2001: Unraveling the lunacy of length

The world of golf has gone wacko over long driving. Everybody wants extra distance. It is an obsession, a mania.

World long drive champion Sean Fister, golf’s answer to Yogi Berra, is quick to analyze the distance plight of the ordinary golfer. “You can’t hit the ball farther than you can hit it,” he deadpans.

In the ongoing discussion of long driving, there’s good news: We, the amateur golfers of the world, are hitting the ball farther than ever before.

And there’s bad news: Fister, who blasted a 376-yard drive to win the 2001 Re/Max World Long Drive Championship, believes that distance is a natural gift. “You can either hit the ball or you can’t,” he observes.

Want some proof? Fister drove the green on a 345-yard par-4 during the first round of golf he ever played (he was 25).

Now 39 and a two-time world champ, Fister is quick to note that most of us can add yardage by improving our technique. Our biggest ally, though, may be technology. In 1953, when he won three majors and skipped the fourth, Ben Hogan used a steel-shafted driver that was 43 inches long and weighed more than 13 ounces.

In contrast, Callaway’s new C4 driver is 46 inches long and weighs less than 10 ounces. Most contemporary drivers weigh between 10 and 11 ounces.

The added shaft length plus the weight savings – 15 to 20 percent over the heavyweight drivers of Hogan’s era – should allow us to pick up valuable clubhead speed.

In the name of distance, more and more ordinary golfers are using 47- and 48-inch drivers. TaylorMade’s Tom Olsavsky, the man most responsible for the popular 300 Series of drivers, maintains that extra-long drivers are simply wrong for some players.

“The golfer is always sensing the club in the swing,” Olsavsky says. “The way the club interacts with your body is the key. You have to find a match. There is no automatic way to determine the proper driver length. With some players, the match is longer. With other players, the match is shorter.”

The standard length of today’s driver generally is acknowledged to be 45 inches. On the PGA Tour, the average driver length is about 443⁄4 inches. Tiger Woods uses a 431⁄2-inch driver that is one of the Tour’s shortest.

Should we, the weaklings of the world, consider going even longer than the 45- or 46-inch lengths offered by most manufacturers?

“I get that question all the time,” says Fister, “and the answer is usually no. If a golfer can maintain his balance, then maybe extra length is a good thing. But most golfers have problems with balance.”

Fister, who uses a 50-inch driver, has a daily routine at home: He rises at 5 a.m. and gets to the golf course when the range opens. He hits drives for two hours – always working on his balance – and then spends 45 minutes with his strength coach and 30 minutes with his speed coach (to speed up the “firing” or “snap” on his downswing). After lunch, he plays 18 holes.

Ah, so that’s all it takes.

“You try to hit balls and work out every day?” Fister is asked.

“No, I don’t try,” he responds. “I do it.”

Long drive specialists such as Fister conduct many exhibitions, and these are one of golf’s biggest bargains. Most long drivers are paid between $4,000 and $6,000, plus expenses, for an appearance. Occasionally they spend more than one day – playing golf, giving clinics, hitting tee shots on a particular hole.

In Davenport, Iowa, Fister blasted a 350-yard 2-iron shot from a casino boat.

It found his target, a makeshift green. Two-time world champion Art Sellinger once smashed a drive from the top of a 36-story hotel in Vancouver, British Columbia – it carried 422 yards, according to a laser gun.

Back to driver length. Although Dan Scardina brought a 65-inch driver to this year’s world championship in Mesquite, Nev., Fister is skeptical about such length. “I messed around with a 57-inch driver,” he says, “and I would hit one 20 to 25 yards farther maybe once out of every 30 balls. That was not acceptable.”

“We sell 46-inch drivers,” says Jeff Colton, director of product testing at Callaway, “because our testing has shown that 46 inches is about the longest you can go with a club designed for average golfers before they start to lose control. It is a bonus to be able to complement increased club length with a very forgiving head such as the C4.”

In long driving, all clubs must conform to U.S. Golf Association standards. Before the competition, every hitter submits his or her arsenal of drivers for inspection and tagging. Jason Zuback, the sport’s King Kong, brought 22 this year.

Zuback, who won four consecutive world titles from 1996 through 1999, has had an enormous influence on long driving. He was the first champion to speak with conviction about the need for physical conditioning and nutrition, and plenty of golfers, including Fister, began to follow his example.

Zuback’s 975J titanium driver from Titleist may have 31⁄2 degrees of loft, but otherwise it’s the same driver available to you and me and touring pros.

How does any golfer find the right driver? Experiment, experiment, experiment. Titleist has a fitting cart, containing 18 different drivers, that can be found at many courses.

Here’s a hint about tastes in drivers: Although the 975J is offered in lofts from 6.5 through 12.5, the 9.5-degree model accounts for about 40 percent of the sales. The 8.5 claims about 30 percent, and the 10.5 has slightly more than 20 percent. That leaves 10 percent or less for the 6.5, 7.5, 11.5 and 12.5.

We may be able to buy Zuback’s driver, but we can’t buy his 150 mph swing speed. Too bad.

We can, however, buy Fister’s untitled new video, which he says will be released before Christmas. “It’s an instructional comedy video,” he explains. “I’m becoming known as the Peter Jacobsen of the long driving tour.”

Uh huh. Jake only dreams of driving it 376 yards.

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