Last week, Texas A&M head golf coach J.T. Higgins met with PGA Tour player Ryan Palmer before the Aggies competed in a tournament near Dallas. When the conversation between the two turned to driving distance and its importance in the professional game, Palmer could hardly get the words out fast enough.
“If you don’t carry the ball a minimum of 290 yards off the tee, you’re going to have a hard time competing on the PGA Tour,” the Texas A&M alumnus said.
The reality of the driver being the most important club in the bag is difficult to deny, both from an anecdotal and statistical standpoint. Almost all of the game’s superstars average more than 300 yards off the tee, and if you aren’t a dynamic driver of the ball, the margin for error in other parts of the game has become incredibly thin.
Last year on the PGA Tour, the top 10 players in strokes gained off the tee were virtually all success stories. Player of the year Rory McIlroy finished first in the category, while fellow top-five players in the world Dustin Johnson and Jon Rahm were close behind. Others like Cameron Champ, Keith Mitchell and Corey Conners all enjoyed breakthrough victories. Another up-and-comer, Mexico’s Abraham Ancer, collected 10 top-25 finishes and moved into the world’s top 50. It is possible that all 10 players will compete in the Masters next spring. ...
What makes Champ’s story even more intriguing is what happened between his victories at the Sanderson Farms Championship last October and the Safeway Open late last month. Despite dominance with a driver in his hand, Champ fell into a black hole for much of last season by missing the cut in 10 of 14 starts while withdrawing once during one horrid stretch. In the other major strokes-gained categories, he finished No. 161 in approach, No. 188 around the green, No. 123 in putting and No. 142 in tee-to-green in 2018-19. All of this took place during a time when the PGA Tour heavily promoted Champ, the personification of its “Live Under Par” slogan, often putting him in featured-group coverage to take advantage of his popularity. Fans were flocking to see the kid with an effortless swing that produces untouchable ball speed.
After winning for the first time in just his eighth PGA Tour start as a professional, pressure mounted quickly.
“Obviously being in feature pairings, it all led to other things,” Champ admitted. “At first I didn’t feel like it affected me. But on the inside I think it did. I had expectations, kind of putting extra pressure, kind of worrying about things I wasn’t worrying about all last year and in the beginning of the fall.
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