Marie Bliss April 22, 2017

Any man who says he doesn’t care about being long is a damned liar

You gotta figure even monkeys can putt. Give ten thousand monkeys ten thousand putters and one of them is going to nail a ninety-five-foot snake through a double-break before too long. But hand them all oversize forty-nine-inch titanium drivers and not one will crank the ball 350 yards. Not in ten thousand years. Forget opposable thumbs! Being long off the tee makes us human.

Everybody wants to be long. Hit it straight, sure. Lean on your short game. Enjoy! But smack a long, hard draw to the far end of a narrow landing zone and you’re there. You’re long. In golf, as in the locker room, length is pretty self-evident. The long hitter leaves it out there; the short hitters wrap themselves in cheap towels.

In most circles, long means reaching 300 yards consistently. But when a mid-handicapper really throws himself at one from the white tees, the ball is likely to carry a little more than 200 yards, from which point it rolls another 20 to 30. In the fairway, he checks a sprinkler head, walks off a few steps, subtracts the distance to the green, splits some differences, and pencils himself in at 300 yards off the tee. For most golfers, hitting it 300 yards on a flat surface is a fantasy For some, doing it even once is an impossibility.

The first step in getting long off the tee is to figure out how short you really are. Striding boldly to the range tees with the primal weapon, the driver, in one hand and a surveyor’s wheel in the other, I was sure I could top 300. Loading and reloading, wheeling and rewheeling the distance, I could manage at best only 272 yards, mostly roll, off a wondrous first bounce.

Stymied, I focused on three elements: equipment, technique, and competition. My driver, I decided, sucked. It was killing me, robbing me of natural yardage. My swing, which allows me my marginal handicap of 13, had to go. Finally, I had to see the long ball in person, to get a sense of the possibilities.

I called Art Sellinger, the dean of the long drive, two-time national long-drive champ. “I know we can add 30 to 40 yards to your drive,” he said. “I just know it.” I liked his projection; 30 more yards would take me over 300, I told him. He paused. “Well, then we can work on getting you some real distance.” He invited me to the RE/MAX North American Long Drive Championship in Mesquite, Nevada, the U. S. Open of long driving, where the forty-eight longest hitters on the continent were waiting to humble me.

These on professional long-ball men. While they can all play tee to green, they make their scratch hammering the ball at exhibitions, corporate outings, and long-drive contests. The longest among them include Sean “the Beast” Fister, a former SEC pole-vaulter, who drove a 345-yard par four the first day he ever played the game; current two-time champ Jason Zuback, a Canadian pharmacist and power-lifter who keeps fourteen different drivers jammed in his bag; and ’93 champ Brian Pavlet, a former NCAA pitcher, whose classic swing and good looks seem perfect for a golf pro. “I’m not a golf pro,” he bristles. “I’m a long driver.”

How long are they? “Only rookies ask about numbers,” Fister drawls, reaching into his bag for yet another driver, one of the thirty prototypes he’ll bring to the competition, tossing each aside as he caves its face after twenty to thirty swings.

But numbers can be had. Fister once hit a 404-yard carry over a Canadian river for a radio-station gimmick. When I bring this up, he snorts. “It ain’t about numbers. Long driving is all about the moment. You and the ball. Under the right conditions, I might be able to hit one 500 yards.”

The first key to figuring the long drivers is easy: They swing fast. Faster than anyone you know. Faster than PGA pros. Zuback’s club speed regularly measures 155 miles per hour; Fister says he has reached 170. The average PGA pro generates only 110, which comforted me until I got my swing under the gun. Eighty-two miles per hour. In disbelief, I whirled on the ball as hard as I could. Ninety-four. The ball screamed low and left, duck-hooking inside the 100-yard marker 150 yards to my left.

Where do they get their speed? They’re extraordinarily Umber, allowing for a far greater hip turn. They have the thick but agile frames of athletes and the strength to match.

Does their equipment give them an edge? In what I thought would be the quickest shortcut to a longer drive, Sellinger upgraded my driver to a forty-eight-inch Taylor Made Ti Bubble 2, the Sellinger Special, which made my forty-four-inch driver feel like kindling. Looking down a club this long is akin to sitting in a Porsche for the first time. It smells good and seems fast even when it’s not moving, but you’re not sure you can drive it; it’s so different from your shitty Honda that you’re not even sure where to put your hands.

“With a long club, the tendency is to want to swing slow,” Sellinger says. “Forget that. To generate speed, you have to work hard on your turn. Take the club way back, then fire through with the hips.” He inches me into a wider stance and urges me to line up off the front of my left foot rather than the heel. “You have to hit the ball when the club head is on the way up.”

The ball shoots a little higher as I learn to trust my hands. “You have to round out your swing while bringing your hands through hard. It’s like a baseball swing, except on a different plane–but every corporate golfer blames his bad swing on his baseball swing. I always wonder if they ever hit a baseball cutting across the ball like that.”

The club is scary; the swing feels awkward, but, as with all good things in golf, I can sense the changes working. I’m hitting it square, trying hard not to read the yardage. Sellinger declares me ready to hit a few with the big boys.

I convince them to hit into the marker-less expanse of the desert from a bluff–thinking that, hitting from on high, I might find a little extra distance in the roll, that I won’t feel absolutely naked with my hinky little fade. I give them all balatas, the softer, higher-spin balls presumed by most to be shorter, while I load up with 100-compression Surlyn-covered pellets. We take aim at a distant pair of trees, my target of choice, as they seem impossibly out of reach. Pavlet hammers his first ball thirty feet over them on the fly. Zuback hits a ball that crests as it passes over. “Jeez,” I say. “How far out are they?” Sellinger shrugs. “Not too far–330 maybe.”

The time comes for me to take off my towel and take a shot. The big boys urge me on. Widen up. Stay strong. Keep your spine straight. I hit my first ball thin but straight. Only Zuback comments, “Right down the middle.”

Screw you, I think as I reload. On the next one, the take-away feels smooth, so I gear down; as my hands come through, I feel a good release, and the ball launches toward the trees. It won’t get there, I can tell–but it might roll there. The big boys are all smiles, high-fiving me before it lands. I can’t see where it settles, if it even makes the trees. What does it matter? I figure length is relative.

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