I moonlighted a little from the college beat recently to work on a cover story for Golf World about the new generation of players starting to surface on the PGA Tour, young guns whose preferred style of play, we theorized, “is more powerful and aggressive than traditionally espoused." In turn, they take a more “determined, offensive outlook” toward the game. The Big Bang is how we’ve dubbed the phenomenon, or as some people on tour like to refer to it, the “real” Tiger Woods effect.
The most obvious partakers of this philosophy have been Bubba Watson (formerly an All-American at Georgia), __J.B. Holmes __(Kentucky) and Camilo Villegas (Florida), rookies on tour in 2006 who’s mindset on the tee is swing the club as hard as you can and hit the ball as far as possible, accuracy be dammed. In turn, they have learned to adapt the rest of their games, honing their skills with a wedge in their hands to conversely have a high greens in regulation percentage and larger percentage of birdie putts. (A quote from Watson that was telling: “My goal is to hit it inside the white stakes. No matter where it is, fairway, in the trees, as long as I have a swing, [I’m happy].”
The reasons for such a new mind-set starting to occur are numerous and spelled out in detail in our 10-page package (Kudos to my co-author Tim Rosaforte, as well as John Antonini,Mathew Rudy,__ E. Michael Johnson__ and Dave Shedloski for their tremendous efforts). What convinced me, though, that this phenomenon is not a lone blip—and that the three above players aren’t just freaks of nature—was talking to more than a half dozen college coaches for the article. To a man, each suggested that this bomb-and-gouge style of play has been going on in the college ranks for a few years now, and is the method of choice by the top young amateurs.
“A lot of people look around and say, ‘that’s really different,’ ” says Georgia Tech coach Bruce Heppler. “Well, not to [them] it’s not. It’s second nature. [They've] done it [their] whole life.
“It’s just crank it on down there and deal with it,” he continued. “Because I think they feel like short shots, no matter how hard they are, they’re really not that hard any more. You heard growing up ‘Don’t get that in between yardage. Don’t get that finesse shot.’ Well they laugh at that now. There are no hard shots if you know what you’re doing. They’ve figured out how to get it up and down and how to hit the flop and how much better the wedge is. How much more spin … now you’re reading you can get too much spin. So there are no hard shots if you know what you’re doing. So it just becomes an absolute birdie fest.”
And just how long are these young players? Heppler recalled that when he and his team got a chance to play at Augusta National GC in February, one of his players, Mike Barbosa, hit driver, 6-iron into the par-5 second hole. “I think what we’re seeing is something that started four or five years ago and they’re now reaching something that’s visible,” says Heppler. “I think it’s a culture. Guys just play different. I mean I can go up and down my team and it’s little guys and it’s big guys. To see where we play from … that’s one thing about being at a place where you play the same place all the time. We’ve been at Golf Club [of Georgia] for eight years, nine years now. I can’t tell you how different it is. There were par 5s initially they didn’t go for. And longer par 4s now that they just try to knock it on, shorter ones now. Or just get it up there around the green and get it out of the bunker rather than with a wedge.”
In the package of stories, John Antonini and I highlighted a group of players who have adopted this new style including three amateurs—Oklahoma junior Anthony Kim, USC freshman-to-be Jamie Lovemark and Oklahoma State sophomore Pablo Martin. All three, I believe, will use their length off the tee and lack of fear to have success when they go to the next level, be it college for Lovemark or the pros for Kim and Martin.
No doubt, though, college golf has a lot of long bombers to watch. At the risk of leaving out a few names by listing players below—and if you see an omission, by all means leave you comments after this item—but here are some that the coaches passed on to me that people should pay attention to for the prodigious power off the tee
Oscar Alvarez, senior, BYU (5-foot-10, 168 pounds)
Bronson Burgoon, freshman, Texas A&M (6-0, 175)
Rhys Davis, junior, East Tennessee State (6-1)
Andres Gonzalez, senior, UNLV (6-2, 210)
Taylor Hall, freshman, Georgia Tech (6-3, 190)
Dustin Johnson, junior, Coastal Carolina (6-4)
Niklas Lemke, junior, Arizona State (6-2)
Luke List, junior, Vanderbilt (6-2, 190)
Major Manning, junior, Augusta State (6-4, 190)
Brendon Todd, junior, Georgia (6-3, 185)
Dawie van der Walt, sophomore, Lamar (6-4)
Jhonattan Vegas, junior, Texas (6-3, 200)
One last point … this philosophy of play in many respects is much like baseball catering to home runs and basketball evolving into dunk contests. Yet while people dig the long ball, that doesn’t mean it’s good for the game. Just as each of the coaches said that the Big Bang theory is practiced in college golf, they all each lamented this fact, longing for the time when shot-making was still important. I have to say I agree with them. By becoming infatuated with distance, players aren’t necessarily better, just longer.