Tiger Woods is hitting the ball just two yards shorter this season compared to his previous career average off the tee, but he ranks 22nd on the PGA Tour in driving distance.
When did Tiger Woods become a short hitter (relatively speaking)?
"Well, probably mid-2000s I wasn't the longest one out here," Woods said Thursday at the Deutsche Bank Championship. "I mean, the game has certainly changed. When I came out here in '96 and '97 I was long, and I averaged 296. I think there's like 30‑some‑odd guys who are averaging over 300. So it's a totally different game now."
Woods said the combination of improved equipment - lighter, longer shafts and harder golf balls - as well as the more daunting physique of the modern Tour player - more guys over 6 feet tall - have made his peers stronger drivers of the ball.
That combination really began to manifest itself in 2003, as this graphic illustrates.
For the first seven seasons of Tiger Woods' career, there was only one player who toppled the 300-yard mark in any of them. It was either Woods or, more likely, John Daly.
That changed in 2003, however, when nine guys - not including Woods - broke that 300-yard barrier. The number continued to increase significantly over the next two seasons, to 15, then to 26 players averaging 300-plus per drive.
The number dipped dramatically from 2008-10, to just about a baker's dozen of guys poking it over that 300-yard number. The average has picked up over the last two seasons, more resembling the pace in 2006 and '07.
In 2007, Woods was still averaging 300 yards or more off the tee, despite moving toward a strategy employing more the use of the stinger shots with the 3-wood and 2-iron. The numbers, dropped off, however, in that season, at the height of his purported obsession with Navy SEAL-style training. In the latter half of that year, Woods ruptured the ACL in his left knee, he said, while running after the Open Championship.
A season later, Woods underwent arthroscopic surgery on the left knee to repair cartilage damage. He later won the U.S. Open with a double stress fracture in his right leg, immediately afterward undergoing surgery to repair the ACL.
From then on, Woods has not cracked 300 yards in driving average. He has spoken repeatedly of the desire to protect his left knee in the golf swing, but that desire and every other factor - age, strategy and swing changes - only cost him about four or five yards off the tee.
Distance gains, however fluctuating at the top of the ladder, have remained consistent for all players since '03. The explosion of distance among players with body types atypical from the traditional golf, um, build certainly caught the attention of the casual fan, but distance average distance increased 6.3 yards between 2002 and '03. It has grown another three yards since that first leap, meaning every player on the PGA Tour is almost 10 yards longer than when Woods and Daly dominated the distance game.
Woods, however, has obviously still continued to dominate the game despite the growth in distance. As Woods said at the media day for the 2011 AT&T National, his edge is mental.
"I still have length in which I can get to par-5s and the occasional short par-4 I can take it up and try to drive it," he said. "But it's still learning how to move the golf ball around the golf course to give yourself the best chance over 72 holes. It is a marathon. Understanding how to play the game that way has helped me quite a bit over the years. No matter how much power you have, you have to be able to, you know, dissect a golf course and learn how to pick it apart."