Driving School: Gary Van Sickle goes to Nevada in a quest for more power

Driving School: Gary Van Sickle goes to Nevada in a quest for more power

Gary Van Sickle attended the LDA Power Academy in Mesquite, Nevada.
Mike Ehrmann/SI

Day One: The scent of a dream

The search for the Holy Grail brought me to Mesquite, Nev., an hour north of Las Vegas. If the Middle of Nowhere ever needs a stunt double, the road to Mesquite is it, a hypnotically straight highway past miles of desert scrub and drab mountains.

Mesquite is home to the annual ReMax World Long Drive Championship, where big hitters bust massive tee shots out around the 400-yard mark on a lined football field-like grid. This hallowed grid was my destination because the Long Drivers of America (LDA), which runs the championship, was hosting the second Power Academy, a weekend school where I would learn the secrets to golf’s Holy Grail—how to hit it longer. (Fist pumps not included.)

It used to be that a man had to know his limitations. Then bigger heads, exotic shafts and better golf balls enabled me to pick up distance off the tee throughout my 40s. It was a golden age for golf (and by golf I mean me, this being the ultimate selfish game). Now I’m dangerously close to my golden years. I’ve hit the speed limit—55 means 55—at the same time the game’s ruling bodies put the brakes on technology, which had been a gift to my generation, the last to grow up using persimmon woods, wound balls and golf bags that don’t stand up by themselves (still amazing).

The unrelenting march of time (a real bastard) and occasional achy-breaky parts had begun to diminish the extra yardage I’d rightfully gained through science. I reached the tipping point, apparently, and now dared to believe the Power Academy might turn that around.

The Academy began with a modest Friday night reception at the Casablanca Hotel & Resort, where I met most of the 16 other fellow students. They were a mix of future long-drive contestant hopefuls—young, tall, muscled or with massive guts—and fantasy camp types like myself, amateurs who wanted to add distance and taste the dream as emblazoned on the LDA T-shirt in our goodie bags: Live Long.

Our host was Art Sellinger, a two-time long drive world champ and veteran of some 1,800 exhibitions around the world. He founded the LDA and turned his long-drive gig into a cottage industry that hit a nice peak in the mid-2000s with a series of televised competitions. The recession has left the LDA leaner with a series of modest (untelevised) long-drive events and the one big-ticket item, the world championship every November in Mesquite. Sellinger is a smiling, energetic man whose enthusiasm is catching. After he showed us a video highlights package, he introduced his staff and tried to explain the Power Academy. The word, according to Art:

“Hitting a golf ball off a tee—there’s nothing like it! … I hope this weekend is everything you didn’t expect… Your two wrists are the most important body parts for swing speed… Trust me, what we tell you here will not be complicated… We’re really going to stress science over violence. There’s something about the effortless home run… If any of you came here to do the stack and tilt, I will refund your money… The golf ball doesn’t lie. It’s the only thing on a golf course that doesn’t.”

As pep talks go, it was pretty good. Sellinger cornered me after the festivities. One of the questions on my application was what my goal was for the school. Instead of answering, “Write an award-winning story,” I scribbled “Pick up 20 yards” as my response.

“Twenty yards? That’s all? That’s all you want?” Sellinger said animatedly. I couldn’t tell if he was jagging me (a Pittsburgh phrase I’ve picked up) or ragging on me (not a Pittsburgh phrase) for an unrealistic demand, as if I’d asked for 20 bars of gold. I thought it was the latter. “Well, we’ll see,” he said. “Get out there early tomorrow.”

Some of the students left the reception and headed out toward the smoky haze of the casino floor for some action. All I could think of was the late Rodney Dangerfield’s line: “Hey, I don’t even know why I play blackjack. My lucky number is 22.”

I went back to bed.

Day Two: The reality check

The sun was rising but still lacking in enthusiasm a few minutes before 7 when I pulled into the Mesquite Sports and Event Complex, hard against a peach-colored mesa wall that is 470 yards from the championship grid tee. (I thought you’d want to know that.)

