Who’s the Best Driver?

If you don’t care about ramblings about other golfers and just want a few tips for yourself, jump to the end where there’s some nuggets to help you drive the ball better.  There’s more info in the meat of the post, but the main ideas are neatly summarized in the conclusion.

Just a stupid random idea…but I like thinking about these things “out loud” so why not, right?

Anyways, I figured it wouldn’t be fair to judge eras against each other, and I’m not interested in the hickory era, so I’m gonna break it down into the Golden and Modern Eras.  Fairly obvious difference between the two eras, so it should be easy to separate ’em though I give more credit to the Golden Era that drove with persimmon woods, steel shafts and an inconsistently manufactured ball with a wound core.

There’s a certain beauty to the Golden Era that weighed skill in driving equally with the other parts of the game, something I think has been lost in the titanium laboratory era where everyone’s got a turbo charged driver and juiced balls.  Today’s great drivers still get an advantage over the field, but there’s just more of them because it’s easier with huge, forgiving heads and balls that produce consistent spin and launch conditions…so it is what it is.

Golden Era

The three that stick out are Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman.

Snead was a large dude with an ENORMOUS amount of shoulder turn thanks to being somewhat of an athletic marvel.  He was extraordinarily flexible and even into his 70’s it was said that he could kick the top of a doorway with his other foot on the ground and his golf game was equally durable.  At 62 he finished 3rd in the PGA Championship.

At 67 he shot his age in the second round of the Quad Cities Open and beat that by a stroke in the final round, shooting 66.  He shot a 60 at age 71 and a 78 at age 82.  Genetic lottery indeed. Anyways, Snead always bristled when people marveled at Ben Hogan’s swing and work ethic because he felt people thought his beautifully rhythmic swing was natural talent when, really, Snead was every bit the range rat Hogan was.  Legend has it he practiced with homemade clubs hitting rocks until his hands bled as a dirt poor child in West Virginia.

Snead would line up down the right side of the fairway and essentially pull the ball towards the middle, and when you combine that his 120+ degree shoulder turn and bowed legs through impact, he created an incredible amount of clubhead speed while maintaining stability.

Nicklaus doesn’t really need a case made for him, but from 40 to 43 years old, the first four years they started tracking total driving (distance rank plus fairways hit rank) he was tops on Tour.  Absurdly long compared to his peers and very accurate, Nicklaus brought a skyscraping power fade to the table when most players were hitting low, running draws.  His high trajectory and favored shotshape allowed him to keep his ball in the fairway since fade-spin rolls less and he was extremely aggressive.

Much like Snead, Nicklaus was a good athlete, and while he was an exceptional driver in his prime, when he was younger and heavier, he was borderline freakish and demoralized his competition.

Take a look at the picture to the left and notice how much he sets up behind the ball and how he used his huge legs to drive through impact while maintaining his spine angle.  His setup, leg drive and that tilted spine angle allow the club to meet the ball on more of a shallow path with maximum speed at impact and encourages a higher launch angle with spin that helps the ball up in the air and lands softer.

When I think of Greg Norman driving the ball, I think of a Ferrari.  Pure class, performance, style and aggression.  Great White Shark actually describes it perfectly…if there was any one creature evolution designed to drive a balata ball with a persimmon driver (and thought Jack Nicklaus wasn’t already perfection), it was Greg Norman.

It’s hard to say Norman was more refined version of Nicklaus because even though they shared many of the same traits, they had their own unique personalities, the workmanlike Nicklaus contrasting with the bloodthirsty Shark even if their ballflights were nearly identical.

The picture on the right is a great example of how to launch the ball in the air…the text is kind of hard to read, but it’s illuminating as to how to create clubhead speed.  At the top of his backswing, Norman had 95% of his weight on his back foot and 66% on the same foot at impact…so when you read Golf Digest articles saying that keeping your weight back is the recipe for a slice, I’ve given you two examples of the greatest drivers ever that drove the ball that way.

But the key to not slicing and producing enormously high, low spinning drives lies in the other revealing figure mentioned…Norman has the most forward weight shift from the top of his swing, so even though he had 2/3 his weight on his back side, he still shifted an enormous percentage of his weight forward, propelling the clubhead through impact and unbelievable speeds.  It was rumored that the Shark’s clubhead speed, with old technology, was still around 125 mph, which would put him right there with the Dustin Johnson’s and Bubba Watson’s.

