Instruction

The Quest for 300

Photo: Kevin Beard

At a driving range this summer, a friend asked me if I knew how far I hit my longest drives. As with other measurements, I, like many guys, tend to exaggerate. "About 300 when I catch it." I believed it when I said it. He wagered against me, and we spent the afternoon pacing off my tee shots. Me best drive of the day: 260 yards.

"I guess I'm not that big," I said, dejected.

"Relax," he said. "Your wife doesn't seem to mind."

Of all the clubs I don't belong to — Muirfield, Mickey Mouse, Mile-High — it's probably my lack of membership in the 300 Club that's been most vexing. I've always wanted to join the loose affiliation of big boppers populated by Tour pros and long-drive champs. I've dreamed of busting it 300 yards without the help of Colorado air or elevated tees. Like that kid in the movie who grows up to be Tom Hanks, I've always wanted to be...big.

The number remains a benchmark, a line in the fairway that separates the manly men from the boys. I know, I know: Drive for show, etc. Well, there's no business like show business. I'm a man, man, and I want to drive like one.

But could I, a scrawny everyman who lacks exceptional clubhead speed, join this exclusive group? I would stop at (almost) nothing to find out. I considered three paths to power: technology, technique, and testosterone injections. Gary Player swears some pros are juicing, so I figured, if it's good enough for them...

HIT THE 'ROIDS, JACK?

"So, you want that stuff?" said a trainer I'll call Don. "You can get it, no problem."

We stood in a gym in San Francisco, land of Barry Bonds and BALCO (Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative), the epicenter of artificial bulk. Don, a power lifter with the build of Mr. Universe and the bald head of Mr. Clean, was giving me the skinny on the Clear and the Cream.

"The body is a beautifully engineered machine," Don said. "But that doesn't mean we can't improve it."

He rattled off a slate of tongue-twisting terminology: trenbolone, modafinil, erythropoietin. The same pharmaceuticals allegedly used by sluggers and cyclists alike could, in proper doses, increase my stamina and add lean muscle mass, the kind that helps launch missiles off the tee. Contrary to myth, a well-crafted drug cocktail wouldn't give me bulging Jose Canseco-like biceps, but it would make me sinewy and strong. We're talking almost instant extra yards. The potential downside? A shorter lifespan, liver failure, and body parts that either grow (my skull) or shrivel.

"Honey, I shrunk the kids!" Don said cheerfully, gesturing toward a region too personal to mention.

"Hmm," I wavered. I'd lost enough balls on the links.

I turned instead toward a change in nutrition. More lean protein. Less saturated fat. Chitlins were out. Skinless chicken breasts were in. A smart diet, Don insisted, along with stretching and strength training, would add meat to my drives without the risk of chemical castration. But that was for the long haul. Me, I get impatient in the "8 items or less" line. I wanted yards now. A quick fix. Happily, there was a better, faster way.

POWER LAUNCH

Everyday players can add a good 15 yards to their tee shots by switching to equipment that better suits their swing and maximizes launch angle and ball spin. Or so I'd read. To test this proposition, I consulted with Tom Mase, a leading engineer at HotStix in Scottsdale, Arizona, a high-tech clubfitting facility.

The science of the long ball has grown so precise that Mase, by crunching a few numbers, can spit out formulas and predict trajectories as though he were tracking a satellite. When I relayed my vitals as collected at my local driving range — 100 mph clubhead speed, 13-degree launch angle, 4,000-rpm spin rate — Mase quickly sized me up. "I'd guess you max out at around 260 yards," he said.

This guy was good.

The quickest path to bigger tee shots, he explained, was to reduce spin, the distance killer that sends balls ballooning. The cure would cost no more than a sleeve of balls. Mase suggested I swap my Pro V1s for either the Srixon Tri-Speed or the Titleist NXT Extreme, although he warned that what I gained in distance with lower-spinning balls might cost me in touch around the greens.

"'Touch'?" I said. "What is 'touch'? Hulk smash!"

On the course that week, I measured my best drive: 272! With nothing but a new ball, I'd lengthened my best tee shots by 12 yards. That was the good news. The bad, reported Mase: My swing speed was respectable for an amateur but sluggish by Tour standards, and 272 paces was my limit. It's basic physics. Inching toward 300 would require a swifter swing. Or a membership in Tibet. "At minimum," Mase said, "you'd like to go from 100 to about 110 miles per hour."

Then he laid out the equation — the power hitter's answer to E=MC2. Assuming square, solid contact with the ball, the formula for a 300-yard drive (without the aid of wind, elevation, dry fairways, etc.) looks like this:

110 mph swing speed + 14° launch angle + 2,500 rpm backspin = 300 yards

It was science, and it was simple: I needed more speed. I needed the Beast.

