August 18, 2019

On the fringes of professional long drive, competitors follow the money to tournaments all over the globe. One problem: Those events don’t always pay up. Exhibit A: A tournament in China last year that offered the largest purse in long-drive history … yet still hasn’t made good. The sport’s tight-knit nature and culture of silence have made players reluctant to speak out. Until now.

*****

This past November, Wes Patterson, a 30-year-old long-drive professional from Jupiter, Fla., boarded a flight in West Palm Beach bound for China. It was Thanksgiving week, a hectic and expensive time to travel, but Patterson (photo above, in gray shirt) had taken on the cost and inconvenience for a chance to tee it up in a tantalizing international event.

As promoted online, the kickoff tournament in the Global Infinity Series had the makings of a long-drive lollapalooza: a three-day competition, staged at a mega golf resort in Hainan province, with a purse of $400,000 that organizers hailed as “the biggest prize pool in the history of the sport.”

To further sweeten the pot, the company behind the competition — International Golf Associates New Zealand, or IGANZ — was offering $10,000 for the longest single drive, along with a lifetime exemption for the overall winner into future IGANZ events.

Prize money in long drive would never be confused with PGA Tour purses. Over the course of a season, competitors can count on a just a handful of events that might cover more than their travel expenses. Even the World Long Drive Championship, which is run by NBC Sports/Golf Channel and is recognized as the sport’s most prestigious annual competition, pays out a total of $270,000 — or roughly a quarter of the total purse at a mid-season event on the Korn Ferry Tour.

With pickings relatively slim, few long drivers make a go of it full-time; most hold down other jobs to pay their bills. The China event presented itself as an extravagant outlier, with an advertised first-place prize of $150,000 that was more than what most top long drivers earn in a year.

If that sounded almost too good to be true, to big hitters like Patterson, it was also too tempting to resist.

A former collegiate baseball star, Patterson was a relative newcomer to long drive who, since his 2017 rookie season, had risen to 13th in the world rankings. Still, he had to scramble to earn his keep, supplementing his winnings on the grid with appearances at golf clinics and corporate outings.

“Looking back, maybe you could say that I should have seen the red flags in (China), that we all should have seen the red flags,” Patterson says. “But when you’re talking about that kind of money, you don’t want to be the guy that missed out.”

Not that certain details didn’t give Patterson pause. For starters, though IGANZ had provided players with written assurance that the prize money in China was “confirmed,” the source of that money was unclear. IGANZ made no mention of corporate sponsors, nor did it claim to have a TV deal in place. No matter how you did the math, the entry fees of $750 per player were nowhere near enough to cover the purse. Olna Ford, IGANZ’s founding director and a 47-year-old former New Zealand beauty pageant contestant, told players that to fund the payout she had secured “investors,” though she declined to identify them.

Word travels fast on the long-drive circuit. Throughout the summer and early fall of 2018, the sport was abuzz over the Global Infinity Series. While some players voiced skepticism — if it sounded too good to be true, it probably was — others took comfort in the fact that IGANZ had run long-drive events before, albeit for much smaller purses, and, according to a number of competitors who’d taken part in them, purses and appearance fees had been paid.

The time came to decide. Weighing the benefits against the risks, dozens of long drivers, male and female, including top-ranked players in both divisions, figured it was worth the gamble to get on a plane.

It wasn’t long after touching down in China, a day before the scheduled start of the event, that Patterson saw cause for concern. At Mission Hills, the 10-course golf resort that was meant to host the competition, nothing in the way of tournament infrastructure had been set up: no grandstands, no banners, not even the 45-to-70-yard-wide grid customarily used for such events. Resort representatives said that the driving range where players had expected to find the rectangular competitive field was off limits because IGANZ had not paid to reserve it.

The customary trappings of a professional long-drive event were notably absent in China. Said one competitor, “It was like the long drive version of the Fyre Festival.”

“It was like the long-drive version of the Fyre Festival,” says Justin James, who arrived in China as the world’s top-ranked long driver, referring to the notoriously disastrous 2017 luxury music festival in the Bahamas. “It was such a sh-t show, it was almost comical.”

Olna Ford had flown to China, too. A glamorous woman with long black hair, she was easy to spot at Mission Hills, often busy on her phone, in an apparent effort to set matters straight. Among other things, she told players that the failure to reserve the range had resulted from an innocent bookkeeping error: the middle initial on the credit card IGANZ had used had, she said, been transcribed incorrectly.

