On a recent afternoon in the heart of corn country, the Beast stood on the driving range of a modest muni, preparing to pound his Pinnacle to dust. Sean Fister owes his nickname to his monstrous build (6-foot-5, 240 pounds) and the primal fury with which he hits a golf ball (peak clubhead speed of 172 miles per hour). At the very same time, at the Tournament Club of Iowa in nearby Polk City, the graying girliemen of the Champions Tour were hitting powder-puff drives to polite applause. But here at Willow Creek Golf Course in Des Moines, Bon Jovi music blared over the loudspeakers. There was no quiet on the tee. And putting? That’s for pansies.
Grunting somewhat like a beast but more like a man trying to pass a cantaloupe, .Sean Fister uncoiled from his backswing and let one fly. “Go!” a fan in the grandstands bellowed, and the ball obeyed, arcing high on the horizon and bounding to a rest some 360 yards away. The gallery loved it. But Fister looked disgusted. A drive that wimpy hardly stood a chance in a battle with Golfzilla, the Croatian Crusher and other men of equally deserving nicknames who populate the fields of the Long Drivers of America.
In a game known for nuance, the LDA has done away with delicacy, distilling golf into a simple, manly, matter of size. LDA events, like this year’s Alpha Long Drive Classic in Des Moines, attract a motley assortment of big boppers and golfing X-Men endowed with freakish talents but having limited venues in which to show them off. In the LDA, what counts is “How?” (as in, “How far did you hit it?”), not “How many?” Competitors drive for show, and putt for… well, they don’t putt at all.
“This is not Loren Roberts on a five-footer,” said Art Sellinger, a two-time national long-drive champ and owner of the LDA. “What we showcase are exceptional athletes with exceptional skills, using the most exciting club in the bag.”
Although the LDA is long drive’s ruling institution, it casts itself as a grassroots operation, appealing to a Joe-Six-Pack sensibility and the everyday player’s fascination with length. In truth, the sport is an underdog. Long drivers make their name on the margins of the mainstream. If the PGA is blue-blood, the LDA is blue-collar–the crowds are more NASCAR than Augusta. Purses are relatively puny (first prize at the Alpha Classic was $18,000), and only a handful of long drivers make their living in the sport. Golf fans who gasp at Tiger’s missiles would swallow their tongues at the sight of the Big Cat (Evan Williams), an LDA Hall of Famer who could blast his ball through a telephone book.
The blunt, brutish appeal of a titanic tee shot was what inspired Sellinger to take a chance on the LDA 10 years ago. At the time he acquired it, the LDA was languishing, holding lackluster events at sea level in heavy air. Sellinger channeled his inner P.T. Barnum. He blasted rock music onto to the tee box. He moved the tour’s biggest event, the RE/MAX World Long Drive Championship to the moonscape of Mesquite, Nev. And he held the finals under lights, at night. Long-driving now boasted extreme-sport trappings worthy of coverage on ESPN. This exposure led to a growth spurt that was further stoked by a clever stunt called the Pinnacle Challenge: the Pinnacle Long Drive Team, including Long John Daly, toured the country to give regular golfers a crack at them. By 2003, Daly and Pinnacle had parted ways, and the Challenge died. But before it did, it produced a handful of overnight stars, including Dave Gureckis, a former construction worker from Brockton, Mass., who dusted Daly head-to-head to win $10,000.
“I knew beating Daly would be easy,” said Gureckis, who went on to join the LDA tour and become its 2004 Player of the Year. “He’s not really long. He’s just PGA Tour long.”
Gureckis was among the long-drive luminaries who descended on Des Moines on this hot, hazy Thursday for the Alpha Classic, an event that had taken on added heft this year. After holding eight tour events in 2004, the LDA, faced with dwindling corporate backing, had cut down drastically on its schedule. Aside from the world championships (to be held this October), the Alpha Classic was the only tour stop this year.
As a small crowd gathered in the grandstands, the competitors warmed up on the far end of the range. There stood the Croatian Crusher (Tomislav Karlj), and beside him Mike Dobbyn, a former college football lineman who, at 6-foot-8, has the body of man raised on Miracle-Gro.
The quiet scene was shattered by an explosion. Or what sounded like one. It turned out to be a practice shot by Golfzilla (Jason Zuback), who won four consecutive world championships between 1996 and 2000 and is widely regarded as the man who put long drive on the map, the Arnold Palmer of the boom boom guys. A former pharmacist, Zuback has a mild manner suited to his former profession and the muscles of an action figure. Imagine the Hulk, without those anger issues.
Back near the grandstands, the competition began. To ramp up excitement, LDA events place two players on the tee box simultaneously and let them slug it out like heavyweights. Each has three minutes to hit six balls. Their target is a grid, 48 yards wide, that stretches so far into the distance that the far end looks no wider than a sidewalk. At one point in the proceedings, with R.E.M.’s “Orange Crush” booming from the loudspeakers, Zuback blasted a ball that seemed to stay airborne for the duration of the song. It traveled more than 410 yards, but stopped six inches out of bounds.
“You sliced it,” a fan in the grandstands yelled.
Long drivers classify themselves in two basic categories: swingers and hitters. Zuback is the latter, his move at the ball being less an illustration of textbook form than an unleashing of violence. Dave Mobley, by contrast, the reigning world long-drive champ, has the fundamentals of the Nationwide Player that he once was.
