driver-centric championships. The club that for years drove the numbers in the equipment industry should be back in vogue.
But when Champion Golfer of the Year Phil Mickelson tees it up at Royal Liverpool at Hoylake, we will be reminded going in that Tiger navigated his way to his last Open win in 2006 by stinging his way through 72 holes, largely with solid irons from the tees and greens easily found from fairway lies.
And when the major’s finale once again returns to Valhalla were Woods is a two-time winner, it remains to be seen if the in the thirteen years since Tiger stared down boyhood rival Bob May in a playoff in 2000 the course will have maintained its yardage integrity and golf will have a three driver year.