NORTON, Mass. — Two years ago at his season-ending tournament, Tiger Woods was waiting to tee off on the par-3 17th at Sherwood Country Club when he turned to watch Dustin Johnson behind him just in time to see him blast a tee shot on the par-5 11th hole.
Woods watched the flight of the ball, smiled and shook his head. One of his pro-am partners asked if he could get it out there with Johnson.
“Are you kidding me?” Woods replied. “No.”
There was a time when players talked that way about Woods, and not too many others: John Daly, Phil Mickelson, Kenny Perry, Davis Love III, Ernie Els. It was an elite group. Now, extreme length is less exclusive.
“The thing is,” Woods continued as Johnson walked off the tee, “there are plenty others just like him. They’re not coming. They’re here.”
Power always has been an advantage in golf. It was for Bobby Jones and Craig Wood, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, and once upon a time, for Woods.
It becomes even more topical during the FedEx Cup playoffs because of the golf courses in the rotation this year.
All of them are at big ballparks.
Everything feels large about Bethpage Black, which hosted the opening playoff event last week for The Barclays. More than measuring 7,468 yards as a par 71, it featured long rough and elevated greens that the sun baked out on the weekend. The ball had to go far and high so it could land soft. That’s the power game.
Next up is the Deutsche Bank Championship. It starts Friday at the TPC Boston, which the players view as paradise for long hitters. The list of winners during the last decade include Woods, Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Adam Scott and Charley Hoffman. It’s still a course that favors position over sheer power, so there’s always room for a Steve Stricker or Olin Browne. Even so, the par 5s give power players a bigger advantage than most courses.
The BMW Championship goes to Crooked Stick, where Daly first rose to fame with his “grip it and rip it” style when he won the 1991 PGA Championship. The FedEx Cup concludes at East Lake, a 7,319-yard course that plays to a par 70.
With so many courses built for power, where does that leave a medium-length guy like David Toms?
Toms started the playoffs at No. 69 and missed the cut at Bethpage Black to fall 20 spots in the standings. He withdrew from the Deutsche Bank Championship, and because only 70 players advance to Crooked Stick, his FedEx Cup season is done. He lives in Shreveport, La., and it worked out well for him to be home this week especially since Hurricane Isaac came ashore Wednesday morning.
But his WD was a small protest on his part against bigger and stronger courses — this year, four in a row.
Next year will look different. The Barclays goes back to refurbished Liberty National, where Heath Slocum won in 2009, and the BMW Championship returns to the Chicago area, this time at Conway Farms. The following year, Ridgewood (where Matt Kuchar won in 2010) and Cherry Hills are part of the rotation.
To say this is a long year takes on new meaning in these playoffs.
“Probably by coincidence that it’s happened that way,” said Steve Stricker, whose two FedEx Cup playoff wins came at Westchester and the TPC Boston. “I hadn’t really thought about it, but that’s the nature of our game. That’s where it’s going — big courses. Everybody hits it far. I’m even hitting it out there further than I used to.”
Earlier this year, Mark Wilson tried to drive home the point that there are no short hitters in golf. Everyone is long, or long enough. There’s just another class of players who are ridiculously long, and each year there are more of them. Wilson is not one to make excuses, and neither is someone like Greg Chalmers of Australia.
Chalmers finished ninth at The Barclays, moving up 40 spots in the FedEx Cup to No. 38. He is a lock to advance to the third playoff event, and has a reasonable chance to get to the Tour Championship, which would put the little Lefty into all four majors next year.
“There’s never going to be a time when hitting it long is not an advantage,” Chalmers said. “Power is an advantage in most sports. So what I have to do is hope guys that are really long are not as strong in areas that I am, like putting and chipping.”
Brandt Snedeker is not one of the bashers, though he holed enough putts last week to be a runner-up at Bethpage Black.
Still, the leaderboard showed plenty of strength behind winner Nick Watney, Sergio Garcia, Johnson, Louis Oosthuizen and Lee Westwood. If those of medium length struggled to find fairways, Bethpage took a toll. It was tough on anyone who played out of the long grass or wound up on the wrong side of the hole, or on Saturday, if they were off their game and wound up on the wrong side of the draw.
Woods, for example, found himself in the rough too often on the weekend, and it required sheer muscle to get it on or around the green. One of those shots was left of the 15th fairway, in shin-high grass that had been trampled by the gallery. Only a sliver of the ball, about the width of a pencil, could be seen. Woods grunted on contact, louder than anything that will be heard at Flushing Meadow this week at the U.S. Open tennis.
Is this a fair rotation of courses for those who don’t smash it?
“It’s harder, isn’t it?” Geoff Ogilvy said as he cleaned out his locker at Bethpage. “I think it’s difficult — and I can only speak for this course — because it’s not only how long this is, but hitting out of heavy rough is a big part of playing this golf course. And generally, the longer you are, the stronger you are, so the long hitters will have an advantage. It’s hard from the rough because they’re all forced carries onto the green.”
This is not a problem for a guy named Els, though he was intrigued by the lineup of Bethpage, Boston, Crooked Stick and East Lake.
“It’s a good question, because this was a big golf course,” he said. “They should think about getting the right golf courses for the whole field to balance it a little bit.”
There will be years when it will be like that, but not this one.