Watch Dustin Johnson use Jack Nicklaus’ old 1-iron, persimmon driver
Johnson hit the 1-iron 232 yards. He hit the driver 318 yards, including 290 in the air. Nicklaus led the tour in driving distance in 1968 at 276 yards, but the comparison is not apples-to-apples, because Johnson used the modern ball, which flies farther. Nicklaus won the 1963 long-drive competition with a 341-yard blast, using the old ball!
How far would the all-time greats have hit with today’s equipment? Here is some speculation. The conclusion is that modern clubs and balls have added 35-45 yards since the era of Nicklaus.
To me the key points in the article are these:
Based on an analysis of old films, Bobby Jones had a clubhead speed of 117 mph with his driver, which is faster than the modern average. His clubhead speed would be somewhat higher with modern drivers, which are longer and lighter. The estimate in the article is that the modern club adds 7 mph to clubhead speed versus Nicklaus-era equipment, but Jones played with more primitive hickory-shafted clubs, so he would gain more than 7 MPH. Since the fastest clubhead speed on today’s tour is about 125, the assumption is that Jones could conceivably be the longest hitter on today’s tour, assuming he could time-travel forward from his prime (and turn pro, which he never did). That’s pretty damned amazing, because Jones was 5’8″, 165 pounds, but I guess it’s not that amazing because Rory McIlroy is almost exactly the same size and he’s the current PGA leader in driving distance.
On average, Freddie Couples hit the ball 29 yards farther as an old fart (age 49) with a bad back than he did when he was 22 and healthy.
PGA touring pro Chad Campbell did a 2009 demo with a persimmon driver and the old ball. He averaged 247 off the tee. His actual driving average in 2009 was 291. That’s a true apples-to-apples comparison to the Nicklaus era. If Big Jack averaged 276 then, that should be roughly equivalent to 320 now. That’s about the same as the big sluggers like Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson and Rory McIlroy.
I have to say that I’m surprised to find that the differences in driving distance are almost entirely attributable to the equipment. I thought that today’s physical conditioning for strength and flexibility, plus smarter nutrition, would also increase power.