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Driving just gets longer and longer

When Tiger Woods hit the PGA Tour in the late 1990s, most fans and competitors marveled at how long the phenom hit the ball. With his athletic, powerful swing, Woods seemed to carve up golf courses. The folks at the Augusta National Golf Club were even forced to "Tiger proof" their hallowed track, in an attempt to prevent one man from making a mockery of the prestigious event.

These days, the 27-year-old Woods watches as rivals - young and old - bomb drives past his. He's left just to shake his head as his "modest" 293-yard pokes are merely mortal. In 1999, 293 was good for third-best on Tour. This year, he ranks 30th with a similar average distance.

The 37-time PGA Tour winner says there are many reasons for the sudden increase in length for others. He can handle the fact that guys are bigger and stronger and that working out is just as important as hitting balls.

What he doesn't like is the idea of Tour players using illegal equipment. Say the letters C-O-R to Woods and watch him stew. COR is a physics term called the "coefficient of restitution," which measures how quickly a golf ball springs off the face of a club at impact. When the face is ultra thin, it allows for more of a trampoline effect. Golf's ruling bodies last year set the limit at 0.83 for professional tours.

Woods finally admitted Wednesday in Chicago he knows of at least one player who uses a "hot" driver, although he didn't reveal his name.

The proof may be in the numbers. In 1994, only two players averaged more than 280 yards off the tee. Five years ago, the number rose to 19. This season, 122 PGA Tour members average more than 280. Hank Kuehne (316.6) is on pace to shatter John Daly's record average of 306.8 set just last year.

"I think you need to put a limit on - obviously they have on the CORs of the club faces, but I think we all need to make sure that's being regulated," Woods said. "They need to be tested, a lot like NASCAR. First hole, here's my driver; make sure it's legal. Green light, red light, that kind of thing."

When Tiger talks, the PGA Tour listens.

Tim Finchem, the commissioner of the PGA Tour, responded Tuesday, saying the Tour's planned voluntary testing of golf clubs would be available at Tour events no later than Jan. 1, 2004.

"The rumors are running rampant right now and we need to get the rumors out of the game," Finchem told pgatour.com. "And the only way to do it is to be able to verify, and this is a system that allows us to verify without having to take the clubhead apart."

Better equipment has helped re-energize some veterans' games, including Shreveport's Hal Sutton, who never dreamed he'd launch drives like he does now. The hard part for the 2004 U.S. Ryder Cup captain is staying up-to-date with technology.

"I never thought I'd be hitting the ball this far or this straight 10 years ago," Sutton said at the Bank of America Colonial. "It's hard as a player to keep up with the changes in equipment. You think you have to change clubs all the time in order to stay with what technology is presenting. It's tough as a player. In the old days, we'd get used to something and stay with it for three or four years. You better not get too used to anything right now."

It's not only high-powered clubs contributing to low scores and long drives. Six-time Masters champion Jack Nicklaus enjoyed his trip around Augusta this year thanks to his little white nuggets.

"Golf equipment didn't hurt anything," Nicklaus said. "Last year I played here and I couldn't get anywhere around the golf course. With the new golf ball, I can get around the golf course."

Woods is amazed everytime he tries a new ball as well.

"The golf balls, you know, each and every generation, we think we can't really improve the golf ball that much more and we seem to be able to keep doing it," Woods said.

The game has changed drastically even since Woods came aboard. Courses are being stretched to their limits and tournament officials tuck pins and narrow fairways in an attempt to keep scores respectable.

The courses just aren't the same and neither are the combatants.

"Look at all of the young kids now: Every one of them, they are cut, they are ripped, hit the ball a long ways, and the game has changed that way," Woods said. "You don't see too many young players coming up playing the way Corey Pavin used play. You don't see that type of game anymore. Now it's just bombs away and we'll figure it out from there."

Welcome to the 21st century of the PGA Tour.

 

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