Art Sellinger won the first of his two national long-drive championships in 1986. His winning drive measured 311 yards. Not bad in a time of steel shafts and persimmon heads, or in a year when Davis Love III led the PGA Tour in driving distance with an average tee shot of 285 yards.
This year, in a tournament sponsored by the organization founded by Sellinger, the Long Drivers of America, another golfer won with a drive of 311 yards. This time, however, it was a junior playing in the 11-to-12-year-old division.
“Back when I was in high school, I could regularly drive the ball 300 yards,” said El Cajon resident David Buckles. “But that was more than 20 years ago, and back then, I was one of the few guys who could. But now, with the enormous changes in equipment, it seems everyone is driving 250 to 280 yards, and it’s not unusual to see long drivers blasting it more than 400 yards. The equipment is giving everyone more distance so it’s made [long driving] more accessible because now there is a belief in competitors that if you catch it just right, you can win.”
Though an avid golfer all his life, Buckles didn’t enter long-drive competitions until he turned 40. But though relatively new to long driving, he’s established in traditional golf as one of San Diego County’s top superintendents. He’s a good example of an old-school guy learning new tricks.
But long driving has busted its tricked-up image to become a marketable force in the sports world.
The RE/MAX World Long Drive Championship, held each October in Mesquite, Nev., offers a $500,000 purse and attracts thousands of competitors and fans from around the world. There are hundreds of long-drive tournaments throughout the year, and women, seniors and juniors are joining the fold.
Let’s face it. Even though instructors harp on their students to spend most of their time practicing the short game, it’s launching a long drive that results in the most enjoyment.
“Look at Tiger [Woods] and Phil [Mickelson],” said Jeff Farley, one of Southern California’s top long drivers. “They’re just out there bombing their drives. [Going long] is appealing to everyone and why long-driving competitions are so popular. It’s all about how far a good swing can take you.”
While long-drive advocates would never say that it takes more skill to drive a ball 400 yards than to shoot under par on a championship-length course, most say their part of the golf universe has something that traditional golf often lacks: pure adrenaline.
“I like to think of our sport like the [NBA’s] slam dunk competition,” said Vincent Ciurluini, a long driver for more than 10 years. “It’s something everyone wants to see and wishes they could do. Everybody wants to hit the ball farther.”
Are you ready to go the distance? These area long drivers can help.
Background: As a teen, Farley was a top-ranked junior golfer and went on to play for Pepperdine’s national championship team of 1997. After trying to crack into the professional ranks for a few years, he decided to give long driving a try in 2003. The Huntington Beach resident has appeared in the RE/MAX World Championships the past three years, and placed fifth in 2004. He also performs long-drive and trick-shot exhibitions at charity events and corporate outings (gogetgolf.com).
Longest drive: 429 yards.
Driver: Alternates between a Cobra and MacGregor, both with 460cc clubheads and 47.5-inch shafts.
What about long driving attracted you? I’m good at it. I mean, my first love is golf and my ultimate goal is to play on the PGA Tour, but this is a great way to supplement my income and stay competitive.
What’s your secret to long driving? Proper swing mechanics. I’m not some huge, muscle-bound guy, but because I had a good swing already in place before I started long driving, I had the fundamentals to build on to improve distance.
What can the average golfer do to get more distance off the tee? Set your tees the same height every time, instead of varying how high they are. That’s the main thing I see most amateurs do. They never set it up the same height and their perspective is constantly changing. If the ball is in the same place, it breeds consistency and confidence and allows me to swing harder.
How do you explain long driving’s growing popularity? It’s easy to get into and the entry fees for the events is not nearly as drastic as what it would be for a mini-tour event. The average person can try to qualify for the RE/MAX for $30 for six balls.
Background: Brandon is a strength and conditioning specialist, motivational speaker and model, and was the first woman hired by a professional football team (New York Jets) as a strength coach. She also owns Lee Brandon, Inc., a strength and conditioning center based in Beverly Hills (leebrandon-inc.com). She won the 2001 RE/MAX title in her rookie season.
Longest drive: 332 yards.
Driver: Used a Cobra last year but is looking at a Nike. Clubheads range be-tween 400-460cc with a 47-inch shaft.
What about long driving attracted you? It’s my money club. Although I’d always been athletic and had good hand-eye coordination, I had never swung a golf club until early 2001, when a male client told me I couldn’t out-drive him. I hit my first ball 260 yards and realized there was something about this I could do. Long driving allows me to stay athletically competitive, which is sometimes hard for a woman in her 40s to do.
What’s your secret to long driving? The key for any golfer is to find and stay in a certain zone so you’re limiting stress on your spine. Duplicating that proper spine angle is important.
