I had an opportunity to watch a lot of Kyle Stanley’s golf game over the weekend.
It began, of course, because of his flaming failure in La Jolla when his ball backed up into the the pond fronting the 18th green. He made triple bogey. A double would have won it. That’s merely the objective facts. The heartbreaking fact was that at one point in the final round, he had a seven-shot lead and the tournament was, “his to lose.” And in a crashing, crushing crescendo, he did.
So all the world wanted to see how he would do in his post-traumatic debut in Phoenix, including me. And particularly because he was going to be paired with Fred Couples and college-straight-to-the-Tour-phenom, Bud Cauley. And then when Couples withdrew and was replaced with journeyman Ken Duke, we had another human story revolving around challenge and survival. Too compelling.
And then when I went to the interview room on Tuesday and got to hear Stanley’s brutally honest mea culpa and I’ll-get-over-it, his sincere introspective analysis and his forward looking certainty that his day would come again, well, I almost didn’t sleep each night of the tournament.
The thing that stands out about Kyle Stanley is that he hits the ball a very long way. You can read the raw numbers on the Tour’s Driving Distance and it doesn’t do justice to him. He sits in 8th place averaging a smidge over 308 yards. The key word there is “average.” Phoenix lowered his average because of all the 3-woods he had to hit; he came out of there averaging “only” 288 yards for the week.
So the numbers don’t tell the whole story. First of all, he is lean and fit and fast through the ball. The ball comes off the driver with a crack you can seemingly hear from one end of the golf course to the other. Some enterprising entrepreneur was following the gallery selling ear plugs.
The ball comes off the face so fast that the only way to see it is to be standing directly behind the tee. If you’re even slightly off to the side you have to hope that you can pick it up about 100 yards out as it climbs into orbit. If you’re lucky enough to pick it up, you notice immediately that he hits it on a very high trajectory; the ball just keeps climbing. And the really captivating aspect of that is that as it reaches its apex, it still has enough velocity–appropriately, a little NASA lingo there–to keep moving horizontally. The effect of that is that the ball just seems to float up there for a few beats before it heads back down. It is truly something to see.
Finally it dawned on me after the 595-yard, par 5 13th when he hit a short iron into the green: this guy hits the ball so far, he doesn’t see any golf hole as long. Just imagine; you come to a 505 yard par 4 and you’re thinking no more than an 8 iron into the green. Reliably. What would the game be like then?
So after his victory, he was in the interview room and I just had to ask him:
It’s hard to believe just how far you hit the ball until you see it in person. And I’m wondering, do you think of any golf hole as long? It must be a terrific advantage.
Yeah, yeah, it’s obviously an advantage to hit it a long ways, but it’s nice when you can shorten holes up and hit mid irons into par‑5s and wedges into par‑4s.
Without having to think about it…
Yeah, yeah. But first and foremost, you’ve got to hit fairways. [Driving Distance] is a stat that is probably the least important out there if you’re hitting it everywhere. But yeah, when I’m driving it straight, it’s certainly an advantage.
A very gracious answer to an unartfully asked question that really didn’t go to the heart of my experience watching him play. Of course it’s an advantage to hit it a long way. Could there be any other answer than the obvious one?
But then somebody else jumped in with a question that at least sounded more substantive than mine and the train went down another track. But if I had stopped the world with the inanity of my question so that it begged for a clarifying follow-up, it would have gone to the state of mind his ability leaves him in: what if you thought of every hole on the course as short? What would that do for your confidence? It would be like playing the course from the red tees.
In fact, years ago one of my former coaches, Dave Collins, and Jim McLean came across Champions Tour player, Lanny Wadkins at Doral playing a three-ball scramble by himself from the red tees. When they asked him what in the world he was doing that for, he said, “I already know how to routinely shoot in the 60s. I’m trying to figure out what it takes to shoot in the 50s.”
As Greg Maddux famously asserted in the Nike commercial, “Chicks dig the long ball.” And so do guys, to a fault. Everybody’s looking for that new driver that will give them that extra 15 yards. Have you noticed that it’s always 15 yards?
Well, one way to begin the trek to the “best driver we can be” is to follow Stanley’s advice from my interview question, “But first and foremost you’ve got to hit fairways.”
There’s one school of thought about learning to hit the ball: hit it as hard as you can and figure out how to straighten it out later.
And now Kyle Stanley offers us the reciprocal: get the ball in the fairway consistently–get that extra 15 yards because you’re not hitting it in the rough–and then figure out how to hit it long. It will come with the freedom of not trying to hit it far.
Because chicks really do dig the long ball.