Long-drive legends: Hooter blasts away into his 70s
Saturday, September 28, 2013
Editor’s note: The Re/Max World Long Drive Championship started Sept. 18 in Mesquite, Nev., and will finish with the Open Division finals Oct. 30 in Las Vegas. To celebrate the event, which attracts hundreds of golfers from dozens of countries, Golfweek is compiling a series of profiles of prominent long-drive participants who helped shape the sport.
• • •
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: I know this 70-year-old guy who loves to outdrive golfers less than half his age.
Fred Hooter, 70, lives in Auburn, Ala., where he amazes golfers young and old with his tee shots. Just about everybody hits it shorter than this septuagenarian. PGA champion Jason Dufner, also an Auburn resident, is lucky to drive it within 50 yards of Hooter.
Hooter has been doing this most of his adult life, so don’t ask him to stop any time soon.
He still competes in the Re/Max World Long Drive Championship, slamming 350-yard drives at will. When he isn’t outdriving his rivals, he is outplaying them. Few golfers have combined tournament golf and long-drive competition as successfully as Hooter.
For Hooter, 1999 was the pinnacle of his dual pursuits. Then 56 and spotting some of the hitters 11 years in the 45-and-older senior division of the Re/Max World Championship, he won with a 353-yard blast. The same year, he qualified for the U.S. Senior Open at Des Moines (Iowa) Golf and Country Club.
I vividly remember that U.S. Senior Open. On one of the long-drive holes (just two were measured each day), Hooter launched a 383-yard drive during the first round. U.S. Golf Association officials couldn’t believe it. Nobody else had come within 40 yards of Hooter’s home run. Three USGA representatives started at 300 yards and paced it off, just to be sure.
Hooter missed the 36-hole cut by two strokes at Des Moines. He also missed the cut at two other U.S. Senior Opens for which he qualified.
Simply qualifying for the Senior Open is a huge honor. A typical qualifying field is 30 to 40 players for one spot, sometimes two. Just one 18-hole round is played, so virtually anyone can get hot and claim the No. 1 position.
It is no small feat to be an accomplisher golfer and long-drive champion. When Hooter comes to the fork in the road – long drive is one way, tournament golf is the other – he takes both forks, jumping back and forth better than just about anyone else with world-class driver speed.
Have clubs, will travel. Age is nothing but a small hurdle for Hooter, who along the way has faced sterner tests – notably, four knee surgeries.
A corporate pilot and air traffic controller by vocation, Hooter often has flown under the radar as a golfer. However, he was inducted into the Long Drivers of America Hall of Fame in 2005, joining some famous names who have defined the sport.
“My biggest honor,” Hooter said.
He took up golf while stationed in England with the Air Force. “I just love playing golf with the Brits,” Hooter said.
Right away, he could do one thing exceptionally well: smash drive. “I could always hit a ball,” he said.
After leaving the Air Force, he took a job as an air traffic controller in Pendleton, Ore., and played an 18-hole round that consisted of two loops around a nine-hole course. On a par-5 hole, he had a double eagle and an eagle. “I made 2-3 on the longest hole on the course and still shot 88,” he said, laughing.
In 1996, after he had qualified for the U.S. Senior Open at Canterbury Golf Club in Cleveland, Hooter played a practice round with Gary Player. “He came running up and asked if he could play with us,” Hooter said. “Wow, what a memory.”
On the first hole Hooter blew it some 80 yards past Player, prompting the South African to say, ‘Fred Hooter, I’ll give you a million dollars for that right arm.’ ”
Gary Adams, founder of TaylorMade, gave Hooter $2,500 to use a TaylorMade metal-headed driver in the 1981 National Long Drive Championship, the predecessor to the World Long Drive Championship. Thus, he became the first player to hit a metalwood in the long-drive finals.
Today, Hooter and all other competitors are hitting metal drivers. And that right arm is still hammering drives. Hooter, at 70, is still long and strong.
“There is no doubt in my mind that golf can keep us young," he said.