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Champions Tour golfers go old-school at Nashawtuc

CONCORD -- With a slight uphill lie, some 50 yards from the 18th green at Nashawtuc Country Club, Hugh Baiocchi was transported to another place, another time in his career when a vintage set of Ben Hogan clubs were brought out for yesterday's Hogan's Alley Skills Challenge between his four-man team and one captained by PGA Champions Tour colleague Andy Bean.

Sifting through the collection of razor-thin tour blades and persimmon fairway woods, Baiocchi pulled a 5-wood from the bag and marveled at the clubhead size.

``Just look at that," Baiocchi said, planting the sole of the club on the turf and comparing it to an adjacent ball. ``The clubhead is almost as big as that ball."

While the five-shot competition focused on the short game, and how difficult it must have been to execute those precise bunker and chip shots using throwback clubs, it provided contestants an amazing glimpse into the technological (as well as metallurgical) evolution of the game's equipment.

Certainly, in the field of 79 who will tee it up Friday for the 54-hole Bank of America Championship, there are some whose careers were rejuvenated by those advancements.

``Oh, absolutely," said Baiocchi, 59, of South Africa, who will be paired with David Edwards and Mike Sullivan in the first round. ``I played a lot of European Tour golf, so I didn't play a lot of regular [PGA] Tour golf with a lot of the guys out here. But talking to the guys, they all seem to be driving the ball further now than they did in their heyday, in their prime. Again, that's because of the equipment.

``It's basically made the game a lot easier and more enjoyable to play. Now, instead of driving the thing 220 with Hoganesque-type clubs, now we can drive the thing 270 and 280, which makes a big difference even for us."

It has allowed for a larger margin for error, for professionals and amateurs alike.

After hitting a 50-yard shot into the 18th with a throwback wedge, Bean said, ``I looked at that wedge and went, `Did we really play these?' But we did play clubs like that."

No matter the size and shape of your swing, the sweet spot is now much easier to hit with perimeter-weighted irons, fairway woods, and drivers of all makes and launch angles. And that's without even addressing the matter of the golf ball, and its myriad technological advancements.

``For the average player, the give is good," said Bean, 53. ``I think it takes away from the scoring on the professional side, because it puts more technology in the game and we can take a little more advantage of technology than the average player."

Bean figured the advancements have ``let 50 percent more players compete to win.

``A lot of the guys who normally wouldn't be hitting the fairways, now they're hitting the fairways with more regularity, and they're hitting it longer, which means they're going to have shorter clubs into the greens and it's just easier for them to compete. The long players, the strong players in any sport, they're still going to be strong and the fast ones are still going to be fast.

``But you still have to have the feel, and you still have to have the touch, and you still have to have the dedication -- no matter what sport you're in -- to go out and win.

``With golf, though, the good part about it -- the big-headed drivers, fairway woods, and technology with the perimeter-weighted irons -- it allows the amateurs to score better and that's what it's all about."

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