On a recent afternoon in the heart of corn country, the Beast stood on the driving range of a modest muni, preparing to pound his Pinnacle to dust. Sean Fister owes his nickname to his monstrous build (6-foot-5, 240 pounds) and the primal fury with which he hits a golf ball (peak clubhead speed of 172 miles per hour). At the very same time, at the Tournament Club of Iowa in nearby Polk City, the graying girliemen of the Champions Tour were hitting powder-puff drives to polite applause. But here at Willow Creek Golf Course in Des Moines, Bon Jovi music blared over the loudspeakers. There was no quiet on the tee. And putting? That's for pansies.
Grunting somewhat like a beast but more like a man trying to pass a cantaloupe, .Sean Fister uncoiled from his backswing and let one fly. "Go!" a fan in the grandstands bellowed, and the ball obeyed, arcing high on the horizon and bounding to a rest some 360 yards away. The gallery loved it. But Fister looked disgusted. A drive that wimpy hardly stood a chance in a battle with Golfzilla, the Croatian Crusher and other men of equally deserving nicknames who populate the fields of the Long Drivers of America.
In a game known for nuance, the LDA has done away with delicacy, distilling golf into a simple, manly, matter of size. LDA events, like this year's Alpha Long Drive Classic in Des Moines, attract a motley assortment of big boppers and golfing X-Men endowed with freakish talents but having limited venues in which to show them off. In the LDA, what counts is "How?" (as in, "How far did you hit it?"), not "How many?" Competitors drive for show, and putt for... well, they don't putt at all.
"This is not Loren Roberts on a five-footer," said Art Sellinger, a two-time national long-drive champ and owner of the LDA. "What we showcase are exceptional athletes with exceptional skills, using the most exciting club in the bag."
Although the LDA is long drive's ruling institution, it casts itself as a grassroots operation, appealing to a Joe-Six-Pack sensibility and the everyday player's fascination with length. In truth, the sport is an underdog. Long drivers make their name on the margins of the mainstream. If the PGA is blue-blood, the LDA is blue-collar--the crowds are more NASCAR than Augusta. Purses are relatively puny (first prize at the Alpha Classic was $18,000), and only a handful of long drivers make their living in the sport. Golf fans who gasp at Tiger's missiles would swallow their tongues at the sight of the Big Cat (Evan Williams), an LDA Hall of Famer who could blast his ball through a telephone book.
The blunt, brutish appeal of a titanic tee shot was what inspired Sellinger to take a chance on the LDA 10 years ago. At the time he acquired it, the LDA was languishing, holding lackluster events at sea level in heavy air. Sellinger channeled his inner P.T. Barnum. He blasted rock music onto to the tee box. He moved the tour's biggest event, the RE/MAX World Long Drive Championship to the moonscape of Mesquite, Nev. And he held the finals under lights, at night. Long-driving now boasted extreme-sport trappings worthy of coverage on ESPN. This exposure led to a growth spurt that was further stoked by a clever stunt called the Pinnacle Challenge: the Pinnacle Long Drive Team, including Long John Daly, toured the country to give regular golfers a crack at them. By 2003, Daly and Pinnacle had parted ways, and the Challenge died. But before it did, it produced a handful of overnight stars, including Dave Gureckis, a former construction worker from Brockton, Mass., who dusted Daly head-to-head to win $10,000.