2004: Discussing Distance
By James Achenbach
Nobody hits a golf ball farther than professional long-drive competitors. Long is how they make their living.
Clayton Burger of Houston won the 2003 Re/Max World Long Drive Championship by crashing the 400-yard barrier. Burger’s tape-measure drive carried about 380 yards and rolled to a total distance of 402 yards.
Golfweek asked four veteran long-drive stars to reflect candidly on two subjects: life under the long-drive microscope, and how amateur golfers can hit the ball farther.
Three of the four are in their 40s, while the other is 39. Much of the discussion focused on aging intelligently with the goal of forfeiting little or no distance off the tee.
Most long-drive specialists also are skilled golfers. Although they possess a special gift for generating clubhead speed, they face the same accuracy challenge as the rest of us: In a long-drive contest, a crooked drive that flies off the grid is not counted; on a golf course, a wild drive can mean disaster.
Who among us has never dreamed of hitting 350-yard drives and reaching every par 4 with a wedge? These are the golfers who can do it.
In competition, they are limited to 50-inch drivers that conform to U.S. Golf Association rules. This maximum length likely will be reduced to 48 inches next year to match the new USGA limit that goes into effect on Jan. 1. When long bombers play real golf, though, most of them use 45-inch drivers like the rest of us.
The Art of long driving
Art Sellinger, 39, is owner and chief executive officer of Long Drivers of America, the organization that
conducts its own long-drive tour and stages the sport’s most important event, the Re/Max World Long Drive Championship. Sellinger, who lives in Southlake, Texas, also is a two-time World Long Drive champion.
“I can stand on one leg and hit it 300 yards,” he says proudly.
What can ordinary golfers learn from Sellinger?
“Most golfers can develop a lot more speed if they use their arms, hands and wrists properly,” Sellinger says. “Make the club go fast. I’m not advocating a handsy, flippy swing. I’m just saying that amateurs should turn themselves loose.
“Don’t be too rigid and too tense. Don’t be this left-arm-straight, head-down, stay-over-the-ball golfer dude. Make the handle and club go fast. You’re not going to overswing; you’re just going to swing faster. Your weapon will go faster.”
One of Sellinger’s favorite drills: Hold the driver upside down. Grab it near the clubhead and swing the grip through the air. Listen to it swoosh. It’s this instant feedback that should create an image of speed.
“Women especially should do this,” Sellinger says. “They’ve got all that body movement. They need to swing the club with more authority.”
In his clinics, Sellinger may say to his audience, “OK, pretend you have to defend yourself. You have one swing with a golf club to defend yourself. Make it count. Make it swoosh.”
Age is no longer a deterrent for long drivers, Sellinger points out.
“Forty years old is nothing,” he says. “If golfers maintain flexibility and strength, distance doesn’t go away. We started a Super Senior Division for guys 55 and over, and look at what Fred Hooter did.”
Hooter, who once hit a measured drive of 382 yards in the U.S. Senior Open, blasted one 345 yards to win Super Senior honors in 2003.
They called him Agent Orange Gerry James, 44, is a fascinating character. He is a former bodybuilder and professional wrestler who became a golf professional.
At the 2003 Re/Max World Championship, James blasted a 396-yard drive that led the field until the 25-year-old Burger launched that 402-yard bomb with the last of his six drives. Although the senior
division starts at age 45, James says his runner-up finish last year has motivated him to remain indefinitely in the open division.
James is an unwavering advocate of fitness for golf, saying, “I preach this all over the world.” From his base in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., he teaches golf and fitness to individuals. In November, he will inaugurate one- to three-day golf camps in Port St. Lucie, Fla.
Why is James so particularly well-suited to his passion? Everything in his life has been related to the body.
In 1990, he was crowned Mr. California bodybuilding champion. Shortly thereafter he became a pro wrestler, using the names Gerry America and Agent Orange (in wrestling jargon, Gerry America was a “baby face” and Agent Orange was a “heel”).
All that, though, is in the past. Today nobody is going to announce, “On the tee, standing 6-foot-5 and weighing 245 pounds, Agent Orange.”
As a wrestler, James weighed more than 300 pounds. He has slimmed down for health and for golf. “When I won Mr. California, I weighed 263 on stage with 3 percent body fat,” he says. “I could bench press 500 pounds for reps (more than once). I was doing steroids and everything else. I was under a doctor’s care and getting them from a doctor, but I would never deny I was doing it.”
In his life after bodybuilding and wrestling, James returned to his roots.
“I was raised to be a Christian man,” he says.
He won a long-drive event in San Diego and suddenly had a new career.
His long-drive philosophy is simple: You have to develop an efficient swing, and you have to be physically able to attain the physical positions necessary for this efficient swing.
So a lesson with James invariably becomes part fitness and part golf swing.
