By Mike Stachura
With Joe Miller’s mind-boggling distances in winning the World Long Drive Championship on Wednesday, it may make some wonder just what his mile-long hitting spree says about the state of driving distance in the game today.
While it’s true that Miller’s winning drives in the quarterfinals, semifinals and finals averaged a nearly off-the-grid 433 yards—blowing away the field and blowing up Twitter in the process—let’s remember that the setup at Oklahoma’s WinStar Resort and Casino was decidedly downwind and decidedly firm. Still, the winning drive was pretty remarkable.
Miller’s numbers may have been a freak show, but what does it say about the state of driving distance and human potential today? As the PGA Tour begins its 2016-’17 season, it might be worth a review of where distance stands after one of the longest-hitting years in recent memory. We say “one of” because believe it or not the 2015-’16 final tally for distance was not the longest year on record for driving distance on the PGA Tour, as early forecasts suggested it might have been. The average for the year was an even 290 yards, trailing the all-time mark set in 2011 of 291.4.
A deeper dive in the PGA Tour numbers shows that distance by all sorts of metrics was above average for last year, compared to the average of the preceding 10 years. But it wasn’t that much out of line with where things have been for the last decade. Let’s look at five categories:
Driving distance The 2015-’16 number was 1.42 yards higher than the 10-yard average. But it was just one yard more than it was in 2006.
Average ball speed This is how fast the ball is leaving the clubface, and 2015-’16 saw a new record high of 167.69 miles per hour. But that was only .02 mph faster than 2014-’15. What is telling is that average ball speed has increased nearly 2.5 mph since 2007, the first year it was recorded. Given that players aren’t swinging the club much faster (only about a half-mile gain since 2007), this suggests only one thing: Clubs are better at reducing the effect of off-center hits. Even tour players miss the middle of the face, and since the rules have limited how hot the hottest part of the face is, this improvement in ball speed means mis-hits are losing less than they used to.
Number of drives longer than 360 yards There were 760 in 2016. That’s not an all-time high, but 25 percent higher than the 10-year average. There were eight drives of 400 yards or longer, including a 414-yarder from Justin Thomas.
Percentage of drives more than 320 yards (only on measured “driving holes”) The number last year was 8.71, well above the 10-year average 8.364, but well below several other years that were more than 9 percent (2007, ’09, ’11, ’12). This may be an indication that players aren’t hitting driver as much on the measured driving holes as they used to, but the PGA Tour doesn’t report club choice. (The latest statistics on that trend reported by the USGA in March indicate that driver was used 94 percent of the time on measured driving holes in 2015, up from 93 percent of the time in 2012.)
Percentage of all drives more than 320 yards This may be the most telling number for 2015-’16. About one of every 14 drives was more than 320 yards (7.24 percent). That’s significantly above the 10-year average (6.19 percent) and an all-time high.
So where does this leave us after Miller’s gun show in Oklahoma on Wednesday night? Miller seems part James Bond heavy/part Captain Marvel with his 6-foot-4 frame and 270 pounds of coiled fury. His ball speeds were well north of 200 miles per hour. For perspective, the highest ball speed recorded on the PGA Tour in 2015-’16 was Andrew Loupe (below) at 190 miles per hour.
He also had the fastest swing speed at 131 mph. In Miller’s winning round, he reached a ball speed of 213 and a swing speed of 149. In practical terms, this is greater than the difference between you running the 100-meter dash and, well, a cheetah.
Clearly, Miller and his World Long Drive compatriots, and even to an extent Loupe, are outliers. But let’s also remember that the longest drive ever recorded is still the 515-yarder by the late Mike Austin. In 1974. With a steel-shafted persimmon driver.
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