NEWTOWN SQUARE, Pa. — You wouldn’t guess she’s a bomber at first glance.
At a modest 5-foot-6, Bianca Pagdanganan doesn’t stick out on the range at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. Dressed in a teal sweater and navy skirt, she blends in well with her peers. That is, until she pulls out the driver.
In baseball, it’s a common refrain that a major league-caliber player’s contact sounds different than that of players with lesser ability. The same can be said of Pagdanganan. When she hits her driver, it just sounds … different.
Watching Pagdanganan nuke drivers on the range will put you in a trance. It makes you feel as though your eyes are betraying you. A player that size should not be able to hit the ball that far, you think. But once her Ping driver makes contact with the ball, it explodes off the clubface, traveling to an outrageous apex high in the sky above before descending safely some 290 yards yonder.
During this season, her first as a pro, Pagdanganan has already become the longest hitter on the LPGA Tour. At an average of 287 yards off the tee, she is five yards longer than the nearest bombers — Maria Fassi and Anne van Dam — and 15(!) yards longer than No. 4 on the list, Nelly Korda.
In fact, her distance is such an advantage that there are some low-hanging Bryson DeChambeau comparisons to be made. DeChambeau’s average of 322 yards is just over 8 percent longer than the PGA Tour average of 296.4 yards. Pagdanganan’s advantage is even larger on the LPGA circuit. Her average drive of 287 yards is 11.8 percent longer than the LPGA Tour average drive (by my calculation) of 253.4 yards. That’s a huge advantage to take to the first tee every day.
But the DeChambeau comparisons can stop there. As noted, she doesn’t stand out on a range like her PGA Tour counterpart, and she’s never made a concerted effort to chase gains like DeChambeau. Protein shakes aren’t in her diet, but maybe an extra helping of rice every now and again when growing up helped, she joked.
“I kind of just rip it,” Pagdanganan said after her round. “I try not to think about it too much. I just try to hit it hard.”
She said she’s been hearing the DeChambeau comparisons as of late — a fact she appreciates very much. And who wouldn’t be flattered by that? The most talked about man in golf is a good person to be mentioned alongside.
“It’s pretty cool being able to hit it far and being compared to Bryson,” she said. “He’s been such a successful player, so that’s inspiring.”
But that length advantage hasn’t paid off for the 22-year-old Pagdanganan just yet like it has for DeChambeau. Although she’s made her first four cuts during her rookie campaign, her best finish is a middling T28 back in July. And her first major experience as a professional at Aronimink on Thursday was a struggle as well. Her first-round 77 leaves her well outside the cut line as she looks ahead to Friday.
Pagdanganan was regularly 30-40 yards ahead of her playing partners on a blustery Thursday outside Philadelphia. But despite the jaw-dropping distance advantage on nearly every hole, her playing partners both bested her in Round 1 — Cydney Clanton with a spectacular 68 and Katherine Kirk a 73. The learning curve in professional golf can be steep — and Pagdanganan knows it.
“I mean (length) is an advantage out there,” she said. “But it’s not all about distance. You’ve got to have everything intact. There’s still a lot of things to work on.”
Despite her rough Thursday, Pagdanganan still has a gift that nearly any player on the LPGA Tour would kill for. In the advanced-analytics era of golf she plays in, distance is the most telling stat for success. Her game from fairway to green needs some work, but once that starts to polish, she will be a force.
But even if DeChambeau is making headlines and racking up trophies in his intriguing quest for yards, Pagdanganan says she’ll leave that goal to the Mad Scientist. She’s got plenty else to improve in her game before she starts thinking about adding more distance.
“I don’t really try to add more distance to my game,” she said. “I think I’m pretty content with what I have now. I don’t really try that hard to hit it further, but if I did, that’d be pretty cool.”