A short reminder for long hitters
by Doug Ferguson
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) ? The driving range on the Magnolia Course at Disney World could have been a day-care center Tuesday morning.
On the right was 18-year-old Ty Tryon, finally old enough to vote but still with a year of high school to go. On the left was that grizzled veteran, 23-year-old Charles Howell III, already in his third year as a pro.
They smashed one ball after another, so typical of the next generation of players.
Kids these days can hit the ball a mile. They all seem to have perfect swings. They work with some of the best golf teachers in the world.
Before long, they'll figure out that winning on the PGA Tour is not just about power, precision or a perfect swing.
Howell can attest to that.
His enormous talent finally paid off two weeks ago when he won the Michelob Championship at Kingsmill for his first PGA Tour victory.
The missing link? A reliable short game to help him contend on a regular basis.
"I won that tournament hitting it decent," Howell said. "I've had a ton of tournaments where I was a whole lot better. But I was second in putting that week. There you have it."
Perhaps it was only fitting that Howell played with Corey Pavin in the final round.
Pavin's choppy swing will never be used in any instructional videos. He's one of the shortest hitters on tour. He also has one of the best short games around, which carried him to 14 victories and a U.S. Open title.
"I think that opened his eyes, playing with Pavin," said swing coach David Leadbetter, who has worked with Howell the last 12 years. "It was good for him to see a different game. That's old-style golf."
Leadbetter works with several young players, not all of them destined for the PGA Tour. One trend he notes is they all love to hit the ball long, and they all love hitting it solid.
Howell was no exception.
"He loves to beat balls," Leadbetter said. "Ever since he was a junior, I had to force him to hit putts and work on his short game. I'd turn my head, and he was hitting the long ball again. As he's gotten older, he realizes that for him to take his game to the top level, which he can, he has to have a great short game."
Few things in golf are more gratifying that hitting the ball flush, watching it rise against the horizon and descend 300 yards away.
Still, the following statistics merit consideration:
- Of the top 50 players in driving distance on the PGA Tour going into the Disney World Golf Classic, only seven have won tournaments this year. Howell, Tiger Woods and Chris Smith are the only tour winners in the top 10 in driving distance.
- Seventeen of the top 50 in the scrambling category - getting up and down for par - are PGA Tour winners this year (Woods is No. 1), while 15 winners are in the top 50 in putting.
The reason Woods has become golf's most dominant player in the last 25 years is not because of his power, but because of his short game.
Not surprisingly, that's what he worked on the most once he got out of his high chair.
"I hit it bad as a kid," Woods said Tuesday after a practice round at Disney. "I was long, but I was wild and I missed a lot of greens. I had to work on my short game to compete and win tournaments."
Woods' idea of a good time was to spend hours around the practice green at the Navy Golf Course in Southern California, challenging himself to get up and down from odd spots.
"I found it a lot more fun to chip and putt and do other things that are creative than to sit on the range and hit balls for two or three hours," he said. "I didn't even like to play except in tournaments. But I loved to chip and putt. That was my joy."
Howell won the NCAA title as a junior at Oklahoma State, breaking Woods' record with a 23-under par. Playing only on sponsors' exemptions, he earned $1.5 million last year, which would have put him 33rd on the money list if he had been a member.
Still, he knew his short game wasn't where it needed to be, not if he wanted to win, not if he wanted to challenge Woods some day.
After another poor putting performance at Bay Hill, where he went through four putters and two grips during the week, Howell agreed to break down and rebuild his putting stroke.
He expanded his grip to reveal all 10 fingers, and ran the right index finger down the shaft of the putter, so it worked as a pointer.
That was something Leadbetter noticed several years ago while watching Seve Ballesteros practice in South Africa. Ballesteros, whose short game had no peer, stroked putts 40 feet across the practice green for more than an hour, holing 30 percent of them.
"I've tried to go away from mechanics and go more to the feel side of it," Howell said. "It's hard for me to think that way, but it's getting better."