Ryan Winther, the 29-year-old World Long Drive champion from Sacramento, Calif., has some advice on how to hit longer drives.
No charge for the lesson.
“Swing fast is my No. 1 tip,” Winther said. “You have to swing fast. You can’t teach speed, but you can work on it. So forget about swinging slow. Just swing fast.”
Of course, Winther’s tip is all about distance and has little or nothing to do with accuracy. Finding the fairway can be a distinctly different matter. In winning the Re/Max World Long Drive Championship in Mesquite, Nev., Winther hit just 12 drives on Oct. 25, which was the final day of competition, and missed a 68-yard-wide fairway grid with 8 of those 12.
No matter. He did what he had to do.
Winther’s victim in the Open Division match-play final was Tim Burke of Washington, D.C. The two finalists were hitting into a headwind that gusted to 40 MPH, and Winther won with a 343-yard drive, 8 yards longer than Burke’s 335-yard drive. He used a Krank driver head with 4.5 degrees of loft. His shaft was a House of Forged XXXX Ryan Winther signature model.
Don’t have a shaft with your name on it? Never fear. “I’m just a freak,” Winther said of his ability to put golf balls into orbit.
Winning with a 343-yard drive was a paltry performance compared to past glory. Blame the wind.
Winther, for example, holds the Guinness World Record for carry distance with a driver — 430 yards in the air. Among the stipulations for establishing that record: Elevation had to be less than 1,000 feet, and at least eight witnesses had to be present.
So his 430-yard carry was for real.
In each round of long drive competition, a player hits six balls and count only the longest one. Pre-tournament favorite Jamie Sadlowski, going for his third world title, lost to Burke in the semifinals when he was bedeviled by the gremlins of crookedness. Sadlowski yanked four balls out of bounds and hit sky balls with the other two, posting 339 yards as his longest drive and falling to Burke’s 354-yard effort.
In the end, though, it was former baseball player Winther who outlasted everyone else. Winther was a shortstop who was turned into a pitcher by the Tampa Bay Rays organization.
“I hated pitching,” said Winther, who never made it to the big leagues.
How fast could he throw the ball?
“Oh, 100 miles an hour if I wanted to scare somebody,” he answered.
Winther can be scary looking — 6-foot-4, 252 pounds — to mere mortals.
In the Senior Division for long drivers who are 45 and older, the winner was 45-year-old Eric Lastowka of Hanover, Mass.
Lastowka, too, is an imposing figure at 6-foot-5, 255 pounds. In defeating Frank Miller of Laguna, Calif. — 355 yards to 349 yards — Lastowka used a Cobra Speed Pro D head with 5.5 degrees of loft. Like Winther, he chose a House of Forged shaft, although his was an XX model that was tipped two inches.
An environmental engineer for the Acushnet Company, which includes Titleist, FootJoy and Pinnacle, Lastowka had never participated in long drive competition until he watched a television broadcast of the 1999 World Championship finals.
His reaction: “How does that work? Maybe I can try that.”
He did and has been consistently successful. For 11 straight years, he advanced to the final day in the Open Division. In 2006, he was runner-up to Jason Zuback.
And finally he has his first world title, without question the first environmental engineer to be a threat in the long drive environment.
What exactly does he do for the Acushnet Company?
“I support production of golf balls back East (Fairhaven, Mass.) and some of the club production on the West Coast (Carlsbad, Calif.),” he explained. “I deal with the EPA and state and local agencies on environmental issues — waste, waste water, air quality.”
By the way, the reason he doesn’t use a Titleist driver head in long drive competition is that Titleist doesn’t make lofts low enough for long drivers. In general, they use drivers in the 3- to 6-degree loft range.
When Lastowka plays real golf, however, he definitely uses a Titleist driver.
That is, whenever he decides to use a driver. “I don’t really need a driver,” he said. “I hit it plenty far without one. I tell people that using a driver on a regular golf course is kind of like driving a dragster around town. Occasionally I can find a place to hit one.”