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By a Long Shot

Boom times are here for long-driving golfers.

"Go to a driving range and watch how many people practice putting and chipping, and how many spend their time whaling on the ball," suggests Russ Pate, a spokesman for the Long Drivers of America, an organization that promotes competitive golf-ball bashing.

"I suppose there's people who go to a ball park and like to see a pitchers' duel. But I'll bet more people like to see home runs," adds Ted O'Shields, a Coloradan who's been belting golf balls for money for nearly 25 years.

Like the definitions of "amateur athlete" and "all-natural body building," the game of long-ball golf has evolved. Back when the sport began, about 25 years ago, a big drive meant 350 yards -- about a fifth of a mile.

"In fact, there used to be a 350 Club," recalls Mike Gorton, of Lafayette, who won the world long-drive championship in 1987 with a respectable 319-yard poke. "Some of the biggest names in golf were in it. We had jackets with 350 on them, did exhibitions and contests. Now," he adds, "you hit 350, someone's gonna say, 'What was that, a three-wood?' Three-fifty won't even qualify."

Last summer, at Antelope Hills Golf Course in Bennett, Texan Craig Hagan and Wyoming resident Derek Hermann hit 486- and 478-yard drives, respectively. And lost. Ryan Gearhart of Phoenix teed it up, hauled off and smacked the ball 510 yards. He had the benefit of a gusty tailwind, was hitting at elevation, and the drought had turned the course into a long-ball runway with all the softness of kitchen linoleum. But still -- hitting a golf ball nearly a third of a mile? Some golfers can't even walk that far.

One reason for the ever-expanding driving range is new equipment. Super-stiff graphite shafts, five-foot-long clubs that weigh less than drivers a foot shorter weighed a decade ago. "We never imagined that sort of stuff when I was starting," says Gorton.

Today, handmade clubs constructed specially for outsized drives can easily run $500 apiece. This past year, recognizing that things had gotten a bit out of hand, the Long Drivers of America capped the length of drivers permitted in competition at 52 inches after contestants began showing up with clubs nearly six feet long.

Naturally, the run in big clubs is fueled by demand. In the past several years, the game has surged in popularity. Big dreamers and their huge sticks can now test their outsized swings at three separate events.

There's the Pinnacle Long Distance Challenge, in which local amateurs tee it up against a team of traveling golf-ball-pounding mercenaries. The Long Drivers of America also sponsors a professional tour. Currently in its second year, the LDA tour will make eight stops around the country. The event has become so popular that this past March, for the first time, players looking to compete in the events had to attend qualifying school. Finally, there's the granddaddy of them all, the aforementioned Re/Max World Long Drive Championship, in which finalists from regional competitions held across the country converge on Mesquite, Nevada, to blast away for the title of world champ.

Promoters of long-drive golf will tell you that the explosion in popularity is the result of mass self-discovery -- that every weekend duffer with a set of clubs in the garage has an inner monster swing dying to get out. That may be true for some hitters. But the real reason, of course, is money.

LDA tour members will compete for a total of $425,000 in twelve events this summer. Last October, nine out of the twelve golfers who earned their way to the Pinnacle Long Distance Challenge finals in Nevada -- and whose names meant nothing to golfers outside their own local clubs -- out-drove PGA masher John Daly and earned $100,000 each. (Pinnacle quickly decided that was too much of a promotion. The golf-equipment company has pulled those results from its Web site; this year, winners can earn $10,000 each.)

As a result, the act of pounding a golf ball into the horizon has gone the way of skateboarding and BMX, transforming a group of driving-range freaks and fringe specialists into professional athletes. When Gorton won his title in 1987, he used a 44.5-inch hickory-shaft driver and earned what seemed at the time a glorious $15,000. This October, in Nevada at the Re/Max World Long Drive Championship, guys with personal trainers, private coaches and caddies hauling bags with fifty drivers in them will compete for an $80,000 first prize -- $350,000 in all.

Winners find that they have turned into minor celebrities, their names batted about with awe on driving ranges across the country. Last year's Re/Max champ was Carl Wolter III -- a man whose career highlights until he cracked a 386-yard drive during the finals were limited to making the Lehighton (Pennsylvania) High School golf team and a summer job cleaning clubs at the local country club. Today he posts his five-day, long-drive specific workout schedule on his personal Web site: "Usually I ride moto-cross," he counsels. "But when other sports are not available, I try to get in a polymetric workout..."


Perhaps it's the false confidence inspired by towering drives spinning through thin air, but Colorado golfers have jumped on the long-distance bandwagon in a crowd. In addition to O'Shields and Gorton (who is one of only six members of the LDA's Hall of Fame), a half-dozen other local power hitters are making their mark nationally. Hines has already qualified for the 2003 district finals in August; the top finishers there will go to the Re/Max championship in mid-October. Anna Woods, another local Re/Max competitor, is one of only three women to hit over 300 yards this year.

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