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Edited by Alan Shipnuck
February 18, 2002
Two tours, same story: The short knocker ain't dead yet
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February 18, 2002

Small Ball Rising

Two tours, same story: The short knocker ain't dead yet

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The tortoise beat the hare again last week, a fable that this time played out on two tours. At the Buick Invitational Jos� Mar�a Olaz�bal vanquished the longest course in PGA Tour history by birdieing the last hole with a layup on a par-5 (page Gl6). This old-fashioned small ball was in character for Olaz�bal, who in 2001 ranked 188th in driving distance, at 266 yards a pop, a number that harkens back to the days of persimmon. At the Senior's ACE Group Classic, on Sunday, the outcome was settled on the 17th hole, a devilish par-5. Tom Watson blasted a 309-yard drive and went for the green in two, but his bid for victory found a watery grave. Shorter and more conservative, Hale Irwin laid up and wedged his way to the title.

These were victories for the little guy, the increasingly underestimated genre of player who gets by on guile and proficiency from 100 yards in. Olaz�bal's win was an especially welcome rebuttal to the pervasive belief that might makes right in the modern pro game. At 7,607 yards Torrey Pines was a course of unprecedented scale, but its outsized proportions actually muted the effects of the new atomic balls and nuclear drivers. It's counterintuitive, but courses are now becoming so long they are beginning to favor the shorter hitter—or at least the shorter hitter with a strong short game. When every player is forced to lay up on a par-5—as happened on Torrey's revamped 18th—the advantage on that hole shifts from the long hitter to the player more proficient with his wedge and putter. Likewise, as par-3s creep toward 250 yards and par-4s approach 500, fewer players will reach the holes' well-fortified greens in regulation, leading to a battle of the up-and-downs.

Courses are becoming not only longer but also more penal, as Irwin is well aware. He was tied with Watson on Sunday when they stepped to the 17th tee of the Club at Twin Eagles. "After Tom hit that big drive," Irwin says, "I turned to my caddie and said, 'Good, I hope he goes for it now.' " Watson couldn't resist, and he hooked a four-wood into a water hazard and made bogey. Irwin's ensuing birdie iced the tournament. "There's more than one way to skin a cat," he said.

The culture clash of short hitters on long courses will reach its zenith at April's Masters. Augusta National has been retrofitted with nastier bunkers and more than 300 additional yards. The sweeping redesign moved short knocker Justin Leonard to grumble, "Great, now only five guys have a chance to win the Masters." He clearly didn't have a dinker like Olaz�bal in mind, even though Ollie has won two green jackets—in 1994, when he finished nine under, and '99 (eight under).

A new epoch began in the summer of 2000 when solid-core balls accelerated the distance revolution. Suddenly the Olaz�bals of the world were unable to keep up as the longest hitters pulverized Augusta National's par-5s and exploited its shortish par-4s. In 2001 Tiger Woods won his second Masters by going 16 under, while David Duval finished 14 under and Phil Mickelson 13 under. On a longer, harder Augusta National, par will be an increasingly precious commodity—in fact, the bombers may be forced to lay up on the revamped back-nine par-5s. Now Olaz�bal, shaky driver and all, is back in the ball game, a point he drove home at Torrey Pines, a new-age course that leveled the playing field.