What can the average golfer do to get more distance off the tee? The only thing that matters is the four inches before the ball and after the ball. Typically, every golfer is doing something different before and after that, but in that short distance, every golfer is the same. So the secret is to get more symmetrical so there is no fluctuation. That takes flexibility and strength.
How do you explain long driving’s growing popularity? It’s not subjective, like acting, or a beauty pageant, or being a musician. On any given day it’s just you and the golf ball. It’s quantifiable and measurable and if you show up and give it your best shot, there’s a chance that everything might fall in place and you’ll win.
David and Jarod Buckles
Background: David is superintendent at Rancho Bernardo Inn; his son, Jarod, just finished his junior year of high school in El Cajon.
The elder Buckle, who competes in the senior division, picked up competitive long driving four years ago, while Jarod picked it up the following year. They compete in the traditional long-drive events, as well as the Exceptional Driver Championships, which combines long driving and accuracy. Last year both qualified for the EDC world championship and made it to the final 16.
Best drive: David, 365; Jarod, 359.
Driver: Both use a Mad Driver.
What’s your secret to long driving? David: I usually say swing hard in case you hit it. But when I started high school I only weighed 83 pounds and I was playing seniors who were 18. I was only hitting the ball 150 yards. So I had to learn to hit the ball farther for my size. By the time my body caught up, I had developed a long swing. Jarod doesn’t swing like I do but I think a lot of his talent is his desire to keep up with me. Desire goes a long way.
What can the average golfer do to get more distance off the tee? David: The best thing is the wrist pronation during your swing, when your thumbs are facing up in front of your right knee, and facing down by the time you get to your left knee. It’s not about muscling, it’s about speed and getting your hands through that zone as quickly as possible.
How do you explain long driving’s growing popularity? David: It’s more of a spectacle now because so many people are driving farther than ever before. The belief is that everyone can hit the ball longer, which is creating interest.
Background: The 23-year-old Anaheim resident picked up golf eight years ago, but his focus was baseball, which he played at Saddleback Community College. Three years ago at a driving range near the school, he ran into a gentleman who said Hanger had the kind of swing that might be good for long driving. He was then introduced to Adam Pilchman, who persuaded Hanger to compete. He’s now one of the Southland’s longest hitters, averaging between 355 and 380 yards.
Best drive: 396 yards.
Driver: The Mad Driver, designed by Pilchman.
What was it about long driving that attracted you? The testosterone. You just grab the club and hit the ball as far as you can. I was a baseball pitcher and always liked the fierce competition. Regular golf can be a little too quiet for my tastes. But in long driving, guys are hooting and hollering, trying to intimidate each other. There’s a lot more emotion.
What’s your key to hitting the long ball? Tempo. I try to get a good rhythm and tempo and try not to overswing. That’s what I stress to amateurs: you don’t try to kill the little white object, you just want it to hit solidly in the middle of the clubface.
What can the average golfer do to get more distance? Don’t overswing. But no one likes to be outdriven, whether they’re playing with their buddies or competitively. So a lot of times people just get up and try to swing for the stars when they could take a little off and see it go farther and straighter.
How do you explain long driving’s growing popularity? We’re kind of our own community and unless you’re part of it, a lot of people don’t know about it. But what’s helping is that the Long Driver’s Association is reaching out to more amateurs with the Exceptional Driver Championships. That’s a great way to get more people involved because it rewards accuracy and length. Vincent Ciurluini
Background: A long driver for 11 years, Ciurluini has advanced to nine long-drive world championships and is ranked 12th in the world. The Toronto native moved to California after college to pursue an acting career. At the age of 30, he met his future wife and, while watching him rocket the ball one day at the driving range, she suggested he check out a long-drive competition. His first year, he made the world championships and finished sixth.
Longest drive: 424 yards.
Driver: Bang Storm, with a 460cc clubhead and 47-inch Accuflex shaft.
What was it about long driving that attracted you? The competition. How often do you put your skills up against the best in the world? How often do you get to play tennis with Roger Federer, or poker with Phil Ivey? I get the opportunity to compete against the world’s best long drivers.
What’s your secret to long driving? One thing I tell everybody is that when you use your driver, swing as hard as you possibly can. When you watch Tiger swing, do you notice him taking it nice, easy and slow? No, he’s ripping it. Same with Barry Bonds, or Willie McCovey, or any legends of power in any sport. Obviously, you also need good swing mechanics. But you also have to play the power game.
What can the average golfer do to get more distance off the tee? You want to swing from the inside out, which will allow you to put a draw on the ball and, when it lands, it will roll for you, as opposed to swinging outside in, where the ball rises high but there’s too much spin and it won’t roll.
