Super Freak: The longest hitter in history

December 9, 2011

Your first reaction is fear, if you’re smart. A 48-inch driver whirs through the air at 150 mph, rips a gaping hole in the quiet little lives of so many peace-loving atoms, and even without a ball anywhere near the clubhead, it triggers flight—your own.

You wouldn’t picnic in front of a jet propeller or practice yoga on I-95, and you want to get the hell away from whatever Jamie Sadlowski is doing so that part of it doesn’t break away and kill your favorite person.

Sadlowski, 22, the two-time defending world long-drive champion, is swinging his white-shafted, 7.5-degree driver, posing for photographs against a black backdrop in a stately clubhouse in Vail, Colo. After a few minutes exposure to the most arresting action in golf, someone finally asks the obvious question:

“You won’t let go of that club, right?”

“No, you’re fine,” Sadlowski says.

He brings the club to parallel, past parallel, and then parallel again—with his left leg. His backswing finally ends with the clubhead pointing at a spot in front of the ball. It is here that Sadlowski transitions, but that’s not the right word because really he detonates an explosive pass through the hitting area. It’s a good-looking swing, as pretty as a Tour pro’s, but much, much faster.

The shaft will not break, you tell yourself. The hosel will not crack, his grip will not slip and you will be safe here, standing in the line of fire. Probably.

Jamie Sadlowski, former slap-shot savant, long-hitting “freaky boy” (his father’s words), the real Sidd Finch of golf, invites two big questions, neither of which is whether or not he is the longest hitter ever, because the numbers say he is. His 418-yard poke at the 2008 Re/Max World Long Drive Championship was a finals record. He hit an earlier drive in that competition 434 yards.

Question No. 1: Dennis “The Chief” Paulson won the 1985 long drive championship and went on to a decent PGA Tour career, but long-driving has never had a hitter who achieved stardom on Tour. Will Sadlowski be the first? His career low is 62. He’s won some club championships in Canada. And he recently took his first lesson, from Peter Kostis. “He hits all the right positions,” says Tom Stickney, director of instruction at Vail’s Cordillera and a Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher.

To be sure, long-driving is not golf. Long-driving is done at night, under lights. Rock music pulsates, and contestants scream and flex after a pure hit. There’s no limit to the number of clubs ? allowed. Adams Golf is building Sadlowski 24 drivers with reinforced faces for this year’s Re/Max event in Mesquite, Nev., on Nov. 5. (He’ll practice with 12 and bring 12 “fresh ones.”)


A player is allotted two minutes and 45 seconds to hit six balls, at least one of which must end up in the 60-yard-wide “grid.” Three hitters launch from the tee at the same time until the final eight, when each man has the tee to himself. Sadlowski had to rely on his final ball four times when he won the title in 2008. He hit it more than 400 yards each time. “I always hit my sixth ball the best,” he says.

His father, Danny, attributes Jamie’s mental toughness to hockey; Sadlowski spent three years in the Alberta Junior League. That grit will be vital if Jamie is to win four more world titles to break Jason Zuback’s record, and then leave long-driving to chase more success in traditional golf—i.e., low score wins.

The second question hovering over Sadlowski is more complicated: How is he is so long?

“It defies physics,” says Kevin Streelman, a Tour pro who has played several rounds with Sadlowski and who, like many others, is fascinated by him.

At 5′ 11″, 168 pounds, Sadlowski is an outlier. Built more like Charles Howell than Charles Atlas, he jokes that next to other, mostly NFL-sized long-drivers he looks like a teen-age girl. But it doesn’t matter. As rising PGA Tour star Dustin Johnson puts it, having witnessed the spectacle that is Sadlowski: “He’s not a big fella, but he hits it a country f—in’ mile.”

That is partly what makes him so fascinating to CBS golf announcer Gary McCord. A born promoter and enthusiastic swing theorist, McCord has been introducing Sadlowski to all the right people since the two met at Whisper Rock, McCord’s club (and now Sadlowski’s) in Scottsdale, Ariz., in 2008.

“Within five minutes I had him out there on the range with the whole membership watching,” McCord recalls. “Miller Barber is out there going, ‘Where’d that go?’ ‘It’s over there, Miller.’ Bam! ‘Where’d that go?’ “

Back on the tee at Vail, McCord instructs Sadlowski to hit a drive over Jack Nicklaus’s vacation home, adjacent to the Cordillera Valley course. The house is 417 yards away, and in the thin air Sadlowski air-mails Jack and Barbara’s bedroom. “No one has ever been where this kid is,” says McCord, citing Sadlowski’s high-end clubhead speed of 148 mph and peak ball speed of 215 mph. Like radar guns, launch monitors vary.

With the photo shoot over, Steve Atherton, GolfTEC’s vice president of instruction, tests Sadlowski and finds a 59-degree hip turn and Gumby-like 110-degree shoulder turn. Sadlowski’s so-called X-Factor, the difference between the two, is 51. According to Atherton, the Tour average is 59 and 100, for an X-Factor of 41. “The more opposite those numbers,” McCord says, “the more you load up the spring, and the more recoil you have.”

Load, lag and recoil add up to a heavy hit. Where those qualities originated and where they have led Sadlowski is another story.

“I always refer to it as the circus act,” Sadlowski says of his long-drive show, which will keep him on the road for up to 170 days this year. “It’s like a cartoon. I’m breaking boards and watermelons, hitting drives off a four-foot tee, or off my knees.

“It’s fun,” he adds. “I’ve always been quiet, but I’ve learned how to switch on for an event. I didn’t want to go to college and have a normal day job.”

