Big hitters set to dominate US Masters

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Fourteen years ago, John Daly, then just another no-name on the pro tour, came waddling out of the Ozark Mountains and stunned the golf world by winning the PGA Championship as an alternate.

Every bit as shocking as his now-legendary win in Indianapolis was the manner of play that brought him the victory. Daly pounded the Crooked Stick course into submission. He consistently drove the ball 300 or more yards and though he seldom found the fairway, it made no difference: his distance off the tee thoroughly de-fanged the course and the competition. Little did anyone realise at the time that Daly's grip-it-and-rip-it, accuracy-is-for-sissies style would one day be the norm in men's golf.

That day has arrived. The Masters, the first of the year's four majors, starts on Thursday and golf fans are salivating at the prospect of an epic battle involving the Fab Four - Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh (Fab Five if you include two-time US Open champion Retief Goosen, who has challenged before at the Masters). All four have got off to fine starts in 2005 and all four have tamed Augusta National in the past, so there is good reason to hope for a photo finish come Sunday's final round.

But amid all the giddiness over this rivalry, concerns are being voiced about the growing emphasis on power in men's golf. Ironically, it was last month's Ford Championship at Doral, won by Woods after what most people felt was an enthralling final-round duel with Mickelson, that brought these misgivings to the fore. NBC's ever-acerbic analyst Johnny Miller got the ball rolling, so to speak, by delivering an on-air rant decrying the growing tendency of players to disregard placement and to concern themselves only with distance off the tee.

"What's happening in the pro game is to just flog it out there," Miller griped.

Jack Nicklaus pointedly echoed those sentiments during a press conference a few days later. "It's absurd," he said. "Who dominates the game today? One hundred per cent bombers. It doesn't make any difference where you hit any more. You just hit it as far as you can."

It is hard to argue with Nicklaus; consider a few statistics from Doral. Mickelson missed 31 of 56 fairways in regulation, which ranked him 74th in driving accuracy for the tournament. Woods hardly fared better, missing 30 and finishing 68th in accuracy. Yet they each managed to card 27 birdies over 72 holes, career highs for both. The statistics over the first few months of this season are even more striking. Of the top four players, only Singh ranks in the top 100 in driving accuracy, and he stands a lowly 83rd.

The message is clear: it you can drive the ball into the next county and are adept with the short irons, it hardly matters where it lands.

Woods admits as much. "I've gone online and looked at the stats from all of the long hitters on the PGA Tour," he said last month. "None of us are very good. When you hit the ball that far, it's going 330 of 320 [yards], you're not going to hit a whole lot of fairways. As long you miss the ball in the correct spots, it's fine."

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