How do you explain long driving’s growing popularity? There’s more money in the sport and more TV exposure. That’s good for competition. But, back in the day, most long drivers were really good golfers who could hit it a long way. Now you have more people coming out who’ve never played golf, but they’re strong and they immediately enter and start winning competitions.
Fred E. Groth III
Background: A member of Puerto Rico’s junior golf team and the winner of that island’s 12-13-year-old competition, Groth was always a long hitter. Though he plans to get a PGA Tour card, the El Segundo resident started competing in long-drive contests two years ago after finishing eighth in his first event. He made the world championships last year and recently won the RE/MAX Texas shoot-out, with a 366-yard drive.
Longest drive: 467 yards.
Driver: Alpha C830.2 Plasma with a UST V2 shaft.
What about long driving attracted you? After finishing in the top eight in my first event, I knew I could hang.
What’s your secret to long driving? I’m an average-size guy, but I have a really fast swing (164 mph). Some of that is natural but I also know that I grew up playing against older kids, as well as my father, so I tried to keep up with them and had to figure out a swing that would allow me to get more power with less to work with.
What can the average golfer do to get more distance off the tee? I’d say grip it and rip it. That, and move the ball up in your stance.
How do you explain long driving’s growing popularity? Like any pro tournament, there’s a lot of excitement, but the added raw power at a long-drive event can be very intense. It’s an entirely different feel from the driving range to the tee at a long- drive event.
Background: Though Pilchman grew up near Lakewood Country Club, he preferred baseball and track and field to golf. Not anymore. He has competed in long-driving contests the past 12 years and advanced to the world championships twice. He organizes long-drive competitions in Southern California and works as a custom club-fitter at Golf Etc. in San Clemente.
Longest drive: 460 yards.
Driver: Custom-made Mad Driver, which was officially unveiled to the public last month.
What about long driving attracted you? It’s me against the implement. Plus, it’s just a lot of fun. I’ve never been too worried about winning and losing, it’s just an enjoyable thing to do.
What’s your secret to long driving? Ego, good strength and hand-eye coordination. I have a very fast swing (163 mph) and I’ve really studied and worked on my swing to find out where my power comes from and to dial in to the technology.
What can the average golfer do to improve distance off the tee? Get as flexible as you can and get your lower back, shoulders and hips as loose as possible. And don’t underestimate the importance of a great shaft, because that’s where you load and unload. There are some guys who don’t look big or strong but they drive it incredibly far because they know where their power comes from and they use the technology.
Background: The 52-year-old Lakewood resident has been an avid golfer for 40 years and began long driving in 1984. He’s been to the world championships several times, including making the final eight once.
Longest drive: 425 yards.
Driver: Prefers Cobra.
What about long driving attracted you? I could always drive the ball well, and after seeing a district championship at La Costa in 1983, I was intrigued. I took to it and was competing right from the start.
What’s your secret to long driving? I have good hand-eye coordination and I’m 6-6, so I have long arms and a big arc. But it might have something to do with hockey, which I played a lot as a kid. The movements between hockey and golf are similar and you need strong wrists and forearms in both.
What can the average golfer do to increase distance off the tee? I’ve always liked the contact paper that you can place on a clubface to see where you’re hitting. It all boils down to hitting the ball in the middle of the clubface.
How do you explain long driving’s growing popularity? People like power in every sport, whether it’s a baseball home run or a quarterback throwing a 65-yard pass. The big drive is the power move in golf and people love it.
Background: The 45-year-old San Diego County resident is chiefly responsible for Southern California’s first long-drive grid at Warner Springs Ranch. She picked up long driving four years ago after meeting her future husband, Greg, when they both worked for Penley Golf.
What about long driving attracted you? I had always been athletic and very competitive and when I started playing golf later in life I had more of a baseball swing that allowed me to out-drive most of my women competitors anywhere from 50 to 100 yards.
Longest drive: 269 yards.
Driver: TaylorMade R7 425 with a 9.5 degree loft and Avila graphite shaft.
What’s your key to hitting the long ball? Take each ball one at a time and try to stay focused. The most important thing is to have a good swing.
What can the average golfer do to get more distance off the tee? They can improve their tempo. While some of the big guns at the LDA have swings that just make you go, “whoa,” a lot of others have swings that make you wonder how they can possibly hit the ball so far. That’s because they’re establishing and keeping a good tempo.
How do you explain long driving’s growing popularity? There’s a real adrenaline rush due to the competitiveness. Not to say a round of 18 holes isn’t competitive, but there’s a different atmosphere at a long-drive event. When you’re watching Tiger Woods, you have to be quiet and reverent. But at an LDA event, guys are pumped, you can hear them grunt and holler and they bring this excitement to the crowd.