LAS VEGAS — Good thing the ReMax World Long Drive Championship wasn't held here Monday. It was too windy to stack BBs, as an old saying goes, and would've been too breezy for any kind of legitimate competition. Winds blew over 40 with gusts up to 51 mph. The mountains surrounding Vegas were obscured by dust, and being out in that dust felt like being on the business end of a sandblaster. Even I, dedicated golf hound that I am, didn't consider playing golf or hitting balls at a range.
Yeah. That's windy.
The long drive final is Wednesday night and it'll be televised live on Golf Channel from a new venue, the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The big hitters haven't done anything like this before and it's going to be wild. One quirk: The playing grid is a little narrower than usual so there will be an increased premium on accuracy. Somebody might win a match just by dinking a tee ball into play, but let's hope it doesn't come to that.
The conclusion of Long Drive Month kicked off Monday night with a party at the Palazzo for the eight participants plus assorted sponsors and VIP guests. Long Drivers of America CEO Art Sellinger dubbed the last men standing The October Eight, and showed a short video clip of each player before bringing him to the podium. Each clip ended with a super-slow-motion sequence of the player's swing, which was mesmerizing.
The guy whose swing drew gasps and murmurs was Patrick Hopper of Columbia, S.C. He's 6 feet, 2 inches tall and weighs 215 pounds, with bulging biceps, but the gasps came when Hopper's club wrapped around his body on his backswing, reached the vertical point (pointing straight down at the ground) and kept going! For a second, it looked as if his club might get horizontal again, parallel to his belt. You've never seen anything like it. Hopper's swing is reason enough to tune in for this show at 9 p.m. ET.
Tim Burke, from Orlando, is 6-6 and was runner-up last year. Matt (The Hangman) Hanger from Anaheim, Calif., has been a truck driver and has a barrel chest. He's 6-1, 240 and can pound it.
Will Hogue of Collierville, Tenn., played college baseball at Austin Peay and is the only lefthander in the field. Tyler Kellett is a Canadian now living in Scottsdale. He's the sleeper in this field. He's a mere 5-11, 190 pounds and at 33 is the oldest competitor. Aaron Mansfield, 22, from Washington, Pa., is the youngest. He made the final two years ago and graduated this year from Waynesburg University with an accounting major.
The biggest names are Joe Miller from London, England, who won in 2010, and Jamie Sadlowski of St. Paul, Alberta, a two-time world champ. You would not want to be tackled by Miller, who is 6-4 and built like a nose tackle. Sadlowski made the final seven years in a row, including 2008 and '09, when he won. He's 5-11 and only 170 pounds but he generates ridiculous speed, just as he did when he was a junior hockey player with a 100-mph slapshot from either side. (In case you were wondering, the long drive finalists have clubhead speeds in the 140 mph range.)
The Palazzo party featured other assorted dignitaries, and guess who got the loudest ovation from a roomful of mostly males? Holly Sonders, Golf Channel's leading lady, who will handle player interviews. She also accommodated the most requests afterward for photos with guests.
From the Van Cynical Mailbag:
Van Sickle, What's the deal with the new qualifying format for the British Open? –Benson via email
It's clever. It's sort of like the Masters setup where you earn a Masters berth automatically by winning a tournament. Assorted finishers from 14 events globally will earn spots in the Open field. For instance, the top four players who finish 12th or better at the AT&T National and Greenbrier Championship, who are not already qualified for the British Open, will earn Open berths. The top finisher among the first five at the John Deere Classic who's not in the Open will get a spot. There will be nine spots available in PGA Tour and European tour events.
Vans, Is it true that EA Sports is getting rid of Tiger Woods from the Tiger Woods golf game? Why? –Doug via email
It's true. The writing was on the wall in 2010, the year after Tiger's fire hydrant episode and scandal, when Rory McIlroy shared the cover with him. Tiger became the game's face in 1999 but hasn't won a major in five years. I bet EA Sports could get a good deal with Jason Dufner. They could use the famous Dufnering photo on the game box.
Van Cynical, You tweeted something about your son's good start at Web.com qualifying but I didn't see any followup. How'd it turn out? –Elfgolf via email
Guess I was too tired from looping to tweet. Mike Van Sickle was able to overcome some atrocious caddying and greens-reading by the aforementioned caddie to advance to the second stage. It was quite the drama. He pulled off a remarkable eagle-birdie finish to get back inside the cut line by two and finish 23rd. His next stage will be at Southern Hills Plantation in the Tampa area. We're all hoping for an upgrade at caddie.
Van Cynical, I see Rory drubbed Tiger in that exhibition match in China. Does this mean Rory is back? –Punxatawney via email
It was an exhibition, Punxy, so all it means is that both guys got paid a boatload to show up and play. Rory beat Tiger in an exhibition last year, too. How'd that work out? This one was very low-key and the microphones picked up both players talking about equipment and joking. Even Rory was funny afterwards. He said he'd "like to play all my tournaments in China where I can beat Tiger." Rory did have four birdies and an eagle in the last seven holes. So maybe he's getting a handle on his equipment. He did use a new driver and a newer, softer ball.
If I was going to attend one major championship in 2014, which one should it be? Assuming I could get a ticket somehow. –BirdieMachine via email
Normally I'd say the British Open, but next year it's at Royal Liverpool. That's one of the least interesting Open sites and it's hard to get there with traffic. You'd never go wrong going to a Masters, but a weekly badge on the open market would set you back thousands of dollars. The PGA is at Valhalla in Louisville, Ky., and in the heat of August that's a swing and a miss. Your best value is the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. Stay an extra week and you can enjoy the Women's U.S. Open in the USGA's grand experiment of back-to-back Open championships. Also, when you're not out spectating there's a lot of good golf to be played in the area on account of, it's Pinehurst.