'Long drive' is king for young Tiger wannabes

Matt Hoffenberg is a golfer through and through. He hits the local links in Simi Valley, Calif., at least five days a week, pitching, chipping, and putting until the sun slips beneath the spine of the Santa Monica Mountains.

He can even use the phrase "greens in regulation" correctly in a sentence.

But when the subject turns to his driving, he becomes almost apologetic. The par 4s are tough at Wood Ranch Golf Club, he laments, and he doesn't have the power he'd like. On average, his drives only carry about 200 yards.

Then again, he's only 11.

While 200 yards might be considered a pretty impressive poke by most preteen standards, Matt has good reason to be concerned. After all, he wants to be a pro, and in the dawning age of Tiger, distance is king.

Today, Tiger Woods begins the Masters as the favorite to win and the most popular golfer in history - not because he has the most delicate chip from the light rough or the best feel for the rolls and troughs of the greens. Rather, it is because of who he is - and that he can hit the ball farther than virtually anyone else on tour.

While there's no doubt that Woods has a complete game, few in the galleries yell "you da man" for an 80-yard pitch and run. The indelible image is Tiger at the tee, torquing his body into a Celtic knot of shoulders and shins to unleash a 300-yard drive.

As a result, many of America's youngest duffers - pricked by Woods's herculean clouts and boosted by new technology - are turning fairways into little more than landing strips. For some, it's just a part of the quest to become the next Jack Nicklaus. But for others, it's becoming an end in itself.

"It's the equivalent of the home run in baseball or the slam dunk in basketball," says Russ Pate of the Long Drivers of America in Dallas. "It's the coup de grace."

American sports fans have always been impressed by power. But these days, hitting the ball hard has become big business. Long Drivers, for example, sponsors a yearly competition to crown the world's longest driver.

That competition brought four-time champ Jason Zuback $267,000. Credited with once driving a golf ball 511 yards, Mr. Zuback also does about 50 special appearances a year, in which the the 5-ft., 10-in., 225-lb. former pharmacist blasts shots through yellow pages and clears 275 yards with his putter. Each nets him $7,000.

The event has been so successful that Long Drivers is planning to create a junior circuit. That couldn't make 16-year-old Nick "Sputnick" Miller any happier.

The son of a clubmaker, he's been holding a driver about as long as he can remember. Problem is, he never had a great desire to use any other club. Growing up in Michigan, he recalls, "I hated golf. I always just tried to hit it farther than the other kids."

He almost always did. Soon after the family moved to Carmel Valley, Calif., he was out-hitting everyone. These days, he has to wait for people on the opposite side of the range - 345 yards away - to leave before firing.

Nick's record stands at 449 yards, using a hybrid club he glued together. As far as the real game goes, though, he says he's bored with it. He's on his high school team, "but I'm stuck on long drive."

Indeed, the lure of the big drive can tempt young golfers away from the subtle science of hitting controlled slices and sand wedges - especially if they're new to the sport. Woods brought some 200,000 new players to golf after he won the Masters in 1997, and many of these had little or no exposure to the game before. They just wanted to hit the ball - hard.

"After Tiger won the Masters, our [junior] programs doubled in size," says Derek Breau of the Massachusetts Golf Association. "It was like day care. They just wanted to whack a ball. They didn't know what golf is."

For lifelong players like Matt Hoffenberg and his older brother, Danny, however, the desire to add yards to each drive is not a novelty but a key to golfing well. The average driving distance on the pro tour has risen from 256.8 yards in 1980 to 269.3 yards in 1998, and Mr. Pate says he's seen 12- and 13-year-olds hit the ball more than 240 yards.

New technology, including lighter, more powerful drivers, is helping, but new teaching methods are also playing a role. "Jack Nicklaus's coach was one of the few that said to hit as hard as you can and then straighten it out," says Pate. "Now, it's common."

That's a philosophy Rudy Duran ascribes to. He coached a young Tiger Woods, he's currently coaching the Hoffenberg brothers, and he says long drives are crucial. "You can't play basketball unless you're tall," he says. "You can't play golf unless you hit far."

Matt's working on that. Sure, he likes hitting wedge shots. But he also savors that marquee moment in golf when you step up to the tee and attempt to become a human howitzer.

"I like driving the ball," he says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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