Physical education teacher wins Long Drive Championship
MESQUITE, Nev. — Decorum was gone with the wind after only two swings at the RE/MAX World Long Drive Championship here Friday. Craig Hagan hit his first shot out of play in his senior division quarterfinal match, then he launched a high, hard one into the jet stream. The ball landed hard and took off like a sports car, rolling to a stop in the landing area at ... 441 yards.
One fan in the stands behind the tee box loudly blurted what everyone was thinking: "Holy s---!"
Pardon his language, but he perfectly summed up what was to follow. The World Long Drive final was absolutely a holy-bleep kind of day.
Believe it or not, senior division competitors — guys 45 and older — blew it past the 450-yard mark. A guy aptly named Moose somehow didn't win. Neither did the defending champ, a chiseled Englishman, who lost his semifinal match despite a 452-yard blast, or the sport's thoroughbred, a small-town Canadian who was world champ in 2008 and 2009.
A 20-year-old accounting major made the semifinal round, a 6'7 Swedish hulk didn't get any of his six shots in play. Your new world champ is a high school physical education teacher, who spent most of his summer competing in motocross.
The numbers were the craziest part of the day. The problem was a wicked southwesterly tailwind howling past the mesas, gusting near 35 mph. It was a little left-to-right but mostly downwind. These guys are good, they don't need that kind of help. For a few minutes, it looked as if the Open Division competition might actually be delayed because the grid, at 470 yards, might not be long enough to contain for the game's mightiest hitters.
That's right, 470 suddenly looked short. Holy bleep, indeed.
The day's emblematic moment belonged to event emcee Art Sellinger, the Long Drivers of America founder and a former World Long Drive champ himself. Sellinger held a microphone out to Hagan after that first senior match and asked sympathetically, "Did you just hit it a quarter-mile and get beat?"
"I did," he said.
Hagan's 441 lasted about as long as a Milk Bone in a dog pound. Vince (Pasta Man) Ciurluini rocketed a low bullet of a first shot that wasn't impressive until it rolled out all the way to 442 yards. Ciurluini was about to play his second ball when that number was posted and he was so surprised, he turned to the stands behind the tee and shouted, "Oh, yeah!"
Then he whiffed one a mere 420, followed by a third that had him screaming, "Oh, yeahhhhh!" as soon as the ball left the clubface. He knew. It went 456 yards, almost within spitting distance of the mesh fence at the base of the mesa.
It was no ordinary day at the World Long Drive Championship. These were not ordinary competitors.
Take Aaron Mansfield of Washington, Pa., who made the final eight on his first try. He's 20 and majoring in accounting at Waynesburg University. He missed a week of class to compete in the World Long Drive and reached the semifinals before losing.
"It was totally worth it," said Mansfield, who played golf on his high school team at Canon-McMillan. "I've got a bunch of tests coming up when I get back. I'm not looking forward to getting back to reality."
There was Pat Dempsey, 55, who'd already won championships in the over-50 and over-55 divisions before he made a run at the Senior title for players 45 and older. Dempsey played minor-league baseball for 12 years and was a catcher, just like his famous brother, Rick, who played 24 seasons in the majors for the Orioles and Yankees, among others.
"He told me I should've been a pitcher," Pat said, "but I always wanted to be like my brother so I played catcher."
Dempsey, who took up long driving to fill the competitive void he felt after getting out of baseball, had drives beyond the 440 mark in two matches before falling in a senior semifinal to David Mobley.
"I had a great week, the best of my career," he said. "I don't think I had any more in the tank, and I'm out there against guys ten years younger than me who can still really kill it. It's the first time I've walked off the tee totally happy with my performance."
Justin Moose, a distribution supervisor for American Eagle in Cranberry, Pa., backed up his 13th-place finish in last year's World Championship by making the final eight this time before losing in the quarterfinals. He threw javelin in high school, played college golf at Clarion University and won his conference tournament, then seriously hit the weights and got into long drive competitions. He's got bulging biceps and new-found confidence that he can compete at the highest level — if he can find the time. He works an evening shift for American Eagle and has a 45-minute commute.
"This is the first year I've taken long drive serious," he said. "It's not a career yet."
With a name like Moose, he seems like a natural. And with that name, he doesn't need a nickname.
"I'm still surprised whenever anybody calls me Justin," Moose said.
