Tour rookies drive right in


Miami -- Bubba Watson and Camilo Villegas provide an interesting contrast as far as the road each took to get to the PGA Tour.

Watson grew up in the tiny Florida hamlet of Bagdad, and he has never taken a formal lesson in his life. Villegas comes from a country, Colombia, passionate about soccer and a city, Medellin, better known for its once-bustling cocaine cartel than for its three courses, one of them only nine holes long.

Yet Watson and Villegas, along with fellow rookie J.B. Holmes, are making an immediate impact in the way their centuries-old game is played. They have taken John Daly's grip-it-and-rip-it philosophy to the extreme, making the power game played by Daly and others seem almost irrelevant.

Holmes, 23, won by seven shots at last month's FBR Open in Arizona. Villegas, 24, finished tied for second there as well as at last week's Ford Championship at Doral. Watson, 27, came in fourth at the Sony Open in Hawaii and tied for third in Tucson, Ariz.

Led by Watson, the three rookies rank in the tour's top five in driving distance.

These long hitters don't seem to lack in a couple of other areas - confidence and conscience.

"I believe that there's not a shot I cannot hit in the game of golf, if I have a swing," said Watson, a left-hander who played the Nationwide Tour the past three years. "At the end of the day, it doesn't matter if I miss every fairway, as long as my score is good."

Villegas, who was a first-team All-American three times at the University of Florida, doesn't get too technical about the mechanics of his own powerful swing. Villegas shrugged recently when asked if his prodigious drives are the byproduct of the equipment he uses and the club-head speed he can generate.

"I don't know," Villegas said. "[I] just get up there, tee it up and rip it."

Going into this week's Honda Classic, Watson leads the tour with an average drive of more than 320 yards, 7 yards longer than Holmes. Villegas is fifth. There are 17 players currently averaging more than 300 yards off the tee, and a dozen more on the brink.

As recently as four years ago, Daly was the only player on the tour to average more than 300 yards a drive, doing it in 2001 and 2002. It increased to nine in 2003, when Hank Kuehne set a tour record of 321.4 yards. There were 26 players who finished 2005 averaging at least 300 yards a drive.

"Everybody likes to see somebody hit it a long ways because a lot of the fans, they can't do that," said Holmes, who won the tour's qualifying school last year after finishing his college career at Kentucky, where he was Southeastern Conference Player of the Year as a senior.

"Most of them, if they play, they've made a [30-foot putt] or something like that. It's something they've done. But they can't hit it 340, 350, whatever."

While some of it has to do with technological advances - particularly with the golf ball - much also has to do with current players swinging harder and with more velocity than their predecessors. Not only are players such as Holmes hitting drivers more than 300 yards, they're hitting their 3-irons that far, too.

"It just makes it more of a power game; they're not so worried about hitting the fairways anymore, it's changed the game a lot," respected swing teacher Jim McLean said last week at Doral, where he runs one of the country's top golf schools.

Hitting the fairway doesn't seem to be a prerequisite anymore for winning, as Tiger Woods has proved. While winning twice on tour this year and averaging just less than 305 yards a drive, Woods is hitting 47.9 percent of the fairways and is ranked 181st out of 191. Watson is last, at 42.3 percent.

Former PGA champion Rich Beem, who has been ranked as high as 10th in driving distance (averaging more than 292 yards in 2002) and is currently 28th (at just more than 297), said he saw the game's future in playing the final round of the Nissan Open with Holmes.

"He hit a couple of them where I thought, 'I don't have that shot,'" Beem recalled. "I can swing as hard as I want and I won't have that shot. He can throttle back on it and hit something in the fairway. These kids have an advantage."

Admittedly, Watson has tried to hit more controlled cut shots off the tee than he used to, back when he was playing the Nationwide Tour and regularly bombing 350-yard drives. Once, at a tournament in Phoenix, he hit the longest drive in that tour's history, measured at 422 yards.

"I don't hit it full, I don't hit it 100 percent," Watson said. "I call it dinking around the course. It still gets out there; don't get me wrong, it still goes far. I don't try to kill it. On the wide-open holes, I might. I'm playing to play good golf. I just happen to be long."

It's not surprising, considering that Watson is solidly built at 6 feet 3 and 180 pounds and Holmes is 5-11, 190. Then there's Villegas, who except for his bulging biceps doesn't look like he can crush the ball the way he does at 5-9 and 160 pounds.

"Nowadays we are hearing a lot of questions about length and everything," Villegas said last week at Doral. "I don't think I hit it that far. I swing hard at it, but I ain't Bubba Watson or J.B. Those guys kill it."

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