By a Long Shot

Boom times are here for long-driving golfers.

On a recent morning, former University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney and Derek Hines stop by a new suburban course just north and west of Denver to play a little golf. Fortunately, they're not playing together. Instead, they're lined up on opposite ends of the driving range.

This is also true figuratively. McCartney retired from the Division I college football pressure cooker nearly a decade ago to devote more time to his Promise Keepers ministry and his family. At the moment, however, he looks anything but relaxed. The coach appears to have brought the same grim, grinding determination to his golf game as he did to CU's gridiron practices.

He comes here almost every day, flogging away at dozens of balls for hours at a time. "One day he was here hitting when I teed up for a round at about eight o'clock, and when I got back at about 12:15, he was still here," says Hines. "I guess that's how he won a national championship," he adds.

Tyler Wood carries a big stick.
Brett Amole
Tyler Wood carries a big stick.

Speaking generously, McCartney's industry has yet to pay off. His stroke unwinds in starts and fits, like a photo being downloaded through a slow Internet connection. After each swat, he glares after his ball -- which, gallingly, is never that far away. He reviews every cut in meticulous slow motion, dissecting it into its troubled pieces, then tees it up and tries again.

Hines is another matter. Standing about 6'2" and weighing in at a beefy 230, he looks more like one of McCartney's former football players than a mid-week golfer. A former star athlete at Arvada West, Hines bounced around the Chicago Cubs farm system before retiring from professional baseball at the ripe old age of 23. His blasts look like NASA projects.

The flags on the driving range are planted at 75, 125, 200 and 225 yards. Beyond that is a row of trees, and then a new housing development. Hines warms up with a seven-iron. It lands straight away, midway between the 200- and 225-yard markers. "Feels good today," he says.

Hines started golfing when he was nine, playing mostly with his father. A traveling furniture salesman, Hines's father would take Derek along on trips. In between calls, they'd stop at whatever golf course was nearby to hit a few balls. "I've always had a knack for hitting things long," Hines says now. "I was a cleanup hitter in baseball my entire life."

Today he has brought along three drivers. He slides the smallest, a fifty-inch titanium-shafted King Cobra, from his bag. He tees up a ball and takes a nice, relaxed swing. No big deal. The ball soars into the trees. "That's about 320," he says. "I'm swingin' pretty easy." The next four follow the first, crashing into the distant foliage.

"Now I'll get the big dogs out," he says, pulling out the 51-inch King Cobra with a titanium ultra-stiff Harrison shaft and 7.5-degree club head that is about as big as a coconut. Hines addresses the ball and unwinds. The ball soars over the flags, over the trees. There's a brief silence before a loud thock! drifts back to the range, the sound of a ball slamming into the side of a house. "Hope no one's home," Hines says, teeing up another ball and, truth be told, not really caring.

"My strength is that my balls carry a lot. I guess it's my baseball training," he says. "I've always been a high ball hitter." Another ball drops onto a roof beyond the driving range - plock! "I love doin' this," Hines says. "This is the funnest thing." Down the line, McCartney pops a ball about seventy yards out. He stares at it with disgust.

Hines's next ball carries more than 400 yards. "That was pretty deep," he admits. "I'm good today. All right," he continues, "I'm gonna hit a real long one now." He sets the ball high, plants his feet and takes a towering swing. The ball climbs and drifts left before arcing down and slamming into another house in a neighboring development.

"If the cops come, I'm gonna run," Hines says, teeing up another ball. This one, too, smashes onto a roof a football field and a half away. "Crushed it," he says, adding, "I'd better cool it. I'll go to some irons so I don't get in trouble." He doesn't look particularly concerned, though. Given the choice between provoking the cops with a monster drive or saving some vinyl siding, it's no contest.

Nearly every sport has its primal moment, a move, motion or play that surges directly out of the gut. You know you've hit it if, after it's over, you have the uncontrollable urge to scream, "That's right, motherfucker!" Think the windmill dunk in basketball, the clean, sudden leveling of the wide receiver by a linebacker. The towering golf drive.

"How'd I get into long driving?" asks Dustin Jensen, a local power hitter. "I hit the shit out of the ball."

Pinpoint iron shots will earn polite applause, and draining a twenty-foot putt can be quietly gratifying. They're nice shots. Shots you wouldn't mind taking home to Mom. But nothing satisfies more than setting a ball so high on a tee that it almost tips over, wrapping a club around your torso like you're about to lay into a Martha Stewart piñata and launching a drive into the stratosphere, never mind where it goes.

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