MONSTER'S BALL

"People try to make distance sound mystical," said the slow Southern drawl on the phone. "Nothing mystical about it. You've gotta go back to basics."

Three-time world long-drive champion Sean Fister, Arkansan buddy of John Daly, is known to colleagues as "The Beast." Makes sense. Fister, a goateed giant who looks like a lumberjack in Lacoste, once blasted a ball 515 yards. The author of the new chock-full-o-tips book The Long Drive Bible(Wiley, $22.95), he routinely splinters shafts and shatters clubheads. He also practices a Paul Bunyan-esque routine of beating a baseball bat against a tire nailed to a tree.

At six-foot-five and 250 pounds, Fister had me by 9 inches, 90 pounds and 200 yards off the tee. His clubhead whips through the hitting zone at 145 mph. Still, Fister said, I could pick up swing speed by abiding his commandments. If I didn't have a tree and a tire, I could slam a bat into a boxer's heavy bag. Or, more quaintly, I could while away the day skipping rocks. "The right-hand action in rock-skipping helps ingrain the movement you need to really kill it," he said. "Remember, the left hand guides the club. That right-hand snap is where you get your power."

On a sunny Sunday morning, my 4-year-old daughter and I spent a few hours at a nearby lake. That afternoon, with rock-skipping fresh in my muscle memory, I wowed my partners on the back nine with three drives of 280 yards.

I was closing in on membership in club 300, if I could just steal 20 more yards. And what better place to commit white-collar crime than in Washington, D.C.?

VEST IN SHOW

The ClubGolf Performance Center was established by Greg Rose, Golf Channel fitness guru and founder of the famed Titleist Performance Institute. It sits on the ground floor of a Maryland strip mall about 15 minutes from D.C. What drew me there was a claim by a ClubGolf spokesperson, who told me on the phone, "Spend the morning with us, and we'll get you another 30 yards."

ClubGolf has hitting bays, a putting green and strength-building machines. But ClubGolf operators keep a secret weapon in the back room: 3-D imaging technology that gives unprecedented glimpses of a golfer's inner workings.

"It's like a super-duper K-Vest," said ClubGolf's Director of Training Tyler Ferrell, referring to the sleeveless wraparound gizmo that instructors also use for 3-D feedback. I stood on a mat, club in hand, hooked up to a web of wires and sensors. An android figure appeared on a screen. "That's you," Ferrell said.

I swung the club, and my digital doppelganger mimicked the motion. ClubGolf's system provides a detailed picture of the swing at every crucial moment from address to finish. The goal, Ferrell explained, is to measure the swing's efficiency — which parts are working and which are slacking — and then focus on improving the swing you have, not remaking it into that of a Tour pro.

With a few more hacks, sensors gauged the speed of four crucial components — hips, torso, shoulder and clubhead — and spat out the results in a graph that resembled an EKG.

Ferrell scanned the readout. "You're only using your shoulders for power," he said. "You need to use your hips." He pointed to a chart on the wall showing a graph of Ernie Els' swing. Its peaks and valleys revealed a symphonic move in perfect sequence: the hips initiating the downswing, torso uncoiling, unfurling shoulders, and the clubhead whipping through impact with centrifugal force, like a rock flung from a sling.

"Fire your hips through impact to untap all that power," Ferrell said.

Back in the gym, Ferrell had me draw the club back to waist height, then hit a ball from that position as hard as I could. To muster any speed, the drill forced me to fire through with my hips. It was a powerful sensation, and a feeling I'd never had before. My swing soon seemed more efficient. We went back to the 3-D sensors. Sure enough, my hips were no longer snoozing on the job and were actually accelerating; my clubhead speed had jumped from 100 to 110 mph.

Ding! I'd rung the bell at the county fair.

I floored it down the freeway to Congressional Country Club, home course of a big-hitting friend. I spent five minutes on the range with my waist-high drill, then bolted to the first tee and blasted my opening drive 290 yards.

My friend pinched my bicep. "You on 'roids, young man?" he said.

It was a cool fall day, but my swing was red hot. On the 18th hole, a 400-plus par-4 that swoops toward a water-guarded green, my buddy bombed his drive and shouted, "300, baby!" I fired my hips and flew it past him by 10 yards.

I swaggered down the fairway, intoxicated with my newfound power. The clubhouse at Congressional rose majestically on a hill behind the green. Membership? I'd never even make the waiting list. But it wasn't like I cared. I'd already joined the club.

• Hot Stix Golf, Scottsdale, AZ; driver fitting $200; 877-513-1333, hotstixgolf.com

• ClubGolf, Gaithersburg, MD; complete golf assessment and training session, $599; 301-519-1920, clubgolfmd.com

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