Digging the Long Ball at the RE/MAX World Long Drive Championship in Las Vegas, Plus the Van Cynical Mailbag

Joe Miller was the 2010 World Long Drive champ.

LAS VEGAS — Sure, we could sit around and continue to bask in the glow of last week’s CIMB Classic, what with all the excitement of how a PGA Tour stop in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, affected our daily lives here.

What happens in Kuala Lumpur stays in Kuala Lumpur and usually involves a ferry sinking.

Golf rolls on. This week it’s the Sanderson Farms Championship for the Tour. If you’re into long shots, Las Vegas is the place where all the action is. Tuesday night is the RE/MAX World Long Drive Championship.

Monday’s action was in a pro-am in which five-man teams competed at the Las Vegas Paiute Resort’s manly Wolf course in 30 mph (or higher) winds. This track is a brute on a calm day and in my experience, there may be no such thing in the barren desert highlands 20 miles northwest of Vegas. I’ve played three rounds at Paiute and each time featured wind-tunnel conditions. Monday’s format was a scramble — actually a shamble, in which the team picks the best drive then each player holes out from there with his own ball.

Big Joe Miller, the 2010 World Long Drive champ, was the host pro for my team. It’s one thing to watch him blast shots on a sterile long-drive grid where the distances are so absurd it seems unreal. It’s another thing entirely to stand five feet from him and see him blast one with the backdrop of an actual golf hole we’re trying to play. Joe is from England, the north side of London, and though he looks like a muscle-back weightlifter type, he’s got a good golf swing.

He also laughed at most of my lame chatter. On the first tee, he suggested I go ahead and hit and I answered, “I’m not ready. I’ve got to break some scar tissue loose first.” Joe found that mildly hilarious and said he’d never heard that one before. I told him he was welcome to use it from now on and he nodded, saying, “I’m taking it.” I also added that the line would be funnier if it weren’t true for aging golf-hack writers.

It was blowing a small gale out there and his space shots into the wind still carried ridiculous lengths. On one of his blasts, I said, “And that one rolled just past my ball.” We talked a little soccer and Joe admitted to being a Manchester United fan — “Unfortunately,” he added with a smile.

It was the kind of day you’d hate to have to play your own ball and count every stroke. It would’ve been a good match-play day because you could win some holes with a 7. Somebody in charge wisely decided that we should move up to the yellow tee markers. One short par 5 played downwind but uphill. The hole played 517 yards and we had 115 left for our second shot after Big Joe’s tee ball. It stopped in the left rough, otherwise he might have gotten a little roll.

He tees his ball up with a tee only slightly shorter than a pole vaulter’s pole. It’s longer than a golf pencil. The reason behind that is his driver’s loft — 2.5 degrees. If I tried to use a driver with that little loft, gophers and moles had better scatter.

On another short downwind and slightly downhill par 5, his drive stopped in a swale just short of the green. Our team snagged a pair of eagles there — the game was two best net scores on each hole.

There were a few wayward drives. When Joe pounds one crooked, there’s a good chance it can’t be contained on one hole. It didn’t happen often, though. He is very consistent and if that counted for anything in the World Long Driving Championship, where the winner is whoever can hit just one shot the longest, he’d already have a small pile of world titles. Joe is solid with his other clubs, too, and played some deft chips, which I seriously doubt that he practices much given his line of work.

A round of golf with a man who is one of the two or three consistently longest hitters in the world is priceless. His shots almost don’t seem real. But when you get to hit your second shot from where his drive ended up, it’s better than real. It’s pure fun.

Let’s get to the Van Cynical Mailbag…

I asked for predictions on who will be player of the year for 2015 and you coughed up some excellent responses via Twitter. You people really are as smart as you look.

Kokomice, no relation to Topo Gigio, voted for Jimmy Walker and added, “He’ll win the PGA and show in all four majors. I agree, Walker drives it well and putts it well. I definitely would not rule out a major for him…

Karen went with the chalk and nominated Rory McIlroy, saying, “He’s just that good. Unless he finds a new girlfriend. Then forget it.” Count the basket…

Sam Belden said Jordan Spieth and Jason Day are ready for the next step “with a Rory hangover coming and Tiger Woods injured.” A lot of us would like Day to get healthy so we can see what he seems ready to do. I’ve got to dismiss the Rory hangover thing. He’s been there, done that and not going to let it happen again…

Ryan Munson, no relation to Rex Ryan, went all in on a long shot, saying, “Fans may be caught off guard by the possibility that Robert Streb wins multiple events and Player of the Year.” You’re right about one thing, Fryin’ Ryan, we would be caught off guard. How many professional golf writers could even pick Streb out of a lineup? Very few…

An entity known as UWedge suggested Sergio Garcia “if he can add a few big wins to a major. He needs a torrid month or two.” And also a short memory. Gutsy call, friend, but I wouldn’t count out Sergio yet. Remember, Phil Mickelson didn’t win his first major until the age of 34…

Speaking of a former British Open champion, Chris Folds buys into a Mickelson comeback because, “The last time he spent an offseason focused on shots from 150 and in was before 2004. He wins Pebble, Riviera, the Masters and the PGA.” Bold talk, El Foldo, considering Phil stumbled through 2014 and had only two decent tournaments. If all it takes is focusing on shots from 150 and in, then why didn’t Phil do that every year for the last decade? Also, he was still young then. He’s nearing the end of the railway line now. I’m pessimistic on Phil at this moment but willing to be surprised…

Lawrence Donegan, no relation to Studs Lonegan, is impressed with big-hitting Gary Woodland: “He looked incredible in Malaysia even though he didn’t win. He won’t be Player of the Year but he might win a major.” Really, nobody is going to pick Tiger? Man, times have changed…

And the winner of this little exercise is Jeff O, no relation to Tosh.O, for his comment on picking the 2015 Player of the Year: “Van Cynical, is that for actual 2015 or the 2016 season that begins in 2015? #pgacalendarprobs.” Your check is in the mail, J.O.

The best of the rest:

Van Cynical, Do you get a celebrity swing Tuesday night at the World Long Drive?
–Brian Bailey via Twitter

Only if a fight breaks out at the media buffet line when they run out of salsa for the quesadillas.

Vans, I knew the Kansas City Royals were doomed after they showed Tom Watson in KC gear at Game 7.
–Michael (Mannix) O’Connor via Twitter

I knew the Royals were doomed after I went to the wild-card play-in game in Pittsburgh and watched Madison Bumgarner morph into Christy Mathewson for the rest of the postseason. Impressive stuff.

Gary, If it happened before ESPN, Fox Sports or Golf Channel existed, it NEVER happened.
–Brian Behnke via Twitter

What happened to golf talk? Well, BB responded to my point that while Bumgarner was remarkable, plenty of others have had similar World Series runs, notably Mickey Lolich, who pitched three complete-game wins in 1968 for the Detroit Tigers, including the big Game 7 win over Bob Gibson on two day’s rest.

Vans, Is this the year for Mike Van Sickle to make Q-school finals? Will you be on the bag in Florida?
–Kokomice via Twitter

He’s got the goods and the scores to do it, as he showed in first stage where he was medalist. Still two stages to go. I’m doubtful to be looping at the finale. There’s gotta be a real caddie out there somewhere.

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