Why IGANZ couldn’t resolve the matter by paying on the spot was less easily explained.

With competitors winging in from around the world and the slated start of the event approaching, Jason Atkins, an Australian long driver who had volunteered to help run the tournament came up with a solution: he put the $32,000 fee for the driving range on his own credit card, with written assurance that IGANZ would reimburse him later.

“It stressed me out to lay down that kind of money,” Atkins says. “But there were so many people who’d gone so far out of their way to get there, it didn’t seem right for them not to have a chance to compete.”

That removed one hurdle. But other logistics still had to be worked out, and it fell to the competitors to handle those as well. Though the golf-ball company Volvik had shipped 200 dozen balls to China for the event, that shipment had gone missing, so players borrowed balls from the Mission Hills golf academy. In the absence of a grid, the long-drivers themselves ran a rope along one side of the range to mark the out-of-bounds.

In the chaotic days that followed, a delayed version of the contest wound up taking place, with a modified format to make up for lost time, and Patterson won, beating the Canadian Jeff Gavin in the final with a drive of 394 yards. But cutting loose in celebration didn’t feel quite right.

“Everything was just so bizarre,” Patterson says.

At a surreal awards ceremony, which featured a performance by the pop star Ben Lummis, a former winner of New Zealand Idol, Patterson took the stage alongside Ford and two other money-winners. Ford presented him with a bottle of Chinese liqueur, a champion’s ring that didn’t fit his finger and an I.O.U. for his $150,000 first-place finish.

At long-drive events, it is not uncommon for purses to be paid several days or even weeks after the close of competition. But nearly nine months have passed since the China event, and Patterson has yet to receive a cent from IGANZ. At the time this article went to press, neither had any other player who finished in the money. Atkins has not been reimbursed by IGANZ, either.

In the meantime, what Patterson has amassed is $5,000 in legal fees in an unsuccessful attempt to collect what he’s owed.

“It’s been beyond frustrating,” he says.

In the aftermath of the China event, competitors say that Ford gave them puzzling explanations for the shoddily run contest and for IGANZ’s failure to pay the purse. Ford, they say, told them that the event had been sabotaged in its planning stages by unnamed parties who didn’t want her to succeed in China. Motivated by professional jealousy, those saboteurs, she insisted, had worked to undermine the competition through hostile online posts and other messages. As a consequence, she said, an IGANZ agent in China had resigned, disrupting onsite operations.

As for not paying, Ford blamed that problem largely on the players, who she said had hurt their own cause by complaining afterward about the competition. Their grousing, Ford said, had scared her investors, who, worried about potential damage to the IGANZ brand, decided to withhold their funds.

For the players, such reasoning made little sense. But Ford has stuck with it.

Reached on the phone in New Zealand by GOLF.com, she doubled down on her explanations, referring to “sabotage” and “spooked” investors. The China event, Ford said, had been conceived as a kind of proof-of-concept, a luxury-driven demonstration aimed at convincing investors that the Global Infinity Series was a viable commercial enterprise worth getting behind. But the long drivers had spoiled it with their complaints.

“The word ‘ungrateful’ comes to mind,” Ford said.

Even though Ford said that she’d been wronged, she insisted she was trying to make things right. She said she had found another investor and that she had enacted an “eight-week plan,” at the end of which all China competitors would be paid in full.

But Ford has made — and broken — similar promises before about making good on the China purse. Patterson, for one, isn’t holding his breath.

“Obviously, I’d love to have the money; I could really use the money,” he says. “But I’ve pretty much come to grips with the fact that probably I’m never going to see it.”

Olna Ford addresses the competitors at Mission Hills last November.

By all accounts, the $400,000 China prize pool represents the largest unpaid purse in the history of long drive. But its uniqueness is more a matter of degree, than kind: On the long-drive circuit, there is an unfortunate history of players getting stiffed.

Explanations vary. Events go sideways for a host of reasons, some more innocent than others. Sponsorships dry up. TV deals fall through. Promoters overreach, then run out of money to pay what’s due.

