By a Long Shot
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.
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.
"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.
Maybe the biggest potential hitter, though, is 6'5", 245-pound Tyler Wood (a name that, said fast enough, will get you a tee time anyplace in the country). "A couple weeks ago," says Gary Woodside, the teaching pro at Lonetree Golf Course, where Wood plays, "we started getting cell-phone calls from people on the eighth green that someone was hitting balls at them." It turned out to be Wood, who was practicing at the driving range, about 400 yards away.
Like many golfers who measure their game in yards instead of strokes, Wood, a 34-year-old Denver car executive, discovered his gift more or less by accident. "I've always known I could hit the ball far, but you never really think about it," he says. Last year, though, after he hit a 420-yard drive while playing a round at Deer Creek, the local pro suggested he try to win some money with his driver.
Since then, Wood has won a couple of qualifiers, made the LDA tour, hired a coach to groove his stroke and just barely finished out of the money twice (one potential winner, a 390-yard blast, landed a few inches out of bounds). At one tournament earlier this spring, he swung so hard his club's head flew off, the shaft shattered, and he popped some discs in his back.
"These guys are freaks," admits Justin Headrick, Wood's coach. "There are only thirty or forty guys in the world who can hit the ball as far. But Tyler will win the world championship. He hits the ball farther than anyone I've seen in my life." Headrick adds that he's seen Wood hit one drive 500 yards.
One evening, as rain is threatening, Wood rolls into Lonetree with Dustin Jensen, whom he hooked up with one day at the driving range. After a few minutes of warmups -- mere 320-yard pops -- the two begin swinging in earnest. Wood's drives blast out of sight in a line drive; Jensen's tend to soar higher. Soon they start aiming for the first green, 370 yards away -- and hitting it.
"That was killed," Wood remarks after one drive.
"Oh, yeah," says Jensen, giggling. After each hit, Wood stalks a few yards toward the drive, as if daring the ball to drop before it's traveled far enough. (Long-ball veteran Craig Hagan is known for running after his shots, waving his club and yelling.)
"AARRGGGHH!" Wood screams on his next drive, which lands way beyond the end of the driving range. "Hit some of that one, D!" he yells at Jensen. "You can't even see it!" Jensen shakes his head; not today.
Next to them, a slim blond man with a British accent has just set up on the driving line. He stops swinging to watch Wood swat another drive 400 yards into the distance.
Back in the northwest Denver suburbs, McCartney, too, has decided that with Hines pounding shots approximately five times longer than the coach's best efforts, perhaps now is not the best time to work on his "long game."
"Wow!" McCartney exclaims as he walks by Hines. "I didn't see it, but I sure heard that shot! Boy!"
He watches Hines hit one more and then wanders over to the putting green. Golfers need to work on the short stuff, too.
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