Long-drive has a new king after a final like no other in Las Vegas

Tim Burke
AP
Tim Burke won the 2013 long drive title -- and the championship belt.

LAS VEGAS, Nev. -- Golf has never seen a night quite like this.

It began with a trio of F-16 jets loping lazily overhead, if lazily is a word that can be applied to anything done by F-16s. There was a glowing evening sky, still bright and yellow around the very edges even though the sun had just gone, but dark and already starry directly above.

The light standards threw a blanket of white on the field below but this was no baseball field. This was a racetrack, the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. There was the first turn. There was the infield. There was pit row. And there, snuggled against the turn, was a sliver of green grass marked off like a grid. It was much more than a sliver, of course, but from 70 feet up in the grandstands and 300-plus yards away, it looked like only a sliver.

This was the ReMax World Long Drive Championship final, televised live by Golf Channel on a night that changed the sport of long drive. Time will tell whether a long drive finale held in this bizarre scene will give the sport a bigger profile or just one memorable night. But that sunset, coupled with Tim Burke's dramatic match-play win over former world champ and top-seeded Joe Miller, had the epic feel of a cycle completed and a new day begun. Burke, who lives in Orlando and played college baseball at the University of Miami, already had the look of a World Long Drive champ. He is 6 feet, 6 inches, close to 250 pounds, with long arms and legs and, oh yeah, bulging biceps. You definitely didn't want to bat against him when he pitched. You wouldn't want to be the quarterback who got blindsided by him as a blitzing outside linebacker. And you don't want to have to outdrive him at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, or any traditional golf venue.

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When Miller challenged him in the final three-ball set with a clutch 405-yard blast that apparently matched Burke's best shot moments earlier, all Burke did was answer with a kill shot of 427 yards on his next drive, a walk-off winner. Burke pumped a fist, walked a few steps after it on the tee platform built into the grandstand for this event, and then flipped his club in the air. Four hundred and twenty-seven yards. It's the kind of number for which no exclamation point is necessary. The numbers scream for themselves.

"I've never hit a ball that hard in my life," Burke said of his title-winning blow.

Now he's the official World Long Drive champ. He's got the new sparkling champion's belt, which looks like something from a heavyweight title fight, and a big check for $250,000 in the event's new Golf Channel-mandated winner-take-all format. What's a financial wholesaler like Burke going to do with that kind of life-changing dough? He didn't know. "Pay off some student loans," he said. Then, breaking into a grin, he added, "Or maybe I'll put it all on red at The Plaza."

That would be very Vegas, just like this inaugural Golf Channel long-drive telecast. There was the glitz of the lights and the elevated stage, a big screen TV just behind the tee. Left of it was a replica of the iconic Welcome to Las Vegas sign, a savvy marketing touch. Electronic message boards crawled around the sides of the tee box.

Maybe the big bang finale of the four-show series put long drive on the golf map or maybe it didn't. The first-time live finale show had its share of glitches (too many dull interviews, not enough action) but the big finish made up for them.

Burke, however, has re-made the map of long drive. He was impressive as the break-out runner-up in last year's final. He was much more than that Wednesday night. In the world of long drive, there's a new sheriff in town and he's a big fella, all right. Jamie Sadlowski, the lithe small-town Canadian phenom who turned the sport on its ear six years ago, couldn't make it to the final four last night. Miller did, only to get crushed by 22 yards. Miller and Sadlowski were considered the kings of this game. Now it's Burke's world, it appears, for the near future. He's the new king of the hill until someone knocks him off. And it'll be another year before anyone can officially do that.

The big question of the week was whether you could, or should, play golf at a race track. The final match was a thriller, so it seemed to work. The issue was that the grid was nestled into a turn on the track just past pit row. Because of the location of the elevated tee box platform, the landing grid was effectively a slight dogleg left. A few observers, and some of the regular long-drive participants, expressed fears that almost nobody would be able to get a shot onto the grid during the competition, the view from the tee box was that fearsome.

The Tuesday night rehearsal and test-run didn't allay those fears. While Sadlowski laid down drives like a pipeline down the center of the grid, most of the other big hitters peppered the race track right, pit row or the net-covered building on the infield. Before Wednesday night's show began, two former champs pessimistically set the over-under number for how many of the first 56 tee balls would stay on the grid at 15.

You should've taken the under. The October Eight, as Long Drivers of America CEO Art Sellinger dubbed the finalists, cranked only 13 of 56 shots onto the grid during two sets in which each player hit a total of seven drives. That's a .232 batting average. Matt Hanger was the only October Eightster who went oh-for-seven. Kellett, Sadlowski, Miller and Hopper got two shots in play each. Mansfield and Burke got one apiece, although Burke's was 414. Only Hogue landed as many as three in play. Here's how it worked: Each player hit seven shots. The four players who posted the longest drives advanced to match play. Burke led the qualifiers with 414. Miller was second at 413. Kellett drove one 398 and Hogue, 393.

In the match-play portion, Kellett went oh-for-six in his two sets and lost to Miller, who merely bunted one in play in his second set to ice the win. In the final, Miller and Burke got five of ten drives in play.

Overall, the field hit 85 drives and put 22 of them on the grid, a .259 batting average. It could be argued that accuracy should play a bigger role in long drive, as it did here, and that favors the better players. The finals had been held on a beautiful grid in Mesquite, Nev., until Wednesday's experiment, and that massive grid was 60 yards across. Which is better? It's a topic for debate.

The Las Vegas Motor Speedway provided more atmosphere. About 1,500 vocal fans turned out, more than triple the usual crowd in off-the-beaten-path Mesquite. Playing at night in Vegas versus daytime in Mesquite was an improvement, too. Winds were not much of a factor here while in Mesquite, they were strong and pesky and switched at times, penalizing some unlucky competitors. Plus, Wednesday night the lights of the Vegas Strip were in the backdrop. That had to look pretty good on TV.

Good or bad, there was no denying that the Speedway provided a memorable setting and a memorable final. That may be the biggest thing, besides the beast known as Burke, to come out of this World Championship. If the World Long Drive Championship didn't find a home at the Speedway (and it probably did), it definitely found a home at Golf Channel.

Analyst Michael Breed brought his passion for swing instruction and applied it to the big hitters, doing a few interviews with players. He was seen in animated private discussion with Burke downstairs away from the tee platform after one of Burke's sets, presumably dissecting what he'd just seen.

Golf Channel's Holly Sonders brought her thousand-watt smile to player interviews, too. During one commercial break, she waited near the tee box where the players entered. One male fan called out, "Hit a ball, Holly. Hit a ball!" Sonders grimaced and shook her head. It was 310 yards to the start of the grid and she knew it. The crowd mostly added positively to the evening's festivities and responded loudly whenever a player, especially Miller or Burke, urged them to make noise as they prepared to hit.

"With the fans yelling like that, I felt like and NFL quarterback out there," Burke said. "That was the best atmosphere I've ever seen."

In the now-ever-so-slightly-larger-world of long drive competition, it was a night like no other.

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