Dustin Johnson's prodigious playoff drive at last week's Northern Trust was the latest reminder that today's PGA Tour pros hit the ball a lot farther than their predecessors. The combination of better technology in golf clubs and golf balls, and a more fit golfer in Johnson, allowed him to take a line off the tee on the 18th hole at Glen Oaks Club that even the game's longest hitters 20 years ago couldn't have imagined.
It's not just today's players, however, who are hitting it farther. Yesterday's players—the guys playing the PGA Tour Champions—are hitting it farther than ever, too. And we don't just mean farther than previous generations of senior tour players, but farther than they ever hit it in their primes.
To find out how much farther, we went down the list of driving-distance leaders on the PGA Tour Champions this season and then looked up what some of those bigger-name players averaged off the tee during the PGA Tour season in which they turned 30. (We picked 30 because it's a nice, round number, but it also happens to be the average age of Johnson and Rory McIlroy, the PGA Tour's two longest hitters this year.) The results were eye-popping, even for the 60-year-olds on the 50-and-older circuit.
Let's start at the top with John Daly, who at 51, leads the PGA Tour Champions with an average of 299 yards off the tee. At age 30 in 1996 Daly only averaged 288.8 yards, which was part of eight consecutive seasons in which he led the PGA Tour in driving distance. To be fair, Daly had seasons with much higher figures, topped by a 314.3 average in 2003. Daly has always been freakishly long, so he's not the best guy to look at. Let's move on.
Kenny Perry ranks fourth on the PGA Tour Champions in 2017 at 295 yards per poke. In 1990, he had a driving-distance average of just 270.8 yards. That's not bad considering Tom Purtzer led the PGA Tour that season at 279.6 yards (for comparison, Rory McIlroy's 316.4 yards leads this season) but that equates to nearly a 9-percent increase in driving distance from the time Perry was 30 to his current average as a 57-year-old.
The increase is even bigger for Fred Couples, if we use his driving-distance average (a whopping 300.4 yards) from 2015, the last time he played enough rounds on the PGA Tour Champions to have official stats. In 1990, two years before Freddie won the Masters and ascended to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking, he averaged a measly 272.6 yards on his tee shots. Of the players we looked at, Couples' 10.2-percent increase led the way. (It should be noted that the Callaway Big Bertha was launched in 1991, ushering in a new era where driver heads grew to the size of small microwaves, giving a boost to driving distance stats.)
What about the senior tour's dominant force, Bernhard Langer? At 60, the German checks in at 25th in distance at 280.4 yards. But that's up 7.72 percent from his 260.3 average in 1987, two years removed from the first of his two Masters titles. That's right, Langer is significantly longer now than he was 30 years ago. We know the guy is a physical marvel, but no matter how much time he spends in the gym, those numbers are crazy.
Anyway, these examples go on and on, so we decided to make a list ordered from biggest distance increase (by percentage) to smallest:
Earlier this year, the USGA asserted there's only a "slow creep" when it comes to distance increases across all tours in the past 13 years. But if this trend continues, it makes you wonder just how far someone like Dustin Johnson will be able to hit it when he's on the senior tour.