“(Ben) Hogan hit undoubtedly his finest tee shot of the match, 250 yards down the middle. Now he’s hitting a 7-iron (on his second shot from 163 yards).”
—Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf TV announcer, 1960s
One of golf’s all-time greats hitting a 7-iron to reach the green from just over 160 yards? And in another event on the same show, how about Gene Littler, after his “perfect” drive, choosing to hit a 4-iron to the green on a 427-yard par 4? It happened many times back in the day.
In the modern game of golf, those greats, like even the so-so touring pros today, would be hitting no more than a pitching wedge on their second shot to a 427-yard par 4 after a perfect tee shot.
It’s amazing how the great game of golf has changed at its highest level—and maybe even more so for women professionals—because of golf equipment technology. There is no wood in the game anymore, and today’s golf balls fly farther and straighter than the old rubber-centered Balata.
Watching 5-foot-6 Yani Tseng pound her drives—she’s averaging 275 yards off the tee—takes me back to 1965, when I covered my first LPGA tournament, the Shreveport (La.) Kiwanis Invitational.
Back then, the women played the regular men’s tees and nine out of 10 couldn’t reach a 427-yard par 4 in two shots—not even with a 3-wood, let alone a 4-iron. The LPGA had 30 tournaments in 1965, and the lowest winning score on the LPGA Tour that year, in relation to par, was 4 under.
These days, if a player shoots 4 under par in the first round, there’s a good chance she won’t even be leading the tournament. This century’s numbers tell the story: Cristie Kerr and Tseng won the last two Wegmans LPGA Championships here at Locust Hill, both with a 72-hole total of 19 under par.
And that was with the course playing a little longer than 6,500 yards.
That score—19 under par—was unheard of years ago, before my hair turned white. So what happened? How did the LPGA Tour go from rare red numbers to commonplace red numbers?
I have always given credit to the LPGA’s first commissioner, Ray Volpe, who took the job in 1975 and took the women’s tour out of the rough and onto the green. Back then the word was that the LPGA was about to go under, despite some legendary players. Volpe, though, sold the women’s tour to sponsors and ultimately added several tournaments. During his six years as commissioner, purses reportedly increased from $1.5 million to $6.4 million.
Good news for the LPGA, bad news for the Kiwanis Club tournament. After the 1970 Kiwanis event, the LPGA insisted that the tournament’s total purse be raised from $15,000 to $25,000. The Kiwanis Club basically said, “No way, can’t afford it.” And the tournament was history. Now most of the LPGA tournaments have purses of more than $1 million and the Wegmans LPGA Championship has a total of $2.5 million.
Sandra Haynie won the 1970 Kiwanis tournament, shooting 2 under par for the 54 holes at Huntington Park Golf Club. Her first-place money: a whopping $2,250. Nowadays, the player who finishes 25th in a tournament wins $25,000, give or take a few bucks.
The women’s tees at Huntington play 6,074 yards. The regular men’s tees are 6,774 yards, so given Sandra Haynie’s score, there’s no doubt that 42 years ago the women pros were not playing the course at only 6,000 yards.
Even though he said he knew little or nothing about golf, Volpe realized that people, fans, businesses, et al., want to see birdies, not bogeys. When the LPGA stopped playing the men’s tees, the scores went down and its popularity went up. Still, there are those who have complained that Kerr and Tseng should not be winning a major championship at 19 under par.
It seems like only yesterday that the 10th hole at Locust Hill played significantly shorter than 400 yards—about 380—and many players couldn’t even hit the tee shot over the small hill on the fairway, which is about halfway to the green. Then, in 2010, No. 10 was extended to 413 yards so it would be more of a challenge for today’s players.
The reason for the low scores, though, is all the incredibly talented women who are now playing the game, talent from around the world. Even with all the greats of the past—Kathy Whitworth, Mickey Wright, Nancy Lopez and so on—I can’t remember the LPGA ever having as much birdie-making depth as it does now.
There are dozens of players who can light it up this week at Locust Hill or any given week and win a tournament. The LPGA Tour has never been more interesting. And as Commissioner Michael Whan has said repeatedly, the LPGA is global. He’s right on, and it’s good for the game. ï®
Rick Woodson’s column appears each Thursday on the Rochester Business Journal website at www.rbjdaily.com. His book, “Words of Woodson,” is available at www.authorhouse.com/bookstore. Listen to his weekly program, “The Golf Tee,” at 9 a.m. Sunday on WHTK-AM 1280 and FM 107.3.
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