And it’s a shame I can’t find a good video of it, but holy shit…the SOUND Norman’s drives made at impact.  MY GOD.  If there is a God, that’s what he’d want drives to sound like.

One last note before we finish up with the old guys, I didn’t get into them as much, but Nick Price, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson were all phenomenal drivers in their own right.  I could’ve easily included them, but this thing is going to be a novella as it is, so my apologies.

Modern Era

This is a little harder to define statistically because there are so many more players grouped together, and the margins so tight thanks to both better instruction and equipment, really I’m just going off of the metric fuckton of golf I’ve watched the past decade to judge.  To think it was as recently as 1997 Justin Leonard retired the last persimmon driver on the PGA Tour, it’s remarkable how far we’ve come since then.  Hell, go back and watch highlights of the 1996 and 1997 Masters…look at what they’re playing?  What’s scarier…look at how much of an advantage Tiger Woods had in 1997 with that older technology.  I think there’s an argument somewhere out there to be made that 460cc drivers made the PGA Tour less of a one-man show than it already became.

The fight between architecture and technology has ebbed and flowed throughout these 15 years, and the dying fight the powers that be is a conversation we’ve had many a time already.  But, as with most technologies in their infancies, golf’s early titanium age was very much like watching a bunch of cavemen chase down a mastodon compared to today’s high powered hunting rifles being able to shoot a tick off a hog’s ass from a half mile away.  In this little renaissance golf’s had, with everyone having the same perfectly fit tools, certain guys stand out among their peers.

Phil Mickelson wouldn’t be described as a great driver…which is why I’m not going to.  However, I do think he deserves an honorable mention, not only for his prodigious distance, but for how he exploits technology to his advantage, like when he bagged two drivers at Augusta.  Granted, he’s wild, but that’s his game, and while I’m not calling him an all-time great driver, he does hit the ball a country mile.

Tiger’s had moments of brilliance with the driver, but he’s also seen a lot of troubles, especially recently.  He was a great driver who exploited a length advantage to an absurd degree and ushered in the titanium age, but frankly, I think he was better using a tiny driver with a steel shaft than he’s been with a 460cc blimp. While I think we can learn a lot from Nicklaus and Norman’s swings for ourselves, unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot to take from these other than be freakishly athletic and flexible or put in a bunch of hours honing a consistet albeit unorthodox technique.

Lee Westwood is my favorite driver of the golf ball these days because he just MASHES it despite a position at impact that’s far from the classical ideal.  Take a look at this picture of Hogan and contrast it with the swing above at 0:13 and notice how Lee’s front arm is bent and away from his body…but that width he creates allows him to keep a stable clubhead through impact, and when combined with his build and strength, creates that ideal combo of a stable clubhead keeping spin low with a ton of speed is one of the reasons his great driving travels all over the world.

Bubba Watson is stupidly long and plays a giant banana slice that you see on munis across the country from 20 handicaps.  Check out this setup and tell me that’s not a slicer’s setup.  He sets up WAY open, and again, look how much weight he keeps behind the ball.  The same concept we saw with Nicklaus and Norman is taken to the extreme with Bubba and this is the key point to creating that massive amount of clubhead speed…look at how much Bubba’s hips have opened up (his beltbuckle is pointing past parallel to the target line) compared to his torso.  Getting into that’s 2,000 words in it’s own right, but think of how much farther you can shoot a rubber band the more you stretch it…that’s the kind of tension you need to feel between your lower body and torso when you fire your hips.  When you maintain that spine angle, like the pic of Jack above, you’ve got the ingredients for a lot of distance. So even though Bubba plays a legitimate slice, remember what I said about high launch and low spin…even though Bubba’s homeschooled doesn’t mean he hasn’t aced physics.

For a very solid drive, you want about a 12-13 degree launch angle, a spin rate under 3,000 rpm, over 105 mph of clubhead speed and, optimally, 1.5 times that for your ball speed (called smash factor).  That’ll probably get you in the 275ish carry range and something in the range of 290 yards total.  Pretty decent, but compared to those rather nice launch conditions, Bubba’s physics wizardry proves freakish…16 degree launch angle, 1,800 rpm (2,700 is tour average), 125 mph clubhead speed and that optimal smash factor for a ball speed a few mph shy of 190 mph.  That’s how Bubba hits these monstrous drives despite being a slicer.