Take, for instance, a 2009 Fox-televised competition called Titans Big Shot at the Tee, which paired celebrities with long-drivers at Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut. The event was the brainchild of John Mamoudis, a building contractor and competitive long driver who saw great untapped potential in the sport, only to have his plans undone by a tangle of problems. Sponsorship money for his event fell short of expectations, as did television revenue. Expenses also soared, Mamoudis told GOLF.com, when Mark Wahlberg, the event’s marquee name, had to be flown in, last minute, from Los Angeles (Mamoudis had been told that Wahlberg would already be on the East Coast) and insisted on traveling by private jet, costing Mamoudis $70,000. When all was said and done, Mamoudis said he lost around $3 million of his own money on the venture.

“I’m embarrassed by what happened, I feel terrible about it,” Mamoudis said. “But I took a big hit. It was not a case of me working Hollywood. It was a case of Hollywood working me.”
 The story is affecting, but it’s also cold comfort to a number of Big Shots at the Tee competitors, including a California-based clubfitter and long driver named Pat Dempsey, who says he never received his $50,000 first place check. “It was a bitter pill to swallow,” Dempsey said. “But you’ve got to move on.”

Other long drivers have been forced to do the same in the wake of two events held last year in Dubai and Mexico. Run by an outfit called Long Drive World Series, the events were unusual in that players were paid to compete in the event, with the cost of their travel, meals and accommodations covered. The downside was that a number of players, including the top finishers in the events, have not been paid.

Long Drive World Series has not held an event this year, and its CEO, Mark Westney, told GOLF.com in an email that the company “has been ‘moth-balled’ until such time we can secure new sponsorships, at which point we will be able to clear the backlog owed.” He says that total is less than $40,000.

When events turn sour, not all promoters are so forthright, if they stick around to answer questions at all. That was the case at the 2010 Los Cabos Classic, in Mexico, where players were shocked to learn, when they went to cash their checks, that they’d been paid in pesos instead of dollars. Some of the competitors were later made whole. Others said they weren’t. The two main organizers of that event — Natalie Rowe and Brad Peterson — could not be reached for comment.

With its track record of unpaid purses, long drive is not unlike golf’s mini-tours, which have long been fertile ground for dubious events — the difference being that long drive’s woes have rarely come to public light.

That the average fan is likely unaware of long drive’s problems owes partly to a culture of silence on the circuit. In reporting this story, GOLF.com spoke with and exchanged emails with more than a dozen current and former long drivers. Though each of these players acknowledged that they’d had personal experiences with events gone wrong, many said they were hesitant to speak out for fear of damaging the reputation of the sport. Some expressed concern about raising the ire of fellow competitors who were similarly protective of the sport’s image, or of suffering retribution from event operators who might withhold promised payments or blackball them from future competitions.

“There’s definitely an attitude that you shouldn’t make waves,” says Jason Zuback, a five-time World Long Drive champion (six if you count his title in the senior division). Over the course of his career, Zuback estimates that he’s owed $100,000 in unpaid purses and appearance fees. Recovering those debts would have been difficult, if not impossible, Zuback says, as event organizers often operate under shell companies that can be folded up with little trace or shielded by bankruptcy law. Add those hassles to the emotional headache of making a stink — threats from promoters; blowback from other players — and Zuback says he wasn’t even inclined to try.

A “good ol’ boy” mentality permeates long drive, Zuback said, using the phrase affectionately, along with a throwback code of conduct. For many players, a handshake is a contract. Their word is their bond.

“Guys are willing to give promoters the benefit of the doubt,” Zuback said. “They’re trusting, and they’re eager to compete. They don’t want to be that guy who does something that’s seen as damaging to the sport or spoiling opportunities for everyone.”

Jason Zuback, pictured in 2002, estimates he's owed about $100,000 in unpaid purse money from various events.
getty

Now 49, Zuback ruled long drive in the late 1990s, winning four consecutive world titles on a circuit then known as the Long Drivers of America. That tour — itself an outgrowth of a sport that was first formally contested at the 1976 PGA Championship — was run by Art Sellinger, a former long-drive champ with a reputation as a savvy businessman. Sellinger says he has no patience for event operators who use their own financial hiccups as a rationale for not paying players. It’s no excuse, he says.

“I once had a sponsor pull out last-minute and it cost me $300,000,” Sellinger says. “But I paid the purses out of my own pocket, because guess what? The money thing was my problem. It was not the players’ problem.”

