LAS VEGAS--Jeff Flagg and Connor Powers are living the dream. It’s just not the dream they were planning on.
Their dream was professional baseball when they were teammates on the Mississippi State University baseball squad and they hoped that right about now they’d be playing longball as power-hitting Major Leaguers.
That dream died a slow, frustrating death. So they have moved on to Dream 1-A. Now they’re playing longball as power-hitting major-leaguers in a different game, the RE/MAX World Long Drive Championship, Tuesday night in Las Vegas. They are among the elite eight finalists -- the so-called Las Vegas Eight -- who will tee it up at the Paiute Golf Resort and blast away for the $250,000 winner-take-all first prize in a competition that will be aired live by Golf Channel at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Call them The New Kids on the Block because Flagg, 28, and Powers, 26, are relative newcomers to the sport of long drive. They’ll be facing experienced competition that includes a pair of former world champions, England’s Joe Miller and Canada’s Jamie Sadlowski.
The New Kids are athletic phenoms. Their rise to the sport’s highest level has been as remarkable as it’s been rapid. Flagg, who is 6 feet 6, made it to the final 32 competitors in 2013, his first year of long-drive competition, and played his way into this year’s final with a clutch 397-yard drive on his final shot after he’d hit the first five balls out of bounds. Powers, who didn’t decide to dive into long drive until last February, pounded a 402-yard drive to reach the final.
“This has been crazy,” Flagg admitted from his home in Pelham, Ala. When Powers also successfully reached the Vegas final during qualifying in Mesquite, Nev., Flagg jokingly asked him, “Is it really that easy?” Powers laughed and answered, "No," but they are as pleased to be in the final as they are surprised.
“That’s the thing about Connor,” said Flagg, who grew up in Jacksonville, Fla. “He makes everything look easy. He picks up long drive, he makes the final eight. He shows up at college as a freshman and we go to the College World Series. I give him a hard time about that. Things aren’t as easy as he makes them look.”
The New Kids are both natural athletes with size, the kind of guys who can pick up just about any piece of sporting equipment -- a bat, a tennis racquet, a football or a golf club -- and be adept playing that sport in short order. Powers was the only MSU baseballer that Flagg knew of who handled the Mugshot Challenge at a Mugshots burger joint in Starkville, Miss. The goal is to down a gigantic three-patty stacked burger with six strips of bacon, cheese, lettuce, tomato and beer-battered home fries, an onion ring and a beer-battered pickle in less than 12 minutes.
“I don’t remember exactly how it came about,” Powers said, “but I think I did it under ten minutes.”
He made it look easy, as usual. In a bizarre twist, each man is partly responsible for the other being in the final. Powers, a native of Naperville, Ill., was looking for a new athletic challenge after being released by the San Diego Padres’ organization. So he called one of his best friends, Flagg, in February and Jeff filled him in on his trial-by-error experience as a long-drive rookie last year. “Connor said, 'OK, I’m going to try it,'” Flagg recalled. “And then he ends up being the fastest guy out here. I think his swing was clocked at 152 mph in Mesquite.”
Without Powers, Flagg might not be in Las Vegas, either. At a regional qualifier in Alabama earlier this year, Flagg advanced to the final round and was hitting for a spot in Mesquite. He hit all six of his shots out of bounds and was eliminated. He went home, figuring there’s always next year. Then Flagg talked to Powers right before he left on a trip to Chicago, where Flagg’s girlfriend lives.
“Connor told me he was doing this regional qualifier there that Monday,” Flagg said. “So I said, OK, I’ll bring my clubs. I went through that and haven’t gotten beat since. It’s crazy that I was so close to shutting it down for the year.”
Flagg was in the New York Mets farm system originally and played baseball for teams in Savannah, Ga.; Kingsport, Tenn.; Port St. Lucie, Fla., and Brooklyn, N.Y. His favorite stop was the Brooklyn Cyclones, who play in a nice ballpark on Coney Island right next to the amusement park on the beach. The team is named after the park’s rollercoaster, The Cyclone. You can see the Parachute Jump and the Atlantic Ocean beyond the right-field fence and the stadium is next to the original Nathan’s. One of his most memorable baseball highlights, Flagg said, was hitting a walk-off grand slam for the Cyclones.
“That’s a really cool feeling,” he said.
