By Andrew Both
(Reuters) - Rory McIlroy is the best driver in contemporary golf when he is 'on his game' while Adam Scott is consistently the best, day-in and day-out. Both players are regarded as better off the tee than Tiger Woods was at his peak.
This was the general consensus that emerged from a series of interviews Reuters conducted recently with several top players on the PGA Tour, golf analysts and a leading swing coach.
While most believed that McIlroy and Scott drive the ball better than Woods did in his heyday, they also acknowledged that Woods was superior in other facets of the game, a key factor in his dominance for so many years as he piled up 14 major titles.
"When Rory is on, it's obvious he's better than everybody else," former British Open champion Ian Baker-Finch, who works as a golf analyst on television for CBS Sports, told Reuters.
"But I think when Rory's off (his game), he's further off than Adam. Adam's 'off' is not that bad, because he has perfect posture, physical strength and a great simple motion."
Frank Nobilo, another former player turned television commentator, gave McIlroy the driving edge over Woods but felt Woods had more of the 'wow' factor to conjure up some of the most astonishing shots ever seen on a golf course.
"From tee shot to tee shot, you might put Rory ahead of Tiger but from a shockingly 'you don't do that' viewpoint, you might give the edge to Woods," said New Zealander Nobilo.
"Tiger's game was never predicated just on the driver. He beat you in other ways."
England's former world number three Paul Casey, no slouch himself with the driver, has no doubt that McIlroy's best is superior to anyone else in the modern game.
"When Rory is on, it's not a contest," Casey said. "Rory's swing is like a bullwhip. When he times it, it's the best you're going to see. I've never seen a golf ball hit like that.
"He's not scared to hit his driver, which is why when it's on it's so impressive and he's got the ability to win by a lot. When it's not timed, he goes a little sideways and he gets a bit of grief for it but he bounces back."
What is it, though, that makes McIlroy and Scott, currently ranked first and second in the world, so good off the tee?
Neither has the fastest clubhead speed with a driver on the PGA Tour. That honour belongs to Bubba Watson, who averages 124mph when he makes contact, his ball leaving the clubface at a sizzling 183 mph, almost as fast as a Formula One car at top speed.
McIlroy (121mph) and Scott (119mph), however, are not far behind, and Scott, in particular, is not prone to the inconsistency off the tee that prevents Watson from being a regular contender.
Watson's clubhead speed translates into distance, as he leads the tour with an average drive of 313 yards, a couple of yards longer than Dustin Johnson and McIlroy.
Scott is ranked 17th at 302 yards, but he hits marginally more fairways than both McIlroy and Watson.
Former touring professional Steve Bann, an instructor whose pupils include nine-time PGA Tour winner Stuart Appleby of Australia, felt McIlroy's rare combination of length and accuracy set him apart.
"I don't think Tiger ever hit it as far and as straight as Rory," Bann said. "Rory's path (with the driver) is inside and up, so his natural free releasing shot is a draw."
But Bann believes the best driver over the past few years has been Spaniard Sergio Garcia, while he rates Australia's former world number one Greg Norman as the best over the past three decades.
"I like players who can move it both ways," said Bann. "Sergio hits it right to left, left to right, hits it a long way and hits a lot of fairways."
Baker-Finch was fulsome in his praise of McIlroy's technique, and had no doubt that the Northern Irishman was more consistent with his driver than Woods ever was.
"Rory doesn't have to go back to a stinger three-iron often," said the Australian, who won the 1991 British Open at Royal Birkdale. "Even when Tiger was at his best and winning all the time, he went back to that stinger two-iron when he had to.
"Rory has got tremendous hip turn and matched up with that beautiful turn is unbelievable leg drive. If you look at pictures of Rory at the end of his follow-through, he's fully extended from his right toe to his right hand, whereas most other guys fold.
"He uses every fiber of his body to generate speed and he doesn't look off-balance like Bubba."
Nevertheless, Baker-Finch believes his compatriot Scott is the best driver when it comes to consistency.
"Adam, day-in and day-out and maybe for a decade will be one of the top two three drivers in the world," he said.
"On his bad days he's going to be able to hit fairways, whereas Rory gets wild at times. Adam is never wild because his technique is so perfect."
A glance at McIlroy's scores this year would appear to back that up. McIlroy has carded several high scores, including a 78 in the second round at the Scottish Open in July.
Casey, who played in the following group that day at Royal Aberdeen, observed that McIlroy continued to play aggressively, even when his round was unravelling.
"His attitude didn't change. He didn't panic, still took out the driver and still smashed it," Casey said.
"He's the best player in the world at using the ground to create power," explained Casey, before citing the example of how a high jumper uses pressure pushing into the ground to create energy to spring upwards.
American David Toms, the 2001 PGA Championship winner, observed that McIlroy turns extremely long par-fours into potential birdie holes.
"Most guys who create that much speed are all over the place with their footwork but he looks very balanced," Toms said.
Of course, being a great driver does not necessarily translate into greatness, but as Toms acknowledged, being long and straight is a huge advantage for a player if he is also competent in the other facets of the game.
The past 10 majors have been won by long hitters, and that is probably not a coincidence.
The last major winner who was a medium-length driver of the ball was American Webb Simpson at the 2012 U.S. Open but the dominance by power hitters is certainly not a recent phenomenon.
As Baker-Finch observed, many of the great players of previous decades were also among the longest drivers of their era. Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Norman, Mickelson and Woods spring to mind.
Short hitters such as Corey Pavin and fellow American Toms may pop up occasionally and win a major, but the odds are stacked against them.
"The best players now, and all of the major winners, seem to be the longest (hitters)," Baker-Finch said.
(Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)