Commentary

What a difference a decade makes

Originally Published: January 2, 2010
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

It is all a matter of perspective, for it is easy to look at the last 10 years in golf and see that not much has changed.

There was a guy then who dominated all of the headlines, the same guy as today.

[+] EnlargeJohn Daly
Andrew Redington/Getty ImagesIn 1999, John Daly was the only PGA Tour player driving the ball an average of more than 300 yards off the tee. In 2009, 13 different players accomplished the feat.

Sure, the news he has created in the past month is far different from any he generated in the previous 10 years, but nonetheless -- scandal or not -- Tiger Woods remains the constant when it comes to golf.

He was the No. 1-ranked player in the world by a mile at the end of the 1999 season and was the No. 1-ranked player by a similar distance at the end of 2009.

So if you take that narrow view, yes, not much has changed in golf.

All you have to do is look at who was No. 2 in 1999 to see how much is different as a new decade is upon us. David Duval was second to Woods when 2000 dawned and was seemingly poised to forge a rivalry for the ages.

He was coming off a season in which he won four times, shot 59 and was second to Woods on the money list. He had top-10 finishes at three of the four major championships. And he trailed Woods just 2-0 in majors.

Ten years later, Duval has added just two PGA Tour titles to his total, the last back in 2001 at the British Open. He has been out of the top 125 money winners for eight straight years. And while Woods was spending all but 32 weeks of the decade at No. 1 in the world, Duval has slumped to 193rd, greatly aided by a runner-up finish at the 2009 U.S. Open.

Yes, a lot has changed in golf, some of it anecdotal, some of it quantified by numbers.

Here is a look at some of the differences a decade can bring -- and what might be different going forward.

Technology
Although not as radical as some of the changes we saw with equipment in the 1990s, there was still significant improvement in clubs and golf balls in the 2000s as players on the professional level learned more about how best to match up equipment to their skills.

And it's not just clubs. Gloves, shoes, shirts, sunglasses -- all have been improved.

"All of the [research and development] is just on a whole different level now," said Paul Casey, who a decade ago starred on the Great Britain and Ireland Walker Cup team, played college golf at Arizona State and is now ranked No. 7 in the world. "You look at some of the technology, and it's unbelievable. I must admit I'm not much of a techie when it comes to a golf club. I don't change them much. But everything now is so technical.

"There was even a time when guys were trying to get extra yardage by using certain tees. Remember that? Spikes have changed. Softspikes have come in, but spike technology is better, too. Shoes are even more comfortable."

A look at the numbers shows that more players are driving it farther today than they were 10 years ago.

Robert Garrigus led the PGA Tour in 2009 with an average tee shot of 312 yards. A decade ago, John Daly led the list at 305 yards, the only player beyond 300. In 2009, there were 13 players who drove it 300 yards or more, on average.

Woods was third at 293.1 in 1999; in 2009 he averaged 298.4 but ranked 21st.

The golf ball
One reason for the increased driving distance is the improvement of the golf ball. In simple terms, the decade saw tremendous change that enabled players to get the best of both worlds -- distance and feel. In the past, many players had often sacrificed length in order to have a "softer" golf ball that worked better around the greens.

"There was a big change in dimple development in the early 2000s when high-spinning wound balls went away," said Dean Snell, TaylorMade's senior director of research and development for golf balls. "There were also huge improvements in core technology in the mid-2000s -- lower drag dimple technology around 2006 and lower drag dimples in 2008. [That led to] low driver spins due to lower compression cores."

Titleist's introduction of the ProV1 in late 2000 brought the sold-core golf ball to prominence. That year, less than 30 percent of PGA Tour players used that type of golf ball. By 2001, approximately 85 percent had converted, and by 2005, every player on tour was using a multi-layered solid-core golf ball.

"[That] the length guys are driving it is the biggest change to me," said Mike Weir, who won the Masters in 2003. "The gains with the new ball and driver combos & it wasn't incremental. The real long guys got super, super long. They can get the ball speed and really dial it in. Someone like myself or Jim Furyk, we might gain 10 yards with the new technology, where they are gaining 35 or 40 yards. It just kind of widened the gap, distance-wise.

"My first few years on tour, the long guys might be 10 or 20 yards by us. Now it can be 50 or 60. That's a big difference."