Sadlowski grew up in the three-stoplight town of St. Paul, Alberta, where his father, Danny, worked as a highway maintenance foreman. (Before hitting the long-drive jackpot, Jamie briefly worked for his old man, scraping up roadkill.) Every winter, Danny flooded the family’s yard to create a small hockey rink for Jamie and his two older brothers. Jamie shot left-handed, into a piece of mesh-covered plywood, and came inside only to stave off frostbite. All of the Sadlowski men developed a blur of a shot, and in St. Paul they still talk about Danny’s slapper, and Jamie’s, which can reach speeds of 100 mph.

But even in Canada the national game couldn’t fill every need. To keep his youngest son occupied in the summer, Danny, not a golfer, cut down a set of right-handed clubs given to him by a friend. A natural lefty, Jamie played cross-handed, often with retirees when he couldn’t find anyone his own age.

“From the start I caught onto this hockey thing,” says Art Sellinger, two-time national long-drive winner, Sadlowski’s agent, and the owner of Long Drivers of America, which owns and produces the Re/Max. “I know his power has a lot to do with that. Jamie showed me in hockey how much you lean the stick, you save the hit, and that’s lag. Jamie’s been saving the hit left-handed since he was 2. He’s been saving the hit right-handed because he used a flat stick and shot from both sides. He’s basically hitting the golf ball with two right sides to everybody’s one.

“He’s been doing flick sports, fast-twitch hand and arm sports, badminton and hockey, for years,” Sellinger continues. “And the golf has been done on an incredibly correct plane. The most successful players in our sport are golfers.”

Hockey developed fast-twitch muscle fibers in Sadlowski’s left side while strengthening his wrists. So did cross-handed golf and, yes, badminton. All of those activities also made his wrists unusually supple, yet another way Sadlowski created lag once he changed to a conventional grip at age 13.

Says McCord, “He’s figured out how to move his muscles in time and space faster than the big guys.”

Footwork also seems to play a role. Like many bombers, Sadlowski seems to push hard into the turf with his spikes, leaving imprints on the tee.

“There’s a theory that on the downswing you should push off hard with the left foot, snapping the knee straight,” says Dr. Lewis Keller, a golfing friend of McCord’s and a physicist at Stanford’s National Accelerator Laboratory. “The left shoulder is pushed upward, which causes the shoulders to rotate faster, which causes torque. The trick is keeping the head on plane. Laura Davies does it. Tiger does it, which I think led to the knee trouble. And Jamie does it.”

Sadlowski went to his first long-drive event, a qualifier in Edmonton, at 14. Two adult friends of the family had entered and agreed to bring Jamie along. He won using a stock, 45-inch driver.

He made a quantum leap three years later, in 2005. After driving 20 hours with his parents to the competition site, a string of soccer fields in Blaine, Minn., Sadlowski, 17, initially failed to hit the grid. Furious, he stormed to the parking lot, where he was told the format was double-elimination. After running back to the tee, he became the first boy bomber to eclipse 400 yards, and won. (He hadn’t even had time to tie his shoes, which explains why he hasn’t tied them since.) “That’s when he really got my attention,” Sellinger says.

To this day, Sadlowski lets his tee shots do the talking. “I’m not a yeller or a thrower of the clubs or anything,” he says. “I’m a quieter type of guy. Art’s learned not to talk to me [during the World Championship]. I like to keep to myself.”

In his wintertime off-hours, he ice-fishes in Alberta, an even more solitary pursuit than golf. In a floorless tent, he cranks up a heater, sits on a bucket in jeans and a T-shirt and drops his line into the abyss. His grandmother cooks up the catch. It is here that Sadlowski is most in his element.

McCord nicknamed him “Crankenstein” because such handles (Golfzilla, Big Cat, the Beast) are the long-drive way, but Sadlowski is less comfortable self-promoting than he is contemplating life during his frequent, 100-mile-plus drives between St. Paul and Edmonton International Airport.

He banked $250,000 for winning his first world title in 2008, and $150,000 for defending it as the economy sputtered in ’09. That sum is expected to be first prize this year, too, but the publicity is just as important. The long-drive is still an act, as dependent on ink and airtime as it is on audacity.

Sadlowski has learned to articulate his methods because, he says, “Everyone wants to get longer.”

He explains to his audiences that he eats right and exercises, including a regiment of high-intensity squats and medicine-ball throws. He doesn’t want to get big, limiting his flexibility. But he certainly hasn’t jawed his way to the top. He was tongue-tied after his clinic in Vail when an older woman stood up and asked, only half-joking, “Do you date older women?”

“He’s such a respectful, humble kid,” says Gregg Tryhus, who owns Whisper Rock. “You don’t expect to see what he does with a golf ball.”

Sadlowski is much longer than Tour distance leader Bubba Watson, and when the two had a chance to go head-to-head in January at the Tommy Bahama Desert Marlin, a Scottsdale pro-am, McCord contends Watson refused to play ball.

Watson claims not to remember the episode. “I’ve never seen him hit a shot,” he says. “Can he play? Can he putt?”

Out on the range at Cordillera, Sadlowski steps up and flushes about a dozen 7-irons—240 or so—before catching one thin. His hand-eye coordination is Tour quality. His 20-degree hybrid is his ? gear-down club. He hits it straight, and still well beyond the drives of even the longest Tour pros.

“I like his swing,” Dustin Johnson says. “Can he make it out here? I don’t know. He’s young. He’d have to work on his short game. Length is no issue.”

“I know one thing,” McCord says. “Under the gun, when he has to hit one in the grid, he does it.”

That bodes well for this month’s long drive world championship and, some day, December’s PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament. It’s conceivable that the Legend of Jamie Sadlowski is just beginning.

This article originally ran in GOLF Magazine in November 2010.