When it came time for Mobley to take the tee, the champ waved to the crowd and flashed a broad grin that seemed partly a product of his cheery demeanor and partly a response to the camera crew from the Discovery Channel that had been following him around that day.
“Hey,” called out Bubba Bailey, a Georgia long driver who bears a stunning resemblance to John Daly. “Doesn’t the Discovery Channel usually do films about apes?”
Actually, the Discovery crew was filming a documentary about the science of the long drive. They were on to something. Long drive, like golf, draws heavily on science, and competitors, who are required to use USGA-conforming equipment, are on a constant lookout for advantages that lie within the boundaries of the law.
But as seriously as long drivers take their sport, there will always be those who regard it as a joke. “I realize there are Tour guys out there who think of what we do as a freak show,” Fister said.
It doesn’t bother him. A former star decathlete at the University of Florida, Fister knows the rigors of real athletics, and long drive ranks among the more extreme. Fister hits so many balls that he burns through a driver every two to three days. He wears out body parts even faster: quadraceps, elbows, discs in his spine. In 1995, days before the world championships, Fister was in a car accident. He won the world title, despite a fractured sternum and a broken middle finger in his right hand.
“I’m like a wounded animal,” Fister said. “The more banged up I get, the more dangerous I am.”
By Fister’s mighty standards, his drives at the Alpha Classic were wounded quails, and he bowed out of the competition in the first round. His exit was a shock, as was the performance of a long-drive first-timer named Brooks Baldwin, a 20-year-old former junior college golfer from Mississippi who, in the literalist tradition of the LDA, quickly earned the name “The Rookie.” In the first round, Baldwin was paired on the tee with long-drive legend Zuback.
“Welcome to the sport, kid,” Sellinger said dryly over the loudspeaker.
The Rookie kept his cool and uncorked a 384-yard howitzer, outdoing Zuback by 20 yards.
The competition wore on, more than eight hours of double-elimination designed to trim the field of 64 to eight.
By afternoon’s end, eight men remained, including Zuback, Baldwin, Gureckis and the surprising Mike Zeigler, a wispy restaurant manager from Ohio who, at 170 pounds, looked like a sapling among sequoias. Earlier in the day, as Zeigler blasted neutron bombs, one of his opponents yelled from the bleachers, “Someone drug test him!” It was a joke, but one that raised a question that invariably comes to mind at LDA events: Do steroids come into play?
Sellinger says that his guys are clean, but the LDA doesn’t drug test. (Some competitors openly admit to using Mark McGwire-style muscle-builders like creatine.) Whatever the case, one gets the sense, given the spirit and spectacle of long-drive competitions, that the issue isn’t one of pressing concern to the average fan.
Sellinger, for his part, is highly attentive to the image of the LDA. As daylight waned on the Willow Creek range, he huddled for a pep talk with his eight finalists. The finals were scheduled for Saturday afternoon on the 17th hole of the Tournament Club of Iowa, immediately following the third round of the Champions Tour’s Allianz Classic. Sellinger reminded his players to comport themselves like gentlemen.
“We’re their guests,” Sellinger told the finalists, before asking them to pray that it wouldn’t rain.
Saturday afternoon arrived without rain, and some 500 fans lingered on the 17th hole of the Tournament Club for what the LDA had billed as the Hour of Power. As the long drivers blasted off, one by one, the crowd responded with the oohs and ahhs of firework displays. The Rookie (Brooks Baldwin) proved himself to be no one-hit wonder. He breezed into the finals, where his 405-yard drive nipped left-hander Danny Luirette by a few paces.
By Sunday’s final round of the Allianz, the long drivers had dispersed.
Baldwin returned to Mississippi, tickled at the thought of a new way to make a living. Fister flew back home to Arkansas, where he planned to tackle an equipment problem that he partly blamed for his poor showing.
There seemed little doubt he would work things out. As part of his training regimen, Fister hits more than a thousand balls a day, none of them on the practice green.
“Putting,” Fister said, “is overrated.”
The Tour’s long man
With an average poke of 318 yards, Scott Hend is the biggest hitter in big-time golf.
You’re currently the longest driver on Tour, right? Yeah.
Are you happy with that? It’s just a byproduct of playing golf. It just so happens I’m leading at the moment, which is nice.
What’s the longest you’ve ever hit it? I don’t know exactly, but I suppose on Tour, at last year’s Colonial, I hit it over 400 yards at the 7th hole. I don’t take too much notice it.
How do you think you’d compare with the Long Drivers of America if you used the same drivers? I don’t think I’d compare at all. They’re ball crunchers. They’re built to smash it. They’re like mountains of men, aren’t they? Like 280 pounds of muscle. They’re in another class. I like to think I make up for it by being better in other aspects of the game.
What’s your best tip for becoming longer? Any secret exercise or yoga techniques? You just gotta be aware of core stability, do a lot of stretching, and of course the stomach muscles and the ribs are very important because the better you’re able to work them, the more capable you are of reaching higher clubhead speed. You also need good hips.
How teachable do you think long driving is? It’s a hard thing to teach. Just how runners have certain muscle twitch fibers in their legs that make them run faster, I must have something in my arms that lets me achieve that clubhead speed. As a junior in Australia, we’re taught first to give it a rip. And we learn to control it later.