Said Steve Stricker: "A lot of things have changed. Obviously the ball has changed tremendously in that time frame, along with the drivers. The distances have increased because of those two things. As far as players go, from 2000 until now, players have come out a little more aggressively. Hit-it-as-far-as-you-can-and-go-find-it attitude."

Fitness
For years, golfers had a reputation of spending their after-round hours doing 12-ounce curls. Not anymore. Casey joked that it is difficult to find room in the tour's roving fitness trailer, but he was not far off.

"I don't think there is any question that golfers are really athletes," said NBC analyst Gary Koch, who won six times in his career on the PGA Tour. "In the decade from 2000 on, I think that question clearly has been answered. The guys work out a lot harder. It's something they focus on, and almost every player is doing something. And some, what they do is really pretty amazing. The amount of time spent working out, what they do and how important they view it & that's a huge change in a 10-year period.

"And it's one of those things that was brought on by Tiger. He took that to another level. You need to be in great shape. You need to be ready to play. When I was out at Tiger's event [the Chevron World Challenge] and Zach Johnson and Stewart Cink are talking about having their trainer out there and spending more time in the gym than hitting balls & times have changed."

No fear
This is more anecdotal than it is supported by fact, but there is a feeling that young players turn pro with an ability to compete and win much quicker.

"The standard of the young kids who come out now & they're ready to play out here," said Lee Westwood, 36, who 10 years after ending the 1999 season ranked fifth in the world and now stands fourth. "It's almost like they're semiprofessionals coming out instead of amateurs. That's the biggest difference.

"For me, it took a couple of years to kind of get used to it. A guy like Rory [McIlroy] played something like 20 professional events as an amateur. There is an understanding now of what goes on. The kids are much more prepared, and they fit in more."

For what it's worth, at the end of 1999, five of the top 10 players in the world were in their 20s, with two in their 40s. A decade later, seven were in their 30s, two in their 40s and only one -- McIlroy, who is 20 -- under the age of 30.

The top 10 at the end of 1999: Woods, Duval, Colin Montgomerie, Davis Love, Ernie Els, Westwood, Vijay Singh, Nick Price, Phil Mickelson, Mark O'Meara.

The top 10 at the end of 2009: Woods, Mickelson, Steve Stricker, Westwood, Padraig Harrington, Jim Furyk, Casey, Henrik Stenson, McIlory, Kenny Perry.

Money
It is no surprise that purses on the PGA Tour have skyrocketed in the last decade. The Honda Classic, for example, paid $468,000 to winner Vijay Singh in 1999. In 2009, Y.E. Yang pocketed just more than $1 million -- an increase of more than 215 percent.

Woods won the 1999 money title with $6,616,585 and won it again in 2009 with $10,508,163.

More telling is the amount made by the 30th finisher on the money list. In 1999: $1,258,945. In 2009: $2,332,378.

Or the number necessary to keep your tour card. In 1999: $326,893. In 2009: $662,683.

There is no doubt that PGA Tour players, who were doing quite well for themselves a decade ago, are doing much better today.

The future
As a new decade dawns, will the changes of the past 10 years continue? Not necessarily.

An important new equipment rule is expected to have an impact on the way the game is played. In 2010, golf's governing bodies have modified the rule regarding square grooves in irons, reverting to a V-shaped groove for professional players.

The consequence has many technical variations, but basically it is intended to keep a golf ball from spinning as much out of the rough. Young players who have grown up with nothing other than square grooves could face the biggest adjustment.

"To me, hopefully, it will actually mean that driving the ball in the fairway means something," said the TV analyst Koch.

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, who has been strongly against lowering purses despite a struggling economy and difficulty in retaining sponsors, did say that purses will "flatten" and remain about the same in the near future. Given the huge gains of the past decade, a leveling off will be a big change.

And then comes the overall attitude of players and sponsors.

The game is not thriving the way it was a decade ago, for numerous reasons, most of them tied to the struggling economy. Purses have gone up, and so have charitable contributions, but staying at those levels will be the game's next great challenge.

"The tour has had to become a lot more value-oriented," said Cink, a member of the tour's policy board. "The sponsors have had to become more sophisticated, and we've had to match them with sophistication of our own, and work to get players involved with sponsors.

"It's more than just slapping your name on a tournament and [saying,] 'Let's tee it up.' That's a big change in this decade. Now we have to do more than just play golf. You used to play golf, put it on TV and everybody smiled.

"[Now,] though, it has to be a lot more than that."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com