It has been a big year for Jeff Flagg.
He was honored at halftime of a football game at his alma mater, Mississippi State University. And yes, as Bulldog tradition requires, there was raucous noise, although no cowbells were injured during the proceedings. The Fourth of July weekend featured Jeff Flagg night at Wuerfel Park, home of the Frontier League’s Traverse City Beach Bums, one of the finest minor league baseball team names ever created.
Before the game in northern lower Michigan, the evening’s honored guest teed up golf balls at home plate, the same spot in the batter’s box where he dug in and tried to turn fastballs into home runs (he hit 33 for the Bums one season) in an earlier career. This time, he launched dimpled balls on long blasts that easily cleared the ballpark toward center field and continued on to, who knows, infinity and beyond.
Oh, and Flagg won the World Long Drive Championship a year ago in Las Vegas, which is why he earned those afore-mentioned honors.
You know you’ve really made it when the Beach Bums ask you back and give you your own night. Not the Mets (the former farm system he was in), not the Brooklyn Cyclones (another of his minor-league stops), the Beach Bums. That’s big-time.
“It was fun to go back and see a bunch of people I remembered,” Flagg said. “I saw a few Jeff Flagg Beach Bum jerseys that night. They didn’t reissue new ones, I don’t think, there’s just a few guys still wearing the old ones. That was kind of cool.”
Flagg’s reign as the world champ is coming to an end. This year’s World Long Drive Championship will conclude Tuesday and Wednesday night at the WinStar World Casino and Resort in Thackerville, Okla. It will be televised from 8-10 p.m. each evening by Golf Channel.
It is unlikely that this year’s final will be as excruciatingly close as last year, when Flagg edged Jeff (Critter) Crittenden by a mere 13 inches for the world championship. Then again, you never know. Flagg, 29, is 6 feet 6 inches, and still a fresh face in the long drive world. He was a pro baseball player who switched careers when he realized baseball wasn’t going to work out. He is looking forward to trying to defend his title.
“I sneaked up on everybody last year,” Flagg said. “I’m still relatively new to the whole scene. That’s where I stand right now and that’s why it makes me feel like I’ve got to prove myself again. I’ve done it once but to validate everything, I’ve got to do it again. That’s just the athlete in me, always wanting to beat the next guy.”
His life changed dramatically with that thrilling win a year ago at Paiute Resort in Las Vegas. He won the winner-take-all $250,000 first prize, the diamond-studded champion’s belt and at 4 o’clock the next morning, he was awakened by Golf Channel for a phone interview on the network’s “Morning Drive” show.
How much sleep did he get after the win the night before, considering that he was in Las Vegas? “Let’s just say not very much,” Flagg said with a laugh.
His victory was a curious exercise in karma and cosmic events. He failed at a long-drive qualifier in Alabama and wasn’t going to be able to compete in the semifinals in Mesquite, Nev. Then, when he was visiting in Chicago, his former Mississippi State baseball teammate, Conor Powers, talked him into tagging along for a World Long Drive qualifier there. Flagg did and decided what the heck, and took a second crack at qualifying. He made it, and wound up in the final eight in Las Vegas, as did Powers.
“It was crazy when you look back at how things fell together,” Flagg said. “I did a qualifier in Alabama and didn’t make it. The guy who beat me by two yards there? It was Critter (Crittenden). So everything kind of came full circle. It was nuts.”
It has been a busy year for Flagg, whose day job is as a director of education at PurMotion, a fitness company that focuses on an outside-the-box approach to sports training. He is working on putting together a new company, Reps (in honor of Tiger Woods’ pet word for practice): a golf-teaching system on what he and PurMotion figured out to develop his traditional-style golf swing, and how he was able to improve at golf so quickly.
He also made 15 or 20 appearances as the world champ. That forced him to put together a program for his exhibition. There are two parts to doing long drive for a living. One is winning in competition. The other is added a repertoire of trick shots to go along with blasting the ball over 400 yards and creating a show.
“Hitting the ball the way I do is entertaining for a lot of people but you have to learn how to entertain and put on an actual show,” Flagg said. “So I’m learning some trick shots, a scene I wasn’t part of before at all.”
There’s a trial and error portion to that part of it, he admitted. You’ve got to figure out what kind of fruit you can drive a golf ball through—watermelon, for instance. And there are ins and outs of hitting shots through a piece of plywood, Flagg learned.
“You’ve got to figure out what kind of wood and how thick it should be,” Flagg said. “One time, we bought treated plywood instead of plain plywood. When I tested it out, some of the balls came right back at me, and some of them stuck in the plywood instead of going through. You don’t want that to happen when you’re performing in front of people.”
The easiest trick shot for Flagg to learn was the one where he tees a golf ball waist high and clubs it with the driver. It’s just like being a baseball player again.
“I don’t miss baseball and I don’t miss playing,” Flagg said. “My whole career plan is a plan on words, but it’s a long game. I don’t want a get-rich-quick thing, a one-year-and-done deal. I want to build a franchise and brand myself the way Jamie Sadlowski has done. Jamie hasn’t won the world championship since 2009 but he does 45 or 50 appearances and does better every year. He’s the gold standard in our game, along with long-drive legends like Jason Zuback, Brian Pavlet and Sean Fister. I’m just trying to meet people and network and build a reputation.”
Winning the world long-drive title brings an instant reputation along with it. Not to mention the slightly gaudy champion’s belt, which looks like something out of pro boxing.
“You can walk around Las Vegas with it on and probably not get a second look but if I take it through airport security in my carry-on bag, I usually get stopped,” Flagg said. “A lot of TSA guys think I’m an MMA fighter or a wrestler.”
Just tell them you’re John Cena, it was suggested. “Yeah,” Flagg said with a laugh, “I look just like him.”
Sometimes, the TSA security official asks if he can try on the champ’s belt. “If I’m not in a rush,” Flagg said, “sure, I let them.”
It’s good to be the world champ. Flagg will try to find out Tuesday and Wednesday whether it’s just as good the second time around.