“I had a guy come to me. He was 78,” James recounts. “He wanted to hit the ball farther, but he had no mobility in his hips. I gave him a few stretches to do on a daily basis – just 20 minutes a day, something you can do while you’re watching television. Every week, I would add one more stretch. In the end he was doing six or seven stretches.
“He could fly it just 90 yards in the beginning, and he got to where he was flying it 150 yards. Don’t underestimate what that means. He almost doubled his length, and that allowed him to have fun again.”
Skyscrapers and scorelines
At the 2002 World Championship finals, it wasn’t enough that Pat Dempsey won the Senior Division title with a drive of 342 yards. He took just as much pride in singing the national anthem 20 minutes before his victory.
“It scared me to death,” says the 47-year-old Dempsey, who lives in Sunland, Calif., a Los Angeles suburb. “I’d never sung the national anthem in public, but I said to myself, ‘I’m gonna tackle this like I tackle everything else.’ ”
Dempsey is nothing if not determined. He was a minor league baseball catcher for 12 years in five organizations – the Athletics, Orioles, Yankees, Indians and Twins – before hurting his throwing arm. (His older brother, Rick, was a longtime major leaguer, primarily for the Orioles.)
Dempsey soon discovered long driving, and today he is self-employed as a clubbuilder who specializes in drivers. At his many exhibitions, Dempsey, like Sellinger, isn’t reluctant to tell golfers to swing more aggressively.
“Sometimes you have to give people permission to swing harder,” he says. “Everyone is always telling them to slow down, and it doesn’t always work that way. A lot of golfers swing too slow, and it hurts them. If slow was the answer, we’d all be swinging 80 miles an hour and shooting 2 under.”
Dempsey’s most popular swing tip involves an image for proper balance: “I came up with this idea of picturing myself on this skyscraper. I’m standing on this 2-foot sheet of plywood. In my mind, I’m doing an exhibition for Jay Leno or somebody like that. There are cameras, and there are people watching. The last thing I want to do is fall off that platform. I started hitting golf balls with this in mind, and it really helped my balance.
“But you really have to believe that you’re on top of that skyscraper, with all that attention focused on you.”
A vocal defender of long driving, Dempsey says, “When I started, some people said it was just a bunch of gorillas out there, a bunch of yahoos. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
In regard to scorelines on the face of a driver, Dempsey believes powerful golfers should find a driver head without them. (A driver such as TaylorMade’s new r7 quad has scorelines on the perimeter but not
in the middle of the face.)
Scorelines add spin, which creates loft, so most golfers need them to effectively get the ball into the air. But strong hitters may want to forego scorelines, according to Dempsey, to bring the spin down.
The Blonde Bomber
This past September, in pursuit of long driving’s biggest first prize for women, $10,000, Lee (“The Blonde Bomber”) Brandon cranked a 332-yard drive down the middle of a tight fairway at Columbia Edgewater Country Club.
The showdown took place at the LPGA Safeway Classic in Portland, Ore., and nobody was close to Brandon. LPGA veteran Laura Davies finished second at 306 yards.
Now 42, the 5-foot-11 Brandon lives in Los Angeles, where she is a physical trainer and spine biomechanics specialist. She has plenty of advice for golfers worried about their backs.
“Anybody who owns a spine needs to be concerned,” she says. “Golf is a one-sided sport, and a one-sided sport creates imbalances that can lead to serious injuries. How many golfers do you know who have had trouble with one hip, one knee or one shoulder? It happens all the time.”
Through posture-specific strength training and a variety of flexibility exercises, Brandon seeks to undo the imbalances that golf creates.
She laughs at men who focus on how much weight they can lift in the gym.
“Ultimately the bench press is on one plane and doesn’t have much to do with the price of pudding,” she says. “No golfer can train in one plane and expect to improve his golf game. Golf is a 360-degree plane sport.”
Brandon says a chin-up is a better indicator of golf strength.
“How many chin-ups can you do?” Brandon asks. “That’s a more accurate question. It all starts with a strong back. The question becomes: How fast can you move your hands (in the golf swing) with a stable back? Guys who try to do it all with their arms will create a shoulder problem for themselves.”
Brandon’s interest in physical fitness grew from two injuries. When she was 17, she fell through a glass door and severed the brachial artery in her left elbow. During surgery, her heart stopped. But she survived.
Later she “hurt my back really badly in a diving accident. I’ve always lived on the edge, but these things are the reason I became a strength coach.”
At 22, she was named a strength coach for the New York Jets, the first female in the history of the
NFL to earn such a distinction.
Just six years ago, a fitness client took her to a golf range. She had never played, but quickly was hooked.
Today she tells people, “Never swing outside yourself. Never swing out of control. Never. Your priority should be to avoid injury. If you understand how to standardize your spine angle, then you can learn how to be aggressive without swinging outside yourself.”