Long-drive legends: James hits it big with spiritual awakening
Editor's note: The RE/MAX World Long Drive Championship started Sept. 18 in Mesquite, Nev., and will finish with the Open Division finals Oct. 30 in Las Vegas. To celebrate the event, which attracts hundreds of golfers from dozens of countries, Golfweek is compiling a series of profiles of prominent long-drive participants who helped shape the sport.
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There may be no golfer more honest or straightforward than Gerry James.
James, 53, of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., is a golf instructor and long-drive champion. In his younger days, he had been a dedicated bodybuilder. In 1990, he won the heavyweight and overall Mr. California bodybuilding titles.
He freely acknowledges that he took steroids in those days.
“I was 285 and ripped,” he said.
“Were you selfish?” he was asked.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I spent all my time thinking about me.”
James came to a psychological fork in the road in 1990.
“I had to make a big decision,” he said. “I was about to change the direction of my life.”
He also had been a professional football player with the Oklahoma Outlaws of the United States Football League and a professional wrestler – a good guy named Gerry America and a bad guy called Agent Orange.
He left it all behind. It was an entire lifestyle. It was friends, too, because eventually he would move from California to Florida with his wife, Debra, and sons Justin and Taylor.
He began the process of molding himself into a new man. The nucleus of his new life would be golf and charity.
“I changed everything,” he said. “I paid close attention to nutrition and everything I put in my body. I knew I needed to speak out against the dangers of steroids. And I knew I needed to help people if I could.”
Today, the 6-foot-5-inch James weighs 245 pounds. He is an imposing figure, which makes him particularly effective at one of his primary volunteer pursuits: visiting and counseling hardened criminals in the prison system.
He found religion, too.
And most important, he rediscovered his family. Debra had given birth to Justin just three weeks before the 1990 Mr. California contest. “I didn’t have the time to pay attention to him,” James conceded.
On the day that he vowed to become a new man, James recalled saying to himself, "What the heck am I doing? I’ve got to change my life. I’ve got to grow up."
"I went to church, and I vowed to be responsible for my wife and for that little boy (who today is a pitcher in the Toronto Blue Jays organization).”
He became a physical trainer, golf instructor and long-drive competitor. A few years later, he would win back-to-back titles in the senior division of the RE/MAX World Long Drive Championship with drives of 366 and 378 yards, respectively.
He teaches at the Golf Club at South Hampton in St. Augustine, Fla., and has a new training video, Force One, which presents a program for golfers to follow wherever they might be – at home, on the road or at the gym.
James became an excellent player and was able to qualify for the 2012 U.S. Senior Open.
“How about an honest comparison of long driving versus competitive golf?” he was asked.
Because he is Mr. Honesty, his response was quick and decisive: “They are two different animals. You can’t take this (long-drive) swing and play at a high level. You can’t play with Tour players with a long-drive swing. No way.”