Jason Day’s path to victory at the HP Byron Nelson Championship led through the water on the 18th hole at TPC Las Colinas. Three times.
Day hit his tee shot into the pond to the left of the 18th fairway in the first and third rounds, and pulled his second shot into the water on the finishing par four in the final round. He escaped with a bogey on Sunday thanks to sinking a 14-foot putt and a two-stroke victory thanks to Blake Adams also finding the water and making a double bogey.
The adventures on the 18th typified Day’s week. He hit only 25 of 56 fairways, ranking 51st in the field, and had a wild weekend in which he hit only 10 of 28 fairways during the final two rounds (five each day).
In the third round, he missed the fairway with his last four drives, but played those holes in one-under—with a par on the 18th after his drive into the water, courtesy of a putt holed from the fringe from about 20 feet. In the final round, he missed the fairway with his last six drives and played those holes in one-under.
It was a performance reminiscent of Anthony Kim at the Shell Houston Open. Kim won despite ranking last in hitting fairways (23 of 56) and finding the short grass only eight times on the weekend.
Apparently, bomb and gouge is not dead.
That’s the strategy of busting the ball as far as you can off the tee, not concerned too much if you find the fairway because your approach shot will be short enough that you can probably hit the green (maybe even get it close) from the rough. The change in groove regulations this year to irons that perform more like the old V-grooves, and thus perform less predictably from the rough, was designed to bring back the importance of driving accuracy.
While we can’t look at two tournaments to be a definitive measuring stick of the effects (or non-effects) of the groove change, the examples of the victories by Kim and Day are so extreme that it’s at least safe to say that hitting a lot of fairways is still not a necessity for winning on the PGA Tour.
There’s a school of thought that says the trend toward narrower fairways actually encourages the bomb and gouge style because if the fairways are hard to hit anyway, you’re just as well off hitting your tee shot as close to the green as you can. Perhaps that’s true, but it’s hard to say that wider fairways would do anything but further encourage such play. The idea behind wide fairways is to allow players to favor one side of the fairway or the other for a better angle of approach, but if you have a wedge in your hand a bad angle from the fairway is even less of a deterrent than a shot from the rough.
Others would say that the rough at the typical PGA Tour event must not be penal enough if players can win while hitting well under half of the fairways. But the lackluster records of such straight-arrow types as Calvin Peete and Fred Funk at the U.S. Open show that deep rough does not favor accuracy as much as one might think. And, really, would we want to see conservative U.S. Open-style golf week in, week out, or a setup where the players are able to take more chances and make more birdies?
The fact is, if you can blast the ball more than 300 yards from the tee, bomb and gouge is probably going to be your most effective style whatever the course setup. The only thing that could change that would be a major rollback in the distance a ball is allowed to travel, and I don’t see that happening. I’m not sure that it should happen, either.
In the past, we celebrated players like Arnold Palmer and Seve Ballesteros for their ability to hit the ball all over the course and still win tournaments. (Actually, in America we tended to be skeptical about Seve’s greatness because of his wildness, but in Europe he was venerated in much the same way Arnie was here.)
They were the most exciting players of their generations. Nor does anyone seem to mind that Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods are not exactly renowned for their accuracy off the tee. So, let’s celebrate, rather than lament, the ability of Day and Kim to escape trouble so often and still come out on top. (While also keeping in mind that, variety being the spice of life, it’s important to preserve the chances of other types of players, too. With recent victories by the likes of Jim Furyk, Tim Clark, and Steve Stricker, that seems to be the case.)
The Tour’s bomb and gougers are not really one-dimensional. You can’t win that way without considerable short-game skills, and you’ve got to be a shot-maker to escape effectively from the trees. Long-drive contests are littered with players who can bash the ball farther than Jason Day, but they don’t have the overall golf skills to even play on the Tour, let alone win on it.
You’ve also got to be able to manage your misses at least a little bit to have success on Tour. Once you go can’t-find-the-course-with-a-map wild, like David Duval in the depths of his slump, you’re toast.
That there are more long-and-wild winners these days might say something about technology, equipment, and course set-ups. Then again, it might say that there are more long hitters these days possessing overall games that are good enough to win.