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Big Guns

A closer look at oversized drivers.
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
"24", Jan/Feb 2006

(continued from page 1)

"Is all this length good for the game?" asks Irwin, rhetorically. "Other sports have basic equipment that evolves pretty gradually. Our sport is always in evolution with equipment. It seems like the ability to hit the ball far is the one thing that matters. Tiger and Vijay [Singh] are way down the list in driving accuracy, but they are still winning lots of tournaments. They would rather have a wedge from the rough than a 7-iron from the fairway. It seems to me that length is taking a lot of the intangibles out of the game."

"It's how the game has changed," says Woods, coming off a 2005 season in which he won the Masters and British Open and was named the PGA Tour Player of the Year for the seventh time. "The long hitters are able to carry bunkers that the average guy can't anyway. That's how it used to be anyway. The [fairway] bunkers on 18 at Augusta weren't put there until Jack [Nicklaus] went deep. Jack and Tom Watson, when he came out, were superlong. They could cut the corners at par 4s and par 5s. We're able to do the same thing, but it's longer distance now."

Big hitters always attract attention. Just the sound of the ball coming off Woods's or Daly's club is enough to quicken the pulse, snap the head and induce a sense of awe. Nicklaus was that way in his day, overpowering courses with length that he coupled with remarkable accuracy (it helped that he was a marvelous putter), prompting legendary player and Masters founder Bobby Jones to say, "He plays a game with which I am not familiar."

There have always been players more legendary for length than tournament victories. Jim Thompson, George Baer, Jim Dent and Jim Barnes were prodigious hitters in previous generations of golfers who used wooden clubs and what by today's standards were primitive balls.

But today, a small cadre of players make a living driving it deep; their game is devoted to cashing in by smashing it. Art Sellinger, a national long drive champion, is the owner of the Long Drivers of America. He puts together events like the RE/MAX World Long Drive Championship and the Pinnacle Exceptional Driver Championship. Sellinger and his fellow demons of distance make quite a decent living by swinging for the fences in competitions, clinics and exhibitions worldwide. Basketball has its slam dunk, baseball its home run, hockey its slap shot. They are aspects of their sports that put excitement into the game, but taken away from the entirety of the sport, they exist as mild amusements.

Not so long driving. "Everyone likes to see someone bomb it," says Sellinger. "I used to love to watch Jack Nicklaus when he could bomb it. It's a power game right now and the best players all kill it. America's consumed by distance and that's, thankfully, why we are in business."

One of the first well-known long drivers and a man who made a living out of it was Evan "Big Cat" Williams, a New Jersey professional who realized that people were in awe of how far he could hit the ball, and who had a friend who encouraged him to capitalize on it. In 1974, the once famed Grossingers resort in the Catskill Mountains of New York held a driving contest between Tour pro Jim Dent and amateurs Jack DePalo and Dick Middleton. London Lee, a stand-up comedian and friend of Williams, convinced the promoters to let the 26-year-old club professional have a go at it. Lee had played enough golf around Tour pros, and had played plenty with Williams, to know that the "Big Cat" had some serious claws.

Dent's longest drive was 359 yards and the two amateurs were well back. On Williams's fifth drive he hammered 366 yards. "It was actually 368 on the fly, but it spun back two yards," says Williams, now a teaching pro at an indoor practice facility in Michigan. "I got a lot of publicity out of that. Joe DiMaggio was in the crowd and told the papers that I ought to be put in a cage. There were newspapers all over the world that ran the story. It led to a career I never thought I would have. I was putting on exhibitions for $1,500, which was serious cash at that time, and $6,000 when I quit 10 years later. It was first-class air, hotel suites. It was amazing how just hitting the ball far drew everyone to you."

Sellinger knew he was a long hitter when he was a junior. "It was God's gift to me; my ball just went farther," he says. When Golf Digest picked up on the long drive craze and sponsored a championship, Sellinger won it twice. His success spawned a business for him, of exhibitions and clinics, of showing off at Fortune 500 company outings and creating events like the RE/MAX World Long Drive Championship, considered the official competition to determine the world's longest driver. The winning drive in this event often approaches 400 yards hitting to flat ground with USGA conforming clubs. Despite his own prodigious talent, Sellinger thanks John Daly for making big hitting legitimate.

"People went bonkers when John won the PGA," says Sellinger. "It just opened so many doors for people who could hit it, gave it a legitimacy. It meant that we could actually have a sport within a sport. You know, for the Tour, John was crazy long then, and he's still superlong now. But for us he isn't. Our players are good players with good swings who condition themselves to hit it long."

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