Flagg hit 33 home runs in 155 games for the Traverse City (Mich.) Beach Bums (yes, that’s really the team’s name) of the Frontier League, a number of them completely out of Traverse City’s Wuerfel Park.
In fact, long-drive competitions aren’t that different from his baseball career. Flagg was always a power hitter as an outfielder in college and then a first baseman as a pro and he was known for some prodigious shots. “When I go back home, that’s kind of my legacy,” Flagg said. “People say, Hey, remember when you broke my windshield? In Omaha at the College World Series, I got a standing ovation in batting practice because I hit one out of the stadium -- over the seats and the awning and everything. Looking back, long driving was probably a natural evolution from batting practice.”
Flagg, whose college roommate was Mitch Moreland, now of the Texas Rangers, didn’t get drafted until he was 22 and since he was older than most draft picks, he had a shorter window in which to produce. After the Mets released him, he played a few years in an independent league as a last-ditch effort to attract a team’s interest. Ultimately, he said, “I think I had the tools and there were flashes of what I could do but I never could put it together. It was more mental than physical, I think, I just never trusted my ability.”
Because he was known for smashing a golf ball great distances in his occasional recreational golf excursions growing up, he was interested in long drive to see if he could compete. He actually bought his first long-drive driver by simply walking into a store and telling them his plans. “They handed me a club with a super-long shaft, a low-lofted head and said, OK, here you go,” Flagg said.
When Flagg returned to Mississippi State to complete his degree in clinical exercise physiology, he met Tony Luczak, the director of golf at the MSU golf course. They hit it off, Luczak became his coach and when Flagg made it to the final 32 at Mesquite on his first try, it was motivation to keep improving.
Flagg’s day job is as a director of education at PurMotion, a startup fitness company that has a slightly outside-the-box approach to training. He travels around spreading the company’s program to other trainers, clients and gyms. It’s not just national -- Flagg has been to China several times and even to Dubai.
Here's Flagg's swing and training regimen:
The fitness is part of Flagg’s success. He and Powers have different styles and different approaches to long drive.
“I’m trying to build an efficient golf swing and use my god-given size and the strength I’ve built up,” Flagg said. “I didn’t want to just be a gorilla out there, yelling and falling all over the place. If you watch me hit, my swing isn’t that different than if I was actually playing golf.
“Connor is almost a pseudo-'Happy Gilmore.' He and I clearly go at it differently but we both made the final eight, so who’s to say what’s better?”
Connor laughed at the "Happy Gilmore" comparison and didn’t disagree. “Jeff has a good-looking swing, real natural,” he said. “He just takes a normal swing to hit it 450 or whatever. Me, I’m trying to swing as hard as I possibly can. Jeff has more of a golf background, I never really played much.
“One thing I didn’t like about how baseball ended for me was a lot of paralysis by analysis because I was trying to make my swing so mechanically perfect. That made it unenjoyable. So I wasn’t big on golf mechanics. I didn’t like being static, so I just dropped my foot back, similar to a baseball drill I used to do, and my clubhead speed jumped six mph just like that into the 140s. I should probably tell people that instead of practicing, I just watch ‘Happy Gilmore’ over and over.”
Here's Connor's "Happy Gilmore"-esque powerful swing:
Powers signed with the San Diego Padres after college and played first base and third in the Class A minors for three seasons before being released, playing for the Eugene Emeralds, Fort Wayne TinCaps and Lake Elsinore Storm.
When he decided to try long drive, he went to the Catalyst Golf Performance Center in downtown Chicago to do golf-specific and long-drive-specific training. According to Mike Napoleon, Catalyst’s director of golf instruction, Powers improved his clubhead speed from 133 mph to 150 in seven months and recorded a ball speed (the speed of the ball leaving the clubface) of 222 mph in Mesquite.
“I’m sure a lot of guys did it on their own but I had a whole team behind me at Catalyst to get me where I am,” Powers said.
He is 6 feet 2, uses a driver with -- yeow! -- only 3.5 degrees of loft and his day job is as a baseball hitting instructor via his website, DeadRedHitting.com. He’s also got a driver with 3.25 degrees of loft.
“Mike (Napoleon) and all the Catalyst guys do a good job of fitting me for the clubs,” Powers said. “I don’t know anything about it and I don’t want to know. Is the club good? That’s all I care about. I trust their expertise, that makes it easier for me.”
Tuesday night, Powers and Flagg get a chance to realize their dream. Even if it’s not their original dream.