Clutch swings, beautiful vistas make Long Drive Championship something to behold

Clutch swings, beautiful vistas make Long Drive Championship something to behold

Ryan Winther is the 2012 World Long Drive champion.
Courtesy of the Long Drivers of America

MESQUITE, Nev. — The scenery may be the best thing about the Re/Max World Long Drive Championship. All of the scenery, I mean.

As a Midwestern flatlander, I never tire of the rugged mountain views out here, and the long drive playing field — they call it The Grid — is perched in the foothills overlooking a sprawling valley and mountains to the north and east, hard against a tan-peach colored mesa wall. It's a gorgeous setting and it looked great on ESPN's telecast of last year's event, which re-aired around Christmas.

There's also the golf scenery. If you're a fan of standing on the practice range at a PGA Tour event and watching the pros swing, this is even better. Tour players have standardized swings these days, more or less, sometimes to the point of being boring. Guys whose swings have personality, like Tommy Gainey and Jim Furyk or Lee Trevino, are more fun to watch.

At the World Long Drive, these guys aren't great golfers, but they're great hitters. They are elite athletes in an extreme performance sport, and the swings come in as many shapes and sizes as the players themselves.

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This is my second year covering the finals here. Last year, on the day before the finale, I noticed a guy hitting balls with a stunning swing. It was Ben Tua'one, who made it to the final, where he lost to Carl Wolter, a high school physical education teacher from Eastern Pennsylvania. Ben's shaft pointed straight down at the ground — yes, perpendicular — at the peak of his backswing. Like a lot of long drivers, Ben had problems finding the 70-yard-wide grid with his shots, but when he did, they went holy-cow deep. Ben didn't make the final 32 this year. He was eliminated early in a windswept fourth round despite posting a 405-yarder, but he stayed around to watch the finals from the grandstand with his family.

I was looking for this year's phenom before the quarterfinals on Wednesday. One candidate was Steve Monroe, mostly for his looks, although his swing is darned good. Monroe is from Clearwater, Fla., and is nicknamed The Predator. He has dreadlocks that would make Andrew McCutchen of the Pittsburgh Pirates proud. Plus, he's got some gold (or silver) teeth and he seemed to enjoy needling some other competitors and getting needled in return. Plus, he can really launch it. He sent his shots as high as anyone in the field, and he rocked drives of 407 and 416 yards in rounds 10 and 12 before falling in the quarterfinals. He looks legit.

Another wonder was Jason Zuback. He's 41, a grizzled long drive veteran and a Canadian who's won the World Championship five times going back into the '90s, and he's still going at it. You may remember him from those old Pinnacle longest-ball commercials. Long drive is a young man's game, but Zuback just missed the final eight, powering his way into the Sweet 16 with a 415-yarder, drawing some cheers from a flock Canadian supporters in the stands. He's fun to watch because he's not a goliath. He's cut from the squat, powerful, fireplug-type mold, and his swing is wonderfully one-of-a-kind. He takes it straight back, then lifts the club straight up and corkscrews away from the ball and then, well, un-corkscrews. It's not a thing of beauty, but it's been effective for two decades. He's mesmerizing to watch on the range and would've been dangerous if he'd made the final.

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The thing about long drive competitions is that they're not about consistency. They're about hitting one good shot out of the six balls you're allotted. That format makes for better drama but doesn't necessarily always identify the best player.

That point was hammered home in Thursday's opening round by Ryan Winther, a husky man from Lodi, Calif. The wind, which had been aiding golfers all week, switched on the last day and blew into their faces, right to left, lightly at first but stronger at the end. The four longest shots of the Elite Eight advanced to match play. After hitting five balls out of play — a few snappers left and some whiffs right — Winther was down to his last ball.

"C'mon, Ryan, let the big dog eat!" one fan shouted as he prepared to hit. Noise, by the way, is preferable to silence at the world championship, where some 500 fans pack into grandstands to catch the action.

Winther drilled one down the middle of the grid and immediately screamed, "Yeahhh!!" Then he pumped his fist and marched around the tee in excitement. The ball went 393, the longest shot of the round.

