At a corporate outing three years ago in Carlsbad, Calif.,
Michelle McGann sent one five-iron shot after another soaring
past the 175-yard marker at the La Costa practice range as Fred
Couples stood nearby watching. He was surprised by how far she
hit the ball. "He was just kind of shaking his head," says
McGann, whose big hats and big drives make her one of the LPGA's
most recognizable players. "He asked me, 'How many times have
you won?' I said, 'I haven't won yet.' And he said, 'I can't
believe you don't win every week.'" Now 27, McGann has six
victories--including last week's HealthSouth Inaugural in
Orlando, where she defeated Karrie Webb in a sudden-death
playoff--and is at the forefront of a competitive makeover of
the LPGA. Long driving used to be a guy thing, but not anymore.
LPGA players are not only getting longer, but also the longest
among them are beginning to dominate the tour. "Women's golf has
gone from a finesse game to a power game," says Hall of Famer
Pat Bradley, once one of the tour's longer hitters but not among
the top 100 in driving distance last year. "These kids bomb it
by everybody now. I don't know what vitamins they're feeding
them, but I'd like to get some."
Patty Sheehan, another member of the LPGA Hall of Fame, won the
Nabisco Dinah Shore last year, her sixth major, but nothing
else. "Being short and kind of cagey works sometimes, but not as
consistently as it used to," she says. "Players out here are
getting bigger and stronger. So are people in general. It's the
wave of the future."
This long-distance phenomenon must be seen in relative terms.
PGA Tour players still drive the ball 35 to 50 yards farther
than their LPGA tour counterparts. Take Laura Davies, the LPGA's
alltime home run queen, for example. No one has been able to use
length to such an advantage--not even JoAnne Carner in her
prime. But Davies's tour-leading average drive last year, 262.3
yards, would have put her in a tie for 134th with Justin Leonard
in the men's rankings.
Still, the days when the women's game was dismissively
characterized as grunting and bunting are over. Gripping and
ripping is in. Webb, who tied for seventh in driving distance
last year (249.6), and Davies each won four times in 1996. Kelly
Robbins, who is nearly as long as Davies (254.0), only won once
but finished sixth on the money list. "Webbie is not a very big
girl, but she hits it long enough," Davies says. "Everyone is
getting bigger and stronger, especially the younger players.
They must eat raw meat or something."
The trend toward the long ball has not gone unnoticed,
particularly among those on the opposite end of the power stats.
"It makes the rest of us have to get longer, too," says Jenny
Lidback, the '95 du Maurier champion. "I used to be average, now
I'm toward the bottom in distance [216.1 yards in 1996]. I
haven't kept up. It has definitely become a power tour. You need
to be long."
That need has increased. Since 1992, when the LPGA first began
keeping track of driving distance (tee shots are measured on two
holes per round), the tour as a whole has added 10 yards in
length. In 1992 seven players averaged more than 240 off the tee
(not including Davies, who often used a two-iron to keep her
ball in play). Last year, 38 players averaged 240 or better.
McGann (255.5 in 1996) was the only player who averaged more
than 250 yards in '92. Five players did last season. A more
important stat: Five of last year's top 11 money winners--Webb
(1st), Davies (2nd), Robbins (6th), McGann (8th) and Jane Geddes
(11th)--ranked among the top seven in distance.
Why are women getting longer? There are a number of reasons.
Improved equipment is an obvious one. Titanium club heads,
better balls and superior shafts all help. Some players also use
extra-long shafts. Emilee Klein, for instance, swings a massive
50-inch-long driver that is only 14 inches shorter than she is.
But there's more behind the surge in the numbers than
technology. "The sheer athleticism on this tour has increased
enormously," says LPGA commissioner Jim Ritts. "That's something
you saw happen on the PGA Tour sometime during the 1980s. I see
it in the pro-ams each week. A good amateur player will hit a
drive, and then one of our players, who may not be physically
very large, hits it 12 or 15 yards past him. On the next hole
that guy is gripping it just a little tighter. Our player still
hits it 10 yards past him. On the 3rd hole I'm watching the
veins come out of his forearms. It's fun. By the 4th hole he
usually admits, 'Man, they're pretty good, aren't they?'"
The changes taking place in women's golf are part of a bigger
evolution in women's sports. "If I walked into a press room in
1974 and said I was lifting weights, guys would've thought I was
trying to be an East German," says Bradley. "Nowadays you're
weird if you're not doing Nautilus."
The latest generation of LPGA players was exposed to organized
sports at an early age and encouraged to compete, the same as
the boys, throughout elementary and high school. Many older
players did not have as many opportunities. Also, college and
national programs now take advantage of advances in physiology.
"I started playing golf when I was six and hit it far because my
muscles grew with my game," says Donna Caponi, who won 24 LPGA
events and is now a television commentator. "All of these girls
today start young. Would Tiger Woods hit it as far as he does if
he hadn't started until he was 16? Probably not."
Golf instruction is better, too, thanks to video cameras.
"There's not a woman's swing and a man's swing anymore, there's
a golf swing," says LPGA veteran Chris Johnson. That explains
why the Senior tour features so many distinctive swings while
the PGA Tour and LPGA don't. "The modern player takes the video
recorder out on the range every day," Caponi says. "All the
swings basically look the same. Karrie Webb's swing looks just
like 95 percent of the men on Tour."
The long hitters haven't completely taken over, and probably
won't as long as players like Annika Sorenstam and Liselotte
Neumann wield seven-woods like master surgeons. The finesse
players are also aided by the way the LPGA sets up tournament
courses. "From my standpoint, it feels like we're forced to put
it in reverse and not be as aggressive as we'd like off the
tee," says McGann. "The tour definitely doesn't cater to the
long hitters. It's a touchy subject. They never move the tees
back on holes that play fast and short, but they don't have a
problem moving the tees up on holes that play long. To me, it's
still a putting contest every week."
Davies goes weeks without hitting a five- or six-iron, unless
she happens to run into a short par-5, but disagrees with
McGann. "You can't set up a men's course for Tiger Woods and
John Daly, just like you can't set ours up for me and Michelle,"
she says. "You've got to set it up for the average hitter. But
if anyone asks me if the course is long enough, I'll always say
no. It never will be for me. I dream of a 400-yard par-4."
Must be a gal thing.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES After a slow start, McGann has been a smash, winning six times in the last 20 months. [Michelle McGann golfing]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES [Laura Davies golfing]
Laura Davies (above) led the LPGA in driving in '96. Here are
the LPGA's longest hitters, and the PGA Tour players who had
nearly identical stats.
LPGA Rank Yards PGA Tour Rank Yards
1. Laura Davies 262.3 134. Justin Leonard 262.3
2. Jean Bartholomew 255.6 177. Wayne Grady 255.7
3. Michelle McGann 255.5 178. Loren Roberts 255.1
4. Kelly Robbins 254.0 181. Lanny Wadkins 253.6
5. Jane Geddes 252.7 184. Ben Crenshaw 251.9