In 2015, Sellinger sold his long-drive tour to NBC/Golf Channel (he stayed on as a TV analyst, a role he maintains today), which rebranded it as the World Long Drive Association, often referred to as the WLD. Regarded as the gold standard in the sport, the WLD has in recent years run up to 12 televised and non-televised events per season. In 2019, it condensed its schedule to six televised events, the better to increase purses and reduce players’ travel costs. Its calendar culminates with the world championships later this month.

A handful of other well-regarded long-drive associations exist overseas, including the European Long Drive Games, which runs events predominantly for players on that continent, and the Grid Outlaws in South Africa.

Beyond that, though, long-drive competitions play out mostly on a Wild West-like frontier.

“One of the biggest problems we’ve got is that our sport has no governing body,” says three-time world long drive champion Sean Fister. “Inevitably you’re going to get some operators who try to take advantage because they’re out there doing their thing with no one to police them.”

It was onto this landscape, in 2016, that Olna Ford first appeared. A former fitness instructor, fashion model and winner of multiple beauty pageants in New Zealand and overseas, Ford also had a background as an endurance athlete. In the early 2000s, as part of a sporting challenge at a bodybuilding competition in Ohio hosted by Arnold Schwarzenegger, she shattered the world record for distance covered on a treadmill, running a reported 163 kilometers (or 101 miles) in 24 hours — a feat made all the more impressive, according to a published report, by the fact that she was pregnant at the time.

Ford’s first blush with long drive came in New Zealand while she was working in marketing and event promotion. She told GOLF.com that she was drawn instantly to the athleticism of the sport, and to the entertainment value of the events. Soon, under the auspices of IGANZ, the company she founded, she began running events herself.

At the time, long drive in New Zealand was in its infancy (many competitors would say that it still is). Ford said she was bent on nurturing it. In addition to competitions, she established and sponsored the New Zealand Long Blacks, a national long-drive team. Though the players on the roster aren’t paid a salary, they enjoy the perks of a higher profile and opportunities to compete.

What started for IGANZ with a smattering of invitational events in New Zealand in 2016 and ’17 evolved into a more ambitious schedule that included a competition in Roratonga, the largest of the Cook Islands, in the South Pacific, as well as home-and-home contests between the national teams of New Zealand and Australia. IGANZ’s profile in the sport was rising, as was Ford’s. In August 2018, her face appeared on the cover of International Long Drive magazine, with a caption that hailed her as “The Entrepreneur Queen of Long Drive.”

Anyone who looked hard behind that glossy cover might have found some blemishes. In 2016, for instance, the Long Drivers European Tour pulled out of its involvement with a championship event in New Zealand, citing problems with its local partner, IGANZ.

“It has not been an easy decision to make,” the tour said at the time in a written statement, “but LDET has found a breach of contract from (IGANZ) in New Zealand and could not guarantee the smooth running of the final event.”

Among long drivers Down Under, IGANZ and Ford were frequent topics of conversation. While most players were delighted that someone, anyone, was staging competitions, there was also grumbling that the events were haphazardly run and that checks were sometimes late in coming, if they came at all.

Daniel Lee, a two-time Australian national long-drive champ and member of the Australian national team, told GOLF.com that, beginning in December 2017, he competed in five IGANZ events over a 12-month span. All of them, he said, were plagued with problems, ranging from uneven and unmarked grids to the use of balls ill-suited for long drive. In one instance, as he was getting ready to fly to an IGANZ event in Auckland, Lee says Ford contacted him asking if he knew anyone who could get their hands on 10 dozen high-compression balls because she didn’t have enough for the competition.

Lee says he purchased the balls himself on his way to the airport. Though IGANZ reimbursed him for that outlay, Lee says the company still owes him $400 for his fourth-place showing in Auckland. (Asked about this money, Ford declined to comment). Lee also competed in the China event, where he finished 11th for what should have been a $5,000 payday. That, too, he says, is money he has not received.

Shortly after the close of the November competition at Mission Hills, a note went out to players on IGANZ letterhead promising that winners checks would be issued before Christmas. The holiday came and went. This past January, another letter went out, this one signed by Ford. It reassured players that the money was still coming.

“So where it’s (sic) stands now is you all are getting paid!” she wrote. “IGANZ always pays.”

If Ford felt abashed, she didn’t show it. In fact, by then, she’d already resumed staging long-drive events, one of which was held in New Zealand in December, within weeks of the China fiasco. Two additional IGANZ events have been held since.