It was really the clutch moment of the World Championship because he disposed of Landon Gentry fairly easily in the semifinal as the wind picked up, and then Tim Burke in the final as the breeze began stretching out the flags with a little intensity.

Winther is 6 feet 4, 250 pounds and looks like a middle linebacker. He's 29, he enlisted in the Army but suffered a stress fracture in his back and spent a year in rehab before being honorably discharged. He's a computer wiz who got a job in tech support at Apple. He played semipro baseball, but when he didn't get drafted, he gave that up at age 25. A friend subsequently got him hooked on golf, and then on long drive competitions. This is his fifth year competing, and now he's the world champ, which earned him $150,000.

The first thing he has planned, he said, is rehab next Wednesday. He's got bursitis in his left shoulder, can't lift his arm above his shoulder, really, and somehow played through the pain to win the crown. He wasn't really supposed to play, but competing wasn't going to make it worse. Wait until his doctor finds out he won the thing.

"He was probably watching on TV today, so he probably knows," Winther joked.

Winther and Burke were of similar builds. Burke seemed a little taller and leaner, more like a strong safety to Winther's linebacker. And they can both kill it, wrapping the club around their necks as far as they can to create maximum swing arc. Burke crushed one 430 during his route to the final.

The final-round favorite, two-time champ Jamie Sadlowski, got hosed by the wind for a second straight year. His semifinal opponent, Burke, squeezed off a modest 354-yarder among his first three shots. By the time Sadlowski hit, the wind had increased markedly. On his last shot, Sadlowski crushed one, but it rode up into the wind and fell short. "I dodged a bullet there," Burke admitted later. An eerily similar thing happened to Sadlowski in last year's windswept finish.

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Sadlowski is a different body type than the finalists. He's not big — supposedly 5-11, 165, although he always looks taller in person. He grew up playing hockey, of course, and he's got Hank Aaron wrists, apparently. He can fire a 100-mile-per-hour slapshot righty or lefty, and when he was a defenseman for the Bonneyville Pontiacs, a Canadian junior team whose name I honestly did not make up, the coach had to tell him he couldn't fire slapshots at his own goalie in practice anymore. He likes to lace up the skates and blast slapshots now as a way to get ready for long drive competitions. Also, you know how hard it is to find a 450-yard golf range? There aren't any. If he wants to practice, he's got to find an open par-5 on a golf course.'

He'd be more fun to watch if it wasn't so hard to pick up his ball rocketing off the driver face.

Those two world titles in his early 20s had marked Sadlowski as the new face of the long drive circuit, but new talent keeps cropping up. This league is tough. Sadlowski is a nice kid from a small town who's made a career for himself. It beats the job he left back home, which was picking up roadkill for the county. There's a lot of roadkill in the wilds of rural Canada, and if something gets hit on a Friday night and simmers over a hot weekend, suffice to say it's not pleasant to pick up. He's got stories but trust me, you really don't want to hear them if you just ate.

The swings of the eight finalists weren't as funky as last year. These guys were mostly just strong. The crowd might have uttered a few more oohs and ahhs if the grid had played downwind and 400-plus was in play. Last year, in a strong helping wind, a few players hit it to the 460 mark, the final line on the grid, which ends in a snowfence at 470.

But wind or no wind, watching golf swings is always fascinating.

An emotional Winther made a few brief remarks after he accepted the trophy and the oversized check, after his wife and family had come out to the tee. "Give her the check!" a fan shouted, drawing laughter.

Winther thanked a slew of people who have helped him, including long drive leader Art Sellinger for giving him some recent advice, and, at a loss for words, concluded, "I'm just really happy right now. I don't know what to say."

His smile said it all. He got applause from the fans as they filed out of the grandstands. It was a beautiful late autumn afternoon, a nice breeze and 68 degrees. I looked in a large trash can stationed by the stairway as I left to go talk with Winther. It was full nearly with blue beer cans, a mix of Miller Lite and Bud Light. The fans, apparently, went home happy, too.