MARICOPA, Ariz. — World Long Drive Tour stars don’t lack for muscle, but what’s on their minds? Last week, at the Ak-Chin Smash in the Sun event just south of Phoenix, I picked the brains of four of the tour’s biggest names. Here’s what they think about big-hitter stereotypes, golf’s distance dilemma and which PGA Tour player would have the best chance of hanging on the Long Drive circuit.
1. What question are you most frequently asked when people find out you’re a long-drive guy?
Eddie Fernandes, ball speed of 220 mph at 47 years old. Longest drive: 480 yards: “You’re not supposed to be hitting it that far at 47 years old, you old fart.” I take care of myself really well. And I love to compete. There’s something about competing with the younger guys that’s different than the Masters Division that I’m in as well. There’s just something different that I get an extra rush competing with these guys, and it just gets me going.
Paul Howell, current World No. 9. Longest drive: 460 yards: “Do you know Jamie Sadlowski? Is he still World No. 1?” That’s actually probably one of the biggest ones. And Jamie’s pursuing a golf career, so it kind of shows that we do have guys that can do that now. That’s pretty much the main one.
Will Hogue, former World No. 1, currently ranked No. 4. Longest drive: 483 yards: What’s my longest shot? Always is the first question. The second question would be, How long is your driver? Four hundred eighty-three yards is the longest ball I’ve ever hit in competition, and 48 inches is my driver length. Everything we use is USGA legal. They think we use [non-conforming] stuff, but we don’t.
Justin James, current World No 1. Longest drive: 476 yards: The stupidest question is, can you putt? Yeah, I’ve never heard that one. [Laughs] But people want to know how to hit it farther and kind of what we’re doing. And that’s what I think is so interesting about seeing this and the exposure Golf Channel’s given it is, again, when you have ball speeds that are 40 to 60 miles an hour faster than a PGA Tour player, there’s something to see there. And there are small applications to golfers across the world.
2. Long-drive specialists are often stereotyped as having bad short games. Is that warranted?
Fernandes: No. I went to PGA Tour qualifying five times, so I can play. I won a bunch of mini-tour events back from ’97 to 2004 and made second stage [of Q School] a few times. I was inducted into my high school and college halls of fame. So I was a pretty accomplished player. Hopefully I’ll get a chance in a couple of years to play some Champions tour events. We’ll see what happens.
Howell: A lot of these guys can play golf. I’m one of the guys. Eddie Fernandes is a good player. Justin James is a good player. I think we do get a bad rap sometimes, and I think that’s why we’re trying to incorporate pro-ams, so guys can kind of see, oh, he can drive it far, but, man, look at this guy’s short games, look at the way he chips. Because we’re really not all bad golfers. We’ve obviously got to be very precise when swinging as hard and fast as we do to hit the center of the club face. That shows a lot in our accuracy and the way we hit the golf ball.
Hogue: I think it depends on the long driver. If you look at Paul Howell, he’s a guy that’ll shoot 65 when we go out and play, so absolutely not. If you look at a guy like me, yeah, it’s just very much warranted. I’m not a bad golfer, but I’ll shoot 80. I’m your weekend warrior at golf; I play three or four times a year. I’ve got two of my own kids, I’ve got a full-time job [as a firefighter] and I do this. I don’t have time to play golf.
James: I don’t think for me. I think my short game’s pretty good. But some guys out here don’t have a good short game because they don’t play, and that’s okay. But a lot of the guys are really good players. Paul Howell’s good, Justin Moose is really good. So it just depends on which guy you talk to.
3. Which current Tour player do you think would have the best chance of making it as a long-drive competitor?
Fernandes: Oh, man. I think Tony Finau, Cameron Champ. I believe Cameron Champ’s on the Web.com tour, and he can hit it mid-190s. That’s pretty stellar. DJ, if he actually trained for it, I think Dustin can give it a run. But 130 miles an hour, 132 miles an hour, that speed is not going to get it done. These guys [out here] are putting it 145- and 150-plus. That’s kind of the range I’ve been in.