We didn’t waste any time after a breakfast buffet in a tent set up on the site. If bacon adds power, I was already good for an extra 20 yards. Sellinger broke us into five groups so we could spend an hour each at five stations. Even though it was barely 8 o’clock, hard rock music blared over the loudspeakers. “This is what we listen to,” said Brian Pavlet, a former world long drive champ who is part of the teaching staff. “Get pumped up!”

First, Pavlet and Rod Moruss shot video of my threesome hitting 7-irons and drivers, then wrote notes analyzing our swings. I’ve been told that my swing reminds some of Jim Furyk and Jay Haas, though neither player would feel complimented.

Using Pavlet’s notes, Sellinger and Bobby Wilson went right to work. Wilson, 54, is a legend because last year he qualified for the world finals in three divisions last year—regular, senior and super senior—and won the latter two. Like Pavlet, he’s about 6’ 3″ and has the build and genes of a natural athlete who could excel in any sport. Pavlet, in fact, had a 98-mph fastball in college while Wilson was a member the U.S. Olympic team handball squad in 1980, the year President Jimmy Carter boycotted the Moscow games. Wilson is scratch handicap needler and he’d better be because he wears the Loud Mouth Pants made famous by John Daly. Today, it was black and white checkerboard.

“Knight to queen’s bishop three,” I told him. He laughed and made a clever retort that I cannot print.
No time for fooling around. This was golf instruction in the express lane. I hit a few balls and Art bluntly informed me that I wasn’t getting my weight off my left side very well. Not at all, in fact. I’d been hitting down on the ball, resulting in a low-trap draw that was effective but not powerful.
“What would you think if we did this?” Sellinger asked. He grabbed the outside of my left front pocket and pulled it toward my right pocket, forcing my torso to move to the right along with it. We made a couple of practice takeaways doing that and then I tried a few swings. A little better but out of habit, I still chickened out of a full weight shift. Wilson offered advice from Gary Player, saying how the great man says he tries to get his left shoulder over his right foot on his backswing, and demonstrated the move, planting a club connecting his shoulder and foot as a visual aid.

Wilson had me set up to a ball as if to tee off with my driver. Then he moved the ball and tee four inches forward toward the target. Without changing my stance, I was supposed to hit the ball by finishing the swing. “You probably think you won’t even hit that ball but I guarantee you will,” he said. He was right. I tried it four times and hit two of them pretty well.

Art changed my setup, tilting my shoulders so my right was lower at address than my left, the better to swing up at the ball. I batted a few more, a couple of them with considerably more hang time, but I still lost some right. Art told me I was tilting my shoulders vertically during the backswing but not horizontally. “Can you try turning this way?” he asked, pushing on the front of my right shoulder so I would turn away from the ball.

Wow, he was onto something with that move. From the first swing, it felt more powerful and my ball flight was clearly higher and longer. Can it really be this easy? “Hell, yes,” Wilson said.
Now I had something positive to work on, always a good feeling for a golfer. At the next station, we hit tee shots in front of a Trackman, which measures clubhead speed, ball speed, the ball flight—everything—so we could compare our before and after numbers. After that, we got a fitness evaluation and suggestions from Tommy Roskos, a pro from Sharon, Pa. Here’s one amazing thing from Roskos: See how long you can balance on one leg with your other foot raised in front of you about six inches. Then try it again but with your eyes closed. You will probably last only a few seconds. It is shockingly difficult. “It’s just about knowing where you are in space,” said Roskos, who added that PGA Tour veteran Tom Pernice can do it for minute after minute.
Our last stop was for clubfitting with master club-builder Frank Hartwick, who has pretty much seen it all and built it all. I was going to be an easy upgrade because the driver I brought to Mesquite was at least six years old, a Cobra with a 440 cc head and a hot face. “Yeah, the balls really jumped off those old Cobras,” Frank said.

He watched me hit a few, went over my Trackman stats and left to go assemble me an even mightier weapon. God bless Frank Hartwick.
After lunch, we ran through a gauntlet of drills designed to improve clubhead speed, including throwing a football around. Most involved swing-training gadgets, such as the Tempomaster, a super-whippy shaft with a driver head on the end. My first eight swings sent shots flying 70 yards right. My tempo must suck. I’ll be ordering one online ($129, www.Tempomaster.com).