The other two…well…you ain’t them, so forget about it.  Now here’s some golf porn.

And you ain’t Louis Oosthuizen either.

Oh, and John Daly too…Laugh all you want…

I mean that ball must be…a hundred yards past Curtis Strange.

back in the day he wasn’t a joke.

So Who’s the Best?

I can’t separate Nicklaus and Norman.  In an era where it was harder to drive the ball and distance wasn’t manufactured, these two are essentially the indisputed masters of this craft.  They both proved it over a decade plus and had both distance and control and had the mindset that the driver was a weapon indeed.

Driving the golf ball gets a somewhat bad rep thanks to the maxim “drive for show, putt for dough.”  Well, pardon me but I think that’s bullshit.  If you can drive the ball a long way, you shrink the course…better yet, if you’re long, accurate and consistent, you can attack the course and gain an incredible advantage.  Yes, putting and short game are important facets of golf, but what good is getting up and down for bogeys or worse?  The stark reality is you can pile up strokes just as much with your driver as you can by 3-putting and chunking pitches and chips, but if you can turn it into a strength, it makes the game not only easier, but a fucking blast. So what can you learn from Nicklaus and Norman and apply to your own games?  A few things…

  • Stay behind the ball – You start this with the setup by taking a fairly wide stance and putting the ball as far forward as you feel comfortable with.  I reference the above picture of Jack again.  Yes, this will encourage a slice-like ballflight, but distance comes from carrying the ball in the air and this encourages a higher ballflight, so to straighten it out, get in your setup and try moving your back foot as referenced here but most importantly…
  • Create tension between your lower and upper body by starting your swing with your hips – This takes some practice and getting used to, but take a few minutes, take the club back slow and wide and hold your position at the top.  From there, try to keep your back facing the target as much as you can and hold it while “firing” your hips and getting your beltbuckle to face the target while staying back like this.  I’ve had some success with simply practicing firing my hips while consciously trying to maintain my wrist angle…I knew I’d never be able to hold the exact angle, but the thought kept me from the root of the slice problem, releasing your wrists early, which kills the chain reaction recipe firing your hips starts.  Look at how Bubba’s just starting to turnover the clubface a good bit past impact here.
  • Favor a fade – It already should feel comfortable if you hit a slice and you can hit a long power fade that’s very controllable and allows you to rely on timing the swing by actively closing the clubface with a flip.  “Holding onto that angle” like I mentioned above, both consciously gets you to stabilize the clubface, but subconsciously allows your hips to start the engine and forge the gravitational path the rest follows.
  • Acceleration is what you’re after – Huge drives aren’t a product of effort, they’re a product of efficiency.  Navy SEALs have a saying they use during training that’s a great thought to have for golf…”slow is smooth and smooth is fast.”  Now, everyone has their own tempo, but the beauty of this saying is that it applies perfectly to driving.  When you try and kill the ball, that’s when you release early (heh), but if you simply take your time moving off the ball, again SLOW AND WIDE, you let your body get into the right position and accelerate into the ball instead of wasting all your swing speed at the beginning.

So take a page from arguably the greatest golfer ever and one of the game’s most charismatic talents…make the driver a weapon and you’ll be able to attack the course instead of simply taking what you can get.

  • oskie

    when you get inspired to write, you get inspired to write. incredible.

  • spencer096

    craig…regarding the math, i was just going off the top of my head but i think we’re on the same wavelength…i just wanted to ballpark the numbers to show how crazy bubba’s were in comparison.

    agreed on getting in shape. it’s helped big time.

  • http://www.thevictoryformation.com patphish

    I’d go with Jimmie Johnson.


  • Groin

    “I average about 300 years off the tee.”

    /every jackbag I’ve been paired with on a muni course

  • Groin

    Yards, not years.


  • http://cbhsports.blogspot.com cbh49er

    “I average about 300 years off the tee.”

    This could be correct though, as in the # of years hitting off the tee adds to my life because I suck so bad.

  • cabbage

    Great read. Thank you.