Who is former Long Drive champ Lana Lawless?
Editor’s note: This story appeared on Golfweek.com on Dec. 28, 2008.
• • •
MESQUITE, Nev. - It has been a bizarre year in golf, highlighted by a player with a broken leg winning the U.S. Open. Hard to believe, but it was the only major championship of the year captured by an American.
At the recent RE/MAX World Long Drive Championship here at Mesquite Regional Park, the year grew even stranger.
The new world champion, Jamie Sadlowski of St. Paul, Alberta, is a Popsicle-thin, 160-pound, 20-year-old ice-hockey player who spectacularly carried a drive 400 yards in the air. (The finals will be aired at 3 p.m. Dec. 24 on ESPN and at 2 p.m. Dec. 25 on ESPN2.) Compared with the gigantic men who frequent this competition (2007 winner Mike Dobbyn was 6 feet, 9 inches, 280 pounds), Sadlowski was considered a freak - too skinny to be taken seriously.
Now they know. Sadlowski, like some other hockey players, uses a variation of his slap shot to generate tremendous clubhead speed in his golf swing.
Finally, again from the World Long Drive Championship, it is odd but true that the new women’s world champion is a 55-year-old bartender who used to be a man.
Although golf is a sport largely without controversy, the reign of long-drive queen Lana Lawless, who lives in Palm Springs, Calif., is expected to be neither tranquil nor uneventful.
For starters, there is her startling honesty. “This is who I am. This is my life,” she said firmly. “That other person, that 245-pound SWAT cop I used to be, he’s gone. He’s not coming back.”
Lawless mostly was a curiosity until the night of Oct. 22, when she upset the competitor widely acclaimed as the longest hitter in women’s golf - 21-year-old Phillis Meti of Auckland, New Zealand.
“I beat her because of the wind,” conceded Lawless, whose longest drive into a 40-mph headwind traveled 254 yards - 4 yards longer than Meti’s best. “She hits it higher than I do, and that wind just knocked her ball out of the sky. If it had been downwind, she would have hit it 500 yards (Meti bombed a 349-yard drive in a qualifying round).”
The image of a policeman-turned-woman does not sit easily with many participants in a sport driven by power, muscle and speed.
“I am shocked more women are not complaining about this,” three-time world champion Sean “The Beast” Fister said. “It’s not an apples-to-apples deal. Men and women are different.”
Added former women’s world champion Lee Brandon: “In 2005, the USGA approved transgender involvement in competition, so I don’t see how we can dispute this. However, if a woman has the knees, hands and feet of a man, she has genetic real estate that is more gifted.”
Lawless had her supporters, including 2007 men’s champ Dobbyn, who observed, “When I watch her, I don’t see any advantage. She hits it like an LDA (Long Drivers of America) woman.”
The rules governing transgender golf competition are precise and numerous. For Lawless, they included mandatory doctor reports, lab results within normal female limits and onsite testing.
“I am a woman,” insisted Lawless, who adopted her new name from classic-movie star Lana Turner but declines to discuss her previous name.
“I’ve lost muscle mass. I don’t have big guns (biceps). They give you a drug that stops you from producing testosterone. Your muscles atrophy. In about seven months, I went from 245 pounds to 175 pounds. I’ve gained back a little bit, but I feel like I don’t have any power.
“Sure, I used to be a man. For 18 years, I was a cop for the city of Rialto, one of the most violent cities in Southern California. I worked the gang unit. I had a very tough and mean exterior. People didn’t want to mess with me.
“I had a hard exterior, but I was compassionate inside. I always let the gay guys go; they had enough drama in their lives.”
According to Lawless, there were “cop friends who said, ‘Put 1,000 guys in a line, and you’d have been the last one picked (as a transgender candidate).’ I was a very convincing cop.”
As a man, Lawless had been married but fathered no children. “I was hiding in the straight world,” she said, “but Lana was always in there, and I wanted her to live. I had started to go to L.A. to the clubs, playing dress-up on the weekends, but I wanted to be a normal girl.”
Being a “normal girl’’ came with a price - despite medical insurance, she has spent $79,000 so far. Another sacrifice was golf, which she figured would never again be part of her life.
For 21 years, the big, burly cop played golf at a private club, got down to a plus-1 handicap and even won the club championship. But, after gender-reassignment surgery in Trinidad, Colo., there was no golf in her life and no old friends, either. “Other than my family, I have no friends from my previous life,” she said.
After watching the 2006 ESPN broadcast of the RE/MAX World Long Drive Championship, she was drawn back into golf. She picked up a stock 45-inch Cobra driver and slammed a 295-yard drive in a regional competition.
Then the proverbial ball started rolling. She began working with instructor Les Taylor. She switched to a longer 48-inch driver with the help of Chris Fu, chief operating officer of Bang Golf, a component seller and long-drive specialty company in El Monte, Calif.
In 2007, her first year at the world championship, she lost in the semifinals to bodybuilder Sheila Kelliher, the eventual champion. Returning this year with the nickname “Heartbreaker” sewn into her headcovers, Lawless claimed the world title with a BangStorm driver that had 5.5 degrees of loft. Her longest drive of the week was 335 yards.
Her parents remain her biggest cheerleaders. Her mother introduces her as “my daughter.” But Lawless worries about “people who don’t want to open their minds. I’ve had mothers stop and point me out to their children. That’s cruel, but I’ve learned to deal with it.”
One thing is certain about the future: She will not hide.
“In Palm Springs,” she said, “I’m like celebrity central. Hey, I carry myself well, I’m well-spoken, I’m funny as hell. I fit in with a world that is expanding its acceptance.”
It remains to be seen whether the world of long driving will extend its wholehearted acceptance, but she owns a world championship, and nobody can wrestle that away.
After winning the 2008 crown, she smiled graciously but did not brag or boast. She seemed to talk more about Meti, the talented New Zealander who lost in the final, than she did of herself.
As a sensitive woman, Lawless knows what it’s like to lose. After falling 1 yard short in the 2007 semifinals and being eliminated, she had cried.
Cried herself a river, just like the girl she always wanted to be.