LAS VEGAS -- Thirteen inches.
Thirteen inches? Are you kidding? There has never been a RE/MAX World Long Drive Championship like this.
Forty-three-year-old Jeff Crittenden quietly packed his belongings into his golf bag behind the grandstands that surrounded the brightly lit tee box stage. It was a clear but chilly night -- the low 50s in the no-humidity desert feels like the low 40s -- but the man known as The Critter didn’t feel the cold, just the sting.
He became the Cinderella story of the World Long Drive event Tuesday night. The Critter won his quarterfinal match against Matt Hanger by one yard. Then the Critter upset former world champ Joe Miller, a high-ball hitter who struggled with the wind, by one yard.
Then Crittenden lost to former minor league baseball player Jeff Flagg in the final, incredibly, unbelievably, by 13 inches. Officials had to go out on the grid to measure the two shots while Flagg and The Critter waited on the tee, nervously, awkwardly and numbly.
The call came in. Crittenden, 365 yards 7 inches; Flagg, 365 yards 20 inches.
That’s how Flagg, whose tour of baseball’s lower regions included a stint with a team called the Traverse City Beach Bums, became a world champ in just his second year of long drive competition.
Crittenden zipped up his golf bag and shook his head as he prepared to leave. “Thirteen inches,” he repeated. He held up one of his size-12 ½ Foot-Joys. “I lost by my shoe.”
He smiled and managed a small laugh as he said it, the wry smile of a man who knows how to be graceful in defeat and who knows full well the significance of what just happened. There was the $250,000 winner-take-all prize that he didn’t get. There was the championship belt, the title and all the history. And there was the unspoken truth that at 43, he may never have another shot at this, he may never make another final group, known as the Las Vegas Eight.
Long drive is a young man’s game, which was why The Critter had decided earlier this year that this would be his final season of long drive. Then he began hitting it better than ever, played his way through the qualifying at Mesquite all the way to the final. Those retirement thoughts are on hold now. He won a lot of new fans with his gritty showing in the final, which was televised live by Golf Channel.
At the end, it was all about the 13 inches.
When the measurement began, Crittenden said, “I had a bad feeling. They always measure the shorter one first so when they measured mine first, I was going, ‘Nooooo!’ I was hoping for a playoff.”
Long drive rules stipulate that when two shots are separated by six inches or less, the players go to a three-ball playoff to determine a winner. The tape-measure showed a 13-inch difference, so Flagg was the winner.
“I had no idea,” Flagg, 28, said of the measurement. “You couldn’t really tell. It was such a close call. I couldn’t get too high or too low. I thought I had it, personally, but again, I learned from baseball that the sport can humble you real quick so I let it play out. I was thankful I ended up on top.”
Flagg grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., played college baseball at Mississippi State University and lives in suburban Birmingham in Pelham, Ala. He is 6-feet-6, lean and athletic, and working for an innovative startup fitness company. He has a bright future in long drive, not to mention a pretty decent golf swing.
The Critter, who will now resume his day job as a golf instructor at the North Carolina Golf Academy in Greensboro, N.C., has most of his best long drive years behind him. The conditions played into his hands. He hits a lower, more boring trajectory and a crosswind was blowing substantially from left to right and into the players.
The wind and the chilled air more or less put a ceiling on how far anyone was going to be able to hit a shot. First-time qualifier Adam Smith got one out to 383 yards, thanks to some rollout.
“We hit last night into the wind and everybody was 350 to 360 and that was it,” Crittenden said. “Tonight, you could see the wind affect every shot.”
In the final, Crittenden went first and hit that 365-yarder on his second try, missing the grid with his other two shots. Flagg faded one to 356 on his first ball, then hit a lower-flighted shot that rolled out pretty well.
“Also 365!” the field announcer said.
Flagg missed right on his third try. Then Crittenden missed the grid with his last three shots, and Flagg did likewise. It was over, except for the tape measure.
“I trained for this moment all year,” Crittenden said. “I’m still in shock. This was a dream come true getting here, but I can’t believe it was decided by 13 inches. That blows my mind. I can’t wait to see it on TV… I think. It’ll probably hit me in an hour. Or maybe 20 minutes. I hit it good. I did what I could do.”
Flagg beat Dan Beckman in the quarterfinal round, 375-374, one of five matches that was decided by two yards or less. He beat Smith in the semifinal -- “limped past,” in his own words -- when he got a 337-yarder on the grid and Smith hit an assortment of hooks and slices and only one weak 305-yarder on the grid. So while it was a short shot, it was an important one because it carried Flagg to the final.
After that round, he went to the practice bay to work quickly with his coach, Tony Luczak, the head pro at Mississippi State’s golf course, to try to fix what he’d been doing wrong. It worked, just barely. Flagg won all the money and he scored the huge championship belt, which looks like something right out of boxing.
Asked where he’s going to wear the belt, Flagg laughed. “Oh, my goodness!” he said. “Well, it’s Las Vegas, so I won’t be too out of the ordinary no matter where I wear it.”
Flagg had some family members in attendance and they waited until near the end of the last match to break out some cowbells and ring them, a Mississippi State football tradition for its fans. Even for golf events, apparently.
“It’s not the easiest sound on the ears, but I was happy to hear it,” Flagg said.
His goal now as the reigning World Long Drive champ?