LA QUINTA, Calif. – In the end, golf is all about friendship.
It is New Year’s Eve in the desert, and Walter (Smiley) Jones, 70, is thinking hard about old golf friends. One of his dearest, Mike Austin, rests here in an urn.
Austin, an iconic figure on the West Coast, died in 2005 at the age of 95. “It will get us all,” mused Jones, determined to be the guardian of Austin’s reputation as well as his remains.
In the 1974 U.S. National Seniors Open, the precursor to the U.S. Senior Open that was first played in 1980, Austin hit a measured drive of 515 yards that still stands in the Guinness Book of Sports Records as the longest drive ever hit in competition.
Austin was 64 at the time. He used a Wilson 43.5-inch, steel-shafted persimmon driver and a 100-compression Titleist balata golf ball.
The drive came on the par-4 5th hole at Winterwood Golf Course in Las Vegas (now called Desert Rose). Former PGA champion Chandler Harper, paired with Austin that day, later called it “the damnedest thing I ever saw.”
With a tailwind of about 20 miles an hour, Austin launched a drive that carried more than 400 yards, bounced onto the green and kept rolling. When it stopped, it was 65 yards past the flagstick.
Later that day, tournament officials used a measuring wheel to determine the exact yardage. When they passed 500 yards, they knew they were recording a piece of golf history.
“It was like God hit it,” Austin said to golf writer Andy Brumer. “Who can hit a ball that far? No one. I feel like I got some assistance from God.”
At the Studio City (Calif.) Golf Range, where he taught, Austin could be a loud, cantankerous, intimidating taskmaster. Regardless, he was an early fixture on Golf Magazine’s list of top 100 instructors.
Austin received a doctorate in kinesiology from the National Academy of Applied Science in 1946. His weekly television show in Los Angeles was the first regular golf instruction series on the air. He often dressed in a skin-tight skeleton suit to illustrate how the human body moved and functioned.
Austin was in his early 70s when Jones met him. They were paired together in a money game. On the first hole, one drive was considerably longer than the other three in the group.
“I figured I hit it better than I thought,” recalled Jones, who was a journeyman touring professional. “But, no, the long one was his. When we got to mine, he said, ‘Yeah, that’s yours, sonny.’ He was very proud of his strength.”
They became fast friends, and Jones would see Austin frequently during the next two decades, often driving him to appearances at Southern California golf courses.
By Austin’s count, he won 128 golf tournaments, although he never played regularly on the PGA Tour. He remained a legendary golf hustler and long-drive specialist until he was nearly 80. Driving his car on a Los Angeles freeway at 79, he was struck by another vehicle. Shortly after, he suffered a stroke and lost control of the right side of his body. He kept teaching at Studio City for another 15 years.
Austin was a powerhouse of a man – big, strong and flexible. It was sad to see him physically debilitated, but his combative, personality never changed.
From an early age, many of us were taught to appreciate and serve our elders. This attitude motivated Jones, and it became a matter of respect and duty that he would selflessly help Austin.
“He wanted some of his ashes spread at Studio City,” Jones said, “but he wanted the majority scattered in the ocean. I made a promise I would do that.”
Jones has been told he cannot legally deposit the ashes at the Studio City facility, but the ocean part is easier. He plans to transport the ashes to Tahiti, where an elaborate ceremony will be held. For several years, Jones has been collecting old golf clubs and balls and distributing them to junior golfers in Tahiti.
It is New Year’s Eve in the desert, and Smiley Jones is feeling the importance of his mission, which is to safeguard the legacy of his close friend. Golf and life have taught him this valuable lesson.