BY MARTIN VOUSDEN
10. Ben Hogan
Hogan, like many Texans who grow up trying to hit the ball low under the wind, developed a chronic hook that almost ended his career, but through bloody-minded determination and unceasing practice he made himself into one of the best drivers ever instead. So much so that the sixth hole at Carnoustie has been re-named “Hogan’s Alley” in honor of the narrow strip of grass between bunkers and OB that he found all four days in 1953 en route to victory and his only claret jug in the only Open in which he competed.
9. Annika Sorenstam
Her iron play, particularly from 100 yards in, is exquisite, she has a fine putting touch and probably the best brain in women’s golf, but long, straight driving is the platform on which the best golfer in the world’s game is based. So relentlessly does she thrash her opponents that an alternative career as a dominatrix beckons when she gives up golf.
8. Harry Vardon
Six Opens, which remains a record, and one US Open are the Majors tally for one of the purest ball-strikers ever to pick up a brassie or spoon. Challenged throughout his career by JH Taylor and James Braid, he nevertheless was first among equals, mainly because of his great ability from the tee.
7. Tony Jacklin
Like Hogan, Vardon, Watson and others in this list, he continued to be a superlative striker of the ball long after his scoring ability was sabotaged by a dodgy putting stroke. But we shall remember him always for the athleticism and power of his tee shots, summed up by Henry Longhurst with the words “What a corker!” as Jacklin unleashed a superlative drive on the 18th at Royal Lytham and St Annes in 1969 for his only Open win on this side of the Atlantic.
6. Jack Nicklaus
The greatest ever had a swing characterized as “rock and block” that consisted of an upright action that, coupled with his strength, gave him the most telling power fade ever seen. He had the capacity to bludgeon a course but preferred to use brains as well as brawn and quietly pick its pockets. Eighteen Majors and 19 runner-up spots suggest that his driving was, err, really quite good.
5. Calvin Peete
Born black and dirt poor, with 18 siblings, Peete didn’t even play golf until he was 23, and it was an unlikely sport to choose because he broke his left elbow as a boy and it wasn’t set properly, leaving him unable to straighten his arm. Unexpectedly, the injury meant he was phenomenally straight and he topped the US Tour driving accuracy stats for 10 straight years. As Lee Trevino said: “He straightens his arm to take the check.”
4. Colin Montgomerie
For seven unbelievable years Monty never had to have his golf shoes cleaned because he didn’t know where the rough was and simply walked down the middle of the newly-mown grass. He famously never practiced — because he never needed to. Stroll onto the tee, hit driver to right center, find the green and hole the putt. Piece of piss to a trained athlete.
3. Sir Henry Cotton
It was said of the three-time Open winner (by US coach Bob Toski) that he was so unyieldingly straight from the tee that it was impossible to determine if his ball was in the left or right side of the fairway. Cotton knew how good he was and didn’t shy away from telling others, but most of them could see it for themselves whenever he drove the ball.
2. Sam Snead
Quite possibly the most naturally gifted player ever, Snead’s swing was so fluid that it was likened to pouring molasses over treacle, and the epithet “Slammin’ Sam” always did him a great disservice because he was a pure swinger, not a hitter. He won 84 US Tour events — a record still to be beaten, over six different decades, five Majors and recorded 34 holes-in-one. He remained good enough to finish third in the US PGA at age 62, and throughout it all his driving was the lynchpin.
1. Greg Norman
His career spanned the change from persimmon to titanium but he was equally good with both. Previously, golfers tended to be either long or straight, but none before or since has combined the two to such telling effect. Like a Federer serve or Lillee bouncer, Norman’s tee shot was the ace in his hand that he knew he could rely on when it really counted. Two Opens are scant reward for one so talented, but his final 18 holes at Royal St George’s in 1993 when he lifted the claret jug for the second time is possibly the greatest driving round ever seen. When the pressure was really on he showed frailty with his iron approach shots, but with a wood in his hands he was peerless.
Huge but haywire Tiger Woods: Only a man with his genius could contend as often as he does without ever finding a fairway. John Daly: The enormous backswing means that if his timing is just a fraction out — which it often is — then the ball could go anywhere. Laura Davies: Wallops it like an angry man, and just as unpredictable. Hank Kuehne: Tall, pencil-thin American who, like Gerald Ford, doesn’t know which course he’s playing until after the first tee shot comes to rest.
Back to the practice ground, Thomas Bjorn: In this year’s European Open put three balls into the River Liffey on the 71st hole before eventually signing off with an 11, on his way to shooting 86. Seve Ballesteros: Once suggested that all courses should have no fairways, so that everyone else would have to play from the rough, too. Jose Maria Olazabal: Often couldn’t find a fairway with GPS but such are his powers of recovery, and iron play, that it didn’t matter. Ben Crenshaw: Tom Weiskopf said of him: “He hits in the woods so often he should get an orange hunting jacket.” Arnold Palmer: Only knew one way to play and that was to thrash it as hard as possible, with rather inevitable consequences.
Honorable mention, Moe Norman: Golf’s greatest eccentric was famous for hitting drivers so straight that a caddie with a baseball glove could stand at the end of the range and catch them — supposedly without moving his feet.
Almost made it to the top-20, Angel Cabrera: Monstrously long Argentinian is still not consistent enough, but he is fun to watch. Vijay Singh: Regularly among the longest drivers on Tour and has the strength to recover when he finds the rough — an ability that is tested just a tad too often. Tom Kite: The nearest thing golf has to a cyborg, he defined the importance of fairway, green, hole the putt, but wavered when the pressure was most intense. Fred Funk: Shorter than a Nick Faldo thank-you speech to journalists but always walks in a straight line after his ball. Retief Goosen: Long enough and straight enough but not quite enough of either to be included.
Martin Vousden is a freelance golf writer, a former editor of Today’s Golfer and launch editor of Golf Buyer and Swing magazines. His book, With Friends Like These; A Selective History of the Ryder Cup, was published in 2006 by Time Warner. He edits the Rare Birdie website.