Howell: Man, that’s tough. There’s a lot of guys that have a lot of potential. DJ, I think, would have a good chance with his club that speed. Brooks Koepka. Bubba, because he likes to shape shots. I think the last one that I think could do a lot is Grayson Murray. I actually grew up playing golf with Grayson, so he’s always been there right tit for tat with me, and I think he would do a very good job hitting long-drive drivers.
Hogue: None of them. We play a different game. They are very precise, we get eight swings, and it’s raw horse power. It’s a similar sport, but it’s a different sport. The athletes that you see out here are not like the athletes that you see out there. We don’t have to put it in the hole, we don’t have do anything. We work specifically for this. It would be like, say, if you put Usain Bolt in a marathon, is he going to win? They’re like NASCAR, we’re like drag racing.
James: As it stands now, no way. If you give DJ a few years, or Rory, maybe. But their ball speed could get up to 190, and a lot of the guys are in the 220s out here. So it just doesn’t really work out, the math, right? He’s a great athlete, so I think Dustin Johnson, given time, could be competitive, but maybe not top end. A 48-inch driver, give him a year or so, and it would be interesting.
4. What’s the easiest way for the average player to pick up 10 yards?
Fernandes: A lot of people try to muscle the ball. So what I try to do is — the grip is your first thing that’s connected in a golf club. If your grip is not right, you’re not going to be as efficient as possible. Structure governs function. So if you can grip the club in a proper way and not grip too tight, like you’re squeezing toothpaste, just kind of let it flow. And you don’t want to force it. I see too many people death-gripping it.
Howell: Honestly, to gain 10 yards, I would say hit it solid. You can swing as hard as you want to. Some of these guys swing 150-plus miles an hour. I think if you don’t hit it solid, it’s not going to go as far. So I think just focusing on hitting the center of the ball, and you’ll see your numbers go up 10, 15, 20 yards.
Hogue: It’s not speed. Don’t get me wrong — obviously all that makes a difference. But it all depends on the conditions that you’re hitting into. If you’re downwind, a little cut might work better [than a draw]. But I think a lot of amateurs kind of have one shot, and that’s it. You want to gain 10 yards, you got to play to the conditions.
James: I always tell people, just swing a little more athletically. You hear, “Keep your head still and your weight 50/50.” You don’t want to restrict your hips, you don’t want to keep your head still. If you look at the way Jack Nicklaus and Ben Hogan swung the golf club, it was using their legs, it was coiling into their trail side, and then obviously exploding their lead side. So if you can just take the athleticism you have in other sports like baseball and tennis, then kind of try to think about swinging the golf club more athletically like that, you’ll pick up some good speed pretty quickly.
5. No one hits the ball longer than you guys, so we must ask: Does golf have a distance problem?
Fernandes: Everything evolves. Golf is hard. So I think the farther you can hit it, the better. Equipment has come a long way.
Howell: I play professional golf as well, so I kind of do both sides of the story, but I think some of it is, modern day equipment has gotten really thin, really hot. Not many people are playing on PGA Tour-type fairways, but as you see, Dustin Johnson hits it 380, 390. It’s tough — balls are rolling 40, 50 yards out there. I think something has to be done. I think most of it is just the golf ball. The golf ball’s come such a long way with the way it cuts through the wind, the technology behind it, the dimple patterns, and everything inside. I think that has a lot to do it. The equipment does, too, but I think the golf ball needs to change.
Hogue: The ball doesn’t go too far. If you can hit it a long way, you should be rewarded for it. If you want to make it harder, narrow the fairways, put more trouble down there, if you want to make it worse for people who hit it farther. But I don’t really think that’s fair. I think if you the ability to do so, you should be rewarded for it.
James: No. It’s not really a technological problem. Guys are more athletic than they used to be, they’re swinging faster. Golf’s an Olympic sport now, so they’re starting training regimens earlier. And generally speaking, you’ve got more athletic guys [on Tour], like Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka, than you used to.