The Most Powerful Player in the History of the Game

Michael FitzpatrickFeatured ColumnistNovember 3, 2008

When watching old-time golf films, the first noticeable difference between the game then and now, other than the ridiculous looking outfits, is the difference in equipment. 

Watching films of Hogan, Nicklaus, and Palmer hitting tee shots with wooden drivers that appear to be the size of a newborn baby’s hand seems almost comical when comparing them to today’s Nike Sasquatch or Taylor Made Burner. 

At the age of 18, Jack Nicklaus was invited to play a friendly match with Arnold Palmer and several other players at a local Ohio golf course. 

The legend goes that while hitting practice shots, fans and players alike became mesmerized by Nicklaus’ incredible power. 

In a gesture geared towards entertaining the large number of fans who had shown up, nearly all of them to watch Palmer, the gentleman who was running the event took Nicklaus and Palmer to the first tee to compete in a long-drive exhibition before the start of their match. 

Palmer took his trademark weekend hacker-looking swing sending several lightning fast low line drives flying off the tee box, which eventually stopped rolling between 270-290 yards from the tee.

Nicklaus, a heavyset 18-year-old man-child with a picture perfect golf swing, attacked the ball with incredible force sending his drives exploding off the tee like a rocket. 

Unlike Palmer's low line drives, Nicklaus’ ball would not reconnect with the ground until completely clearing a green which sat 360 yards from the tee. 

With a tiny wooden driver that probably weighed three times as much as the drivers used on tour today and a ball that is incomparable to today's titlist Pro-v, Nicklaus sent one 350+ yard drive after another clear over the green at the young age of 18. 

By the end of this incredible display of power, even Palmer had his mouth hung open, possibly already knowing that he had just seen a preview of things to come. 

Throughout his career, Nicklaus would consistently hit mammoth 330-yard drives.

Golf Digest estimates that the average driving distance has increased by 15.5 yards over the past 10 years, a period of time where metal drivers have been used.

The total increase in driving distance on the PGA Tour has not been very well documented going back 20-30 years.

However, if the average driving distance has increased 15.5 yards in the past decade, we can only imagine how significant of an increase there has been since the migration to from wood to metal drivers.  

For argument’s sake, let’s just say that the average driving distance has increased by 15.5 yards per decade for the past 30 years.  That means that driving distances have increased by more than 46 yards over the past 30 years. 

For a guy like Nicklaus, who used to hit the ball 330 yards more than 30 years ago, he could conceivably be hitting the ball 360+ on a consistent basis had he been using the same equipment used today.

The longest hitter on the PGA Tour in 2008 was Bubba Watson, who averaged 315 yards off the tee. 

J.B. Holmes averaged 310 yards off the tee. 

Could you imagine if there were a player on the PGA Tour today who could consistently hit the ball 360+ yards, strike the ball like Sergio Garcia and putt as well if not better than Tiger Woods?

Well, that would essentially be Jack Nicklaus, if he were transplanted to today’s PGA Tour during the prime of his career.

There is much talk about how far players are hitting the ball today and the never ending lengthening of golf courses, otherwise known as ‘tiger proofing’ courses.

But taking into account the equipment used on tour today along with the fitness regimes players are now undertaking, is it that unthinkable to believe that players such as Nicklaus were actually more powerful than the players on tour today? 

Nicklaus’ driving distance 30 years ago would rank amongst the top of the PGA Tour today, yet Nicklaus had one distinct disadvantage when compared to the likes of Tiger Woods, J.B. Holmes and Bubba Watson.  He was driving the ball with small wooden driver that could be found in an antique shop today. 

We watch PGA Tour players on the range, in complete awe of how far they hit the ball. 

Now, just imagine a player hitting the ball nearly as far but with a tiny wooden driver in his hand; that would have been Jack Nicklaus 30-40 years ago.

You see, when looking at pure power between generations, there is more that goes into the equation than just stats on average driving distance. 

Sure, players today are hitting the ball a lot further on a more consistent basis.  However, they are using far more advanced equipment which has added significant length onto their drives.  

As far as pure power, Nicklaus would have to trump just about every player on the PGA Tour today. 

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