Achenbach: Reflections on golf in the fast lane
LAS VEGAS – For more than two hours, I was perched 70 feet above the start/finish line at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Race cars top 200 mph on this track. As I quickly found out, so do golf balls.
Why 70 feet in the air? Because I was seated next to the launching pad for the Re/Max World Long Drive Championship on Oct. 30. The eight finalists blasted Top-Flite golf balls off this elevated platform, rising from the bleachers on the front straightaway.
The target was a grassy strip of turf between Turn One and pit road. Although this makeshift fairway was a generous 52 yards wide, players appeared intimidated by the circus-like atmosphere. Who’s next on the tee? Cirque du Soleil?
A golf course, this wasn’t. All night long, errant balls were bouncing off asphalt, concrete and metal as 5,000 fans cheered and stomped. Altogether 85 drives were hit during Wednesday night’s finals, and just 22 of them found the fairway grid. That’s a success rate of about 26 percent.
Because the drives were hit under the lights, huge shadows were cast across the speedway, and the entire event had a spooky feel to it, as if Halloween had come one night early.
The winner, 26-year-old Tim Burke of Orlando, Fla., hit a 427-yard bomb to seal his victory over Joe Miller of London, after the two had advanced to the match-play final.
Burke’s blast made me think of my favorite golf partner, David Rushton, because he and I would have to add our driving distances together to equal the yardage achieved by Burke. Think about it: He can hit the ball twice as far as many senior amateurs.
Burke possessed many things on this night: a driver called Krank, a golf shaft by the name of FlyWire, a girlfriend known as Cat, a ball speed of 222 mph on his winning drive, and ultimately a world championship belt that looked as if it had been lifted from the world heavyweight boxing champion.
In high school, Burke played golf, albeit not very seriously. “Were you long off the tee right from the beginning?” I asked him. “Yes,” he responded. “I probably hit it 350, maybe.”
After high school, he became a fireballing right-handed pitcher for the University of Miami baseball team. Two separate years, he pitched in the College World Series.
I have seen numerous physical evaluations of golfers, trying to determine their potential for hitting long drives. One of the standard tests is simply to measure the distance a golfer can throw a football. I suppose a baseball distance throw also would have some validity, and Burke would be my pick for winning any baseball throw.
After Burke’s victory, interviewing him proved to be a tricky assignment. It seemed that about 1,000 people wanted their photos taken with the new long drive king.
So I decided to talk with his girlfriend. Before I could open my mouth, she stuck out her hand and said, “I’m Cat.”
“Yes, you are,” I replied, dumbfounded.
"Cat" turned out to be short for Catherine Hoeppner. She and Burke have been dating for almost five years. They are a handsome couple, and I’m sure they will figure out how to spend the $250,000 prize in this winner-take-all contest.
Unlike many long-drive professionals, Burke has another job in addition to slamming golf balls off the far end of Mother Earth. He is a financial wholesaler for CNL Securities Group. Financial wholesaler? “I sell alternative investments to financial advisers,” he said.
Turning my attention back to golf, I talked with Lance Reader, the long-drive competitor who 10 years ago started a little company called Krank Golf. Located in Tempe, Ariz., Krank specializes in high-quality drivers.
The success of Krank in long-drive events has been remarkable. The last four world champions (Joe Miller, Carl Wolter, Ryan Winther and Burke) have swung Krank drivers. Burke used a Krank Formula 5 driver head with 3 degrees of loft. “That’s true loft,” Reader said.
Most of us couldn’t get the ball off the ground with a 3-degree driver, but the world’s longest hitters are able to summon more yardage with lower lofts. That’s because they generate astronomical clubhead speeds in excess of 140 mph (Tiger Woods, by comparison, swings his driver at about 125 mph).
“We use the sport of long drive to develop our drivers,” Reader said. “We learn so much from high-speed testing.”
Burke’s shaft was a 54-gram Fujikura FlyWire model. “That shaft and our Formula 5 head are a spectacular combination,” said Reader, whose Formula 5 heads are available to consumers in lofts of 5, 6, 7.5, 9, 10.5 and 12 degrees.
I don’t know about you, but I’m going to work on my long-driving skills. I’m going to build a 70-foot-high tree house with a hitting platform. Anything within 200 yards will be in grave danger.