The golf world has always been fixated on driving distance, and Bryson DeChambeau has ignited another cycle of discussion and controversy. How does he hit it so far? All of the classic courses will become obsolete—look at the way he destroyed Winged Foot at the Open. Better regulate club length and start looking at the ball again. Well, guess what—Bryson isn’t the first one to get golf’s proverbial head spinning around in the face of revolutionary power. It began with Sam Snead and his silky-smooth swing that regularly propelled his tee ball twenty yards past everybody else on tour. Then came Arnie, driving the green with a 350-yard bomb on the first hole at Cherry Hills in the 1960 US Open. And then there was Jack, who quickly eclipsed Arnie with a combination of Snead’s beautiful swing and Palmer’s brute power, playing in the words of Bobby Jones “an entirely different game, and one which I’m not even familiar with.” Since driving distance stats were not officially tracked by the PGA until 1980, there is no way to know for sure if Jack is the longest of all time (in 1980, at the age of 40, Jack finished tenth in driving distance). But he is certainly the measuring stick—and that leads to John Daly.
Since the PGA began tracking distance off the tee, no one approaches Daly for sheer power. Big John led the tour in driving distance an astounding eleven times, with Bubba Watson a distant second (five times). In 1997, John was the first to average north of 300 yards (Tiger finished second in ’97 at 295 yards, and never led the tour in distance from the tee). John then averaged over 300 yards for ten consecutive years (from 1999 through 2008). With golf ball and equipment changes continuously pushing up driving distance across the board year after year, the only way to compare John with players currently on tour is to look at his numbers against the rest of the tour at the time. In the ten-year span from 1992 through 2001, when John was in his prime (age 25-34), the average drive on tour was 267.5, while Daly averaged 295.6—a 10.5% distance margin. His biggest year was ’99, when he averaged 305.6 compared to a tour average of 272.5 (a margin of 12.5%). In 2021 Bryson DeChambeau led the tour at 323.7, against a tour average of 295.3—a margin of 9.6% (his longest on tour thus far). If we apply Daly’s 1997 margin to the 2021 tour average, that would put him at 332.2 yards—no contest. Bubba Watson’s longest year was 2006, when he averaged 319.6 yards against a tour average of 289.4, a margin of 10.4%, still lower than Daly’s average margin over a ten-year span. In 2003, Hank Kuehne led the tour at 321.4 yards, against a tour average of 286.3, a margin of 12.3%, just short of Daly’s big year in ’96. Unfortunately, Hank’s career was cut short due to injury, so we will never know how he would have stacked-up against Daly over the long haul. That leaves only Jack and John Daly in a discussion about the longest ever on the PGA Tour—and “Long John” has an excellent case. And just as Jack maintained his length later in his career, Daly kept on bombing it as well, finishing second in tour driving distance in 2007 at the age of 40, and sixth in 2010 at 43 years old.
As big as John’s drives were over the years, so too have been his life struggles. His battles with alcohol have been well documented, and his junk food diet with associated weight gain have been highly publicized as well (John has never subscribed to the DeChambeau theory of adding distance through a regimental strength and conditioning program, supplemented with protein shakes). In that regard, I guess you could say that John is a bit like the Babe Ruth of golf. Through it all, Daly has always commanded a huge following of faithful fans. But what made him so popular from the moment he came out on tour was not just his ability to hit it a mile, or his colorful personality, but the fact that he is a regular guy. Someone everyday people can relate to and pull for. Daly was not cut from the same cloth as many of his peers on the PGA Tour, and would not be described as the “country club” type. He wasn’t “groomed” for greatness, or tutored by a golf pro from the moment he could walk. Daly taught himself the game by reading Jack’s instructional book on golf (Nicklaus’ Lesson Tee). And his early years were not easy, as he describes in his candid autobiography “My Life in and Out of the Rough.” Daly escaped the challenges of his youth by dedicating himself to golf, and in so doing achieved monumental heights, winning the 1991 PGA and 1995 Open Championships.
When John asked Tiger to join him for a beer at the 2004 Target World challenge as he was headed for the work-out room, Tiger famously declined, saying “If I had your talent, I’d be doing the same thing.” There is more than a grain of truth to that. Not only could Daly bomb it off the tee, he had amazing touch and feel around the greens, along with an excellent putting stroke. One can only speculate on the number of Tour wins and major championships John would have amassed without the personal issues with which he contended throughout his career—but it’s safe to say he would be among the very top. One thing is for sure though, no one can hit it with Daly off the tee (with the possible exception of Jack).
John’s most recent challenge has been a bout with bladder cancer, and we are all happy to hear that he is doing very well, playing a ton of golf with his son John, Jr. (who appears to be a chip off the old block when it comes to hitting a golf ball). And while cancer treatment generally takes a toll on people, John seems to be brushing that aside as well, averaging 299.9 yards off the tee this year on the Champions Tour (currently third).
There is nothing like watching John Daly grip it and rip it, so if there’s a Champions Tour event coming to a course near you, go out and have a look—you will be glad you did.