While I was finishing the drills, Frank returned with my new driver, an Adams Speed Line Fast 10 with a high-tech Fubuki shaft. I tried it out and pounded a few drives. Frank and I looked at each other and nodded as if to say, oh, yeah!

Day Three: The pretenders

After another bacon-powered breakfast, Roskos put us through a 25-minute stretching routine. It was so intense, my legs were a little rubbery by the time we finished. It wasn’t a warmup, it was a workout.
We were about to compete on the long drive grid just like the pros do—hit six balls in 2 minutes 45 seconds (with the scoreboard clocking ticking down) while an opponent is doing likewise a few feet away. Pretty cool. I guess I was focused on my own swing issues because I barely noticed the other guy hitting and didn’t hear him banging out tee shots. It was a neat way to get a small taste of what long drive is all about.

Pavlet announced the distances of the drives that stayed on the grid as they were radioed back. I thought I hit my first ball pretty well, then heard, “268.” That was disappointing. The next four were mis-hits, I didn’t even watch them. On the last ball, I did a Pavlet—he won his world title on his last ball when he’d gone oh-for-the-grid with his first five, and hitting a killer last ball became his reputation. My sixth ball went 294 yards. Much better.

We did another round and my first ball was 279, followed by a bunch in the 270s—all solid but nothing really hammered. In our third and last round, I started off with 287 and 285 and was getting in the groove. Still no 300, the unofficial cutoff for manhood but I was close and down to my last ball. Somebody behind the tee uttered words of encouragement. It was Pavlet time. I went all out–and snipe-hooked it left off the grid. Pavlet groaned loudly, “Oh, noooo!” Oh, yes.

Day Four: The long goodbye

Another breakfast, another bacon attack, another day with sunshine. After a short team chat, we headed out to stretch. Roskos started us off with some jumping jacks. We’ve got a couple of heavyset guys (I’m trying to be polite) in the class, which is OK. Mass is useful in long drive. (See Theory of Relativity, Einstein, or his follow-up postulate, Why Frauleins Dig the Long Ball.) Anyway, we had just starting breathing hard when one of the heavyweights said, “Hey, I didn’t wait 30 minutes after I ate…”

Wilson nearly fell down. Pavlet stopped jumping because he was laughing so hard he was coughing.

Today’s agenda had hitting a few more shots for Trackman to compare our numbers, before and after, and get a personal evaluation from Sellinger.

A strange thing happened while I was warming up. A thought struck me from out of the blue. Drop your head. Did Sellinger tell me that and I forgot? Or Wilson? I pictured British Open champion Tom Lehman and the way he kind of squats to get his forward swing going. I tried some shots using this mental image as I began my forward swing—I don’t know if I actually did or I just felt like I did—and I began pounding the ball straight, high and long. Some 7-irons. Drivers. Three-woods. I was getting giddy. I was killing it. I hit one 3-iron after another off the artificial turf, high and straight. It was so much fun I didn’t want to stop. Moments like this are why golf is so great and so annoying.

Then it was my turn for a few more swings with Art and my exit interview. I hit some good drives and told him excitedly about the move I’d fitted in. He liked it. We went over my launch numbers. With a new fuller backswing (and a new hot-shafted Adams driver) my clubhead speed improved from 97-98 mph to 101-102 while my ball speed went from the mid-140s to the mid-150s. What’s that ball speed translate to, I asked? “That’s 20 to 23 yards,” Sellinger said.

“And you gave me a hard time about wanting to pick up 20 yards,” I chided him. “You did it.”
Well, he said, everybody is different and this is supposed to be a process of a couple of months, not three days. Then I asked him if it was true that the off-brand range balls we used were 5 mph of ball speed slower than, say, Titleist Pro V1s. He said it was true, and that at my clubhead speed, that was 10 to 12 yards lost.

“So if my longest measured drive was 294 and I add 10 yards to that, what’s that make the first number of my total?” I said.

He paused, smiled and answered, “Three. Your first number would be a three.”

Yeah, I thought so. I hit some more balls off the turf into the bright morning sky, then we broke for lunch. I packed up and took one more look at the famous grid and at Mesquite below in the valley, framed by the mesa and the distant mountains, still snow-capped. This place felt like the end of the earth when I first got here but today, I thought, it felt more like the beginning.