Though many players were miffed to learn of this, their sport’s code of silence mostly held.

An exception appeared on Twitter, where a self-described former player who posts anonymously as Long Drive Sheriff, put Ford’s feet to the public fire. “Hey Olna Ford,” the Sheriff posted on Feb. 25, one of several tweets that struck a similar chord. “why don’t you try paying even 1 cent of the over $450,000 you owe Long Drivers before you start promoting other events.”

In one of her own social-media posts, Ford fired back: “Won’t tolerate all the carry on via social which has caused delays in the boardroom with investors.”

This was a familiar refrain to players. In speaking with GOLF.com, though, Ford went further, saying that the online criticism amounted to “cyberbullying,” which constituted a violation of the terms and conditions players had agreed to in advance of the China event.

Ford described the online commentary as “unruly behavior,” and suggested it was legal justification for not paying at all.

It does not appear to be. The language in the contract players signed with IGANZ before the China event refers to expectations for competitors during the competition, such as dressing appropriately and showing up on time. It puts no prohibitions on what players can do or say after the event.

This past week, though, the China competitors who are owed money were treated to yet another wrinkle, which arrived in the form of an email from Ford. The notice advised them that IGANZ was preparing to “execute payments,” with a condition: To receive their money, players were being asked to sign a new confidentiality agreement, which Ford included in her email. Among other demands, this new agreement called for players to promise not to disclose any information “not generally known to the public which, if misused or disclosed, could reasonably be expected to adversely affect IGANZ business.”

Among long drivers contacted by GOLF.com, the reaction was mixed. In some cases, Ford’s email had a chilling effect. Some players said they were considering signing the agreement and that they were now hesitant to speak on the record for this article for fear of spoiling their last, best chance of getting paid. Others dismissed Ford’s message as an attempt to strong-arm them into silence about the money they are owed and the frustrating aftermath of the China event.

Asked if this was the case, Ford ignored the question but said that “truths” were being twisted.

IGANZ’s reputation has suffered. At one point, Ford’s outfit had an affiliation with World Long Drive that allowed it to operate a qualifying event for NBC Sports/Golf Channel’s World Long Drive Championship. But in an email, a WLD spokesperson said that the circuit cut all ties with IGANZ “once it became apparent that they weren’t operating in events in a way that was in line with our regulations/procedures.” The spokesperson said that the WLD “condemned” IGANZ for its failure to pay players, and added that it was unfortunate that players were “essentially being punished twice,” in that they’d also lost out on a path to qualify for the world championship through an IGANZ/WLD partnership.

Meanwhile, IGANZ still insists that it intends to pay once players sign the new confidentiality agreement.

Wes Patterson, in gray shirt, with his fellow competitors in China. The tournament promised — but has not yet made good on — a record $400,000 purse.

The idea that speaking out might jeopardize a player’s earnings comes as a cruel irony to Wes Patterson, who said nothing publicly for months after the China event. Only in July, having spent nearly $5,000 in legal fees in a failed attempt to claim his winnings, did he decide to come forward with his story.

A number of other players have done the same. Among them is Jeff Gavin, who finished runner-up to Patterson in the open division at Mission Hills, and also took first place in the senior division, for which he paid an additional $750 entry fee. He is owed $75,000.

“I was pretty angry at first, but I’m older now and I know stress isn’t good for my body,” Gavin says. “But I’ve gotta be honest — it still pisses me off.”

Another rankled player is Eddie Fernandes, the 2018 Masters Long Drive Champion. Like Gavin, Fernandes paid two entry fees to compete in two divisions, earning a total of $9,000 that he hasn’t seen.

“I take responsibility for going over there. It was my choice,” Fernandes says, noting that he spent an additional $6,000 on travel and accommodations. “I went over with the mindset of winning because my wife and I are in the process of buying a house and I could have used the money toward a down payment.”

For many long drivers, the fallout from China hasn’t only been financial. Gavin said his enthusiasm for long drive has been dampened. Fernandes says he’s been pushed to the breaking point: “I’m sick and tired of this — this sh-t needs to stop.” Patterson, who had an uncharacteristically sluggish start to his 2019 season, attributes his recent struggles partly to stress and distraction.

“It’s weighed pretty heavily, I won’t lie,” he says. “You try to be patient. You try to give people the benefit of the doubt. But there comes a point where you say, ‘Enough. I can’t take this lying down.’”