Another character was Ciurluini, who finished runner-up for the senior title for a second straight year. He pounded a drive that ran along the grid's right sideline to 453, but it wasn't enough. Mobley, a former contestant on Golf Channel's Big Break series, had nearly jumped out of his shoes after one of his own shots, shouting, "That's it! That's it! That's it!" as he watched it soar and roll to 459.
In all, there were 15 drives of 440 yards or more. The longest, Mobley's 459, was matched by Carl Wolter, 35, in the Open Division. Wolter was the real star of the day. He teaches health and physical education at William Allen High School, which he said is located between the towns of Lehighton and Jim Thorpe, near Allentown, Pa., and he put on quite a display.
All Wolter did was face down murderer's row. First, he took out Jamie Sadlowski, the game's most prominent star. Sadlowski, 23, is from tiny St. Helens in northern Alberta and burst onto the scene when he won the world title in '08 and '09 with stunning ease.
"When Jamie beat me in 2007, I told everybody, 'Boys, there's a new sheriff in town,'" Mobley said. "He was a phenom."
Sadlowski had his game-face on, sending his second shot 443. When Wolter didn't get any of his three shots in play, it appeared Sadlowski had the edge. The skies began to darken, though, as a threatening cold front approached, and the wind eased off a bit. Sadlowski took off his sunglasses and arranged them on the back of his head then ripped a pair of 418-yard beauties. When he was done and it was time for Wolter, the grandstand flags began flapping again. Sadlowski looked up at the sky, then at the flags and appeared apprehensive. He knew what could happen next.
Wolter nailed his first shot, and when it ran out short of the 450 marker, he'd won the match. Just that quick, Sadlowski was gone.
"The wind laid down on my last round, then it came up and he nailed one," Sadlowski said. "That's about it."
Next up was Joe Miller, an imposing figure and the defending champ from England, who is built like a brick house. Wolter hit his first shot out of play, then hit one pretty solid but said loudly, "I didn't see it." He saw it a few seconds later when the cameras caught up to it on the jumbo screen adjacent to the tee. He watched it come to rest at 459 yards. Wolter still had to sweat it out. On his last ball, Miller crushed one. When it stopped at 452, Wolter put a hand to his chest in relief.
The wind appeared to work in Wolter's favor in the final, too, against Ben Tuaone, a 27-year-old from Salt Lake City, Utah, whose unique swing was a real eye-catcher. Tuaone makes a massive turn on his backswing, ala Sadlowski or John Daly, but lets the club droop at the end, which results in the shaft of his club being perfectly perpendicular to the ground at the peak. Sadlowski, who grew up playing hockey and had a 100-mph slapshot righty or lefty, gets close to that with his swing but not to where Tuaone does.
The final was a bit anticlimactic. Tuaone got one ball in play at 388 yards, considered a bad miss in these conditions, then Wolter bettered that with drives of 409 and 392. By the time Tuaone got back on the tee for his last three shots, the approaching front caused the wind to shift. The grandstand flags that had been blowing straight downwind toward the north were now flapping toward the east. It was suddenly a pretty strong crosswind and any 400-yard drives now seemed unlikely. Tuaone sent all three of his shots out of bounds to the right, and Wolter had his second world championship, having previously won in 2002.
"It hasn't even sunk in yet," Wolter said after he accepted the winner's oversized $150,000 check and the trophy, posed for photos and borrowed a cell phone to call his daughter with his big news. "It's unbelievable. It's breathtaking to be out here. This week was all about coming back and proving to myself that I belong out here and I did."
He spent the summer riding dirt bikes and competing in motocross, fairly successfully. That helped his fitness level, and once summer was over, he focused on long drive. Now he's the world champion, again, and traveled quite a road to achieve it.
"In 2002, I didn't know any better, I was just swinging a hard as I possibly could," he said. "Now I know how huge the mental side is. There are so many great hitters out here now, the competition has gotten so elite. You know you've got to beat the best if you're going to be the world champ, and Jamie is one of the greatest champions of all time, without a doubt. Going against Jamie and then Joe Miller, I had to hit my best ball each time and I did. I can't ask for any more than that."
Well, how about a congratulatory party from the students when he gets back to school?
"Probably not," Wolter said, grinning. "All they care about is basketball."