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September 9, 2017

What Can We Learn from the World Long Drive Championship

This week we got to witness some unbelievable athletes hit drives up to 440 yards in the World Long Drive Championship in Thackerville, Oklahoma. The average driving distance on the PGA Tour is 292 yards and the average male amateur is happy to reach 200 yards with their driver. So someone who hits it twice as far is mind boggling.

I grew up in the 60's surrounded by some great players and long drivers. I've been friends with John Jacobs since we both were 10 years old at Candlewood Country Club in Whittier. He always hit it past me by 20 or more yards. When I went back to my hometown of Long Beach, there was Terry Small crushing it by me. Generally when I played in junior golf tournaments in southern California, I was the long hitter. But I knew there were players like Johnny that were much longer. What I didn't realize was that when he got on the PGA Tour, he and Jim Dent were the longest drivers in the world.

In 1983, when I was the head professional at Lakewood Country Club in Colorado, one of our members, John Gardner, suggested that the three longest drivers at the club should enter the World Long Drive Championship. "Punch" Bohn, Fred Emich, and myself entered the contest. Punch was much longer than I, but super wild. In the Colorado local qualifier, all contestants could hit a total of nine balls. All 300 players first hit three balls and then waited until it was their turn again to hit the next three and then had to wait another two hours to hit their last three balls. Punch didn't hit the fairway with his three balls. I hit one 310 yards and Fred only about 280. Punch, Fred and I didn't want to wait two hours to hit again, so our contest was over with our first three balls. Somehow, I won the event and was invited to the Semi-Finals in Salt Lake City. There were twenty qualifiers from neighboring states. I think I was the only "golfer" in the group. I was very proud that I finished fifth with a drive of 347 yards that traveled 345 in the air that hit a hill and got no roll. Not bad with a 43 inch wood headed Wilson Staff driver. I hit 9 of 12 fairways and only missed when I tried Punch's 45 inch steel headed driver.

We can only dream of drives over 400 yards, but all of us can learn from these long drive specialists. My approach was to extend my arms, widen my stance, and take as wide an arc as possible. Still my backswing did not go past parallel. Before each swing, I took a deep breath and tried to blow as much tension out of my body. When I felt my body relatively relaxed, I started a slow tension free backswing, while shifting more weight than normal to my right side and extending my left arm towards the sky until I reached my maximum coil. From there it was flat-out go as hard as possible. I remember finishing on my left foot, but immediately recoiling and falling back on my right. Part of my limited success was that I swung the club on its most efficient path and I usually hit the center of the clubhead.

These professional long drivers train for just hitting long drives. Most of them range between 6'3" to 6'6" in height and weight around 250 with strong shoulder, arms, legs and core muscles. Strength is the added ingredient to make a ball go even further. BUT the most important element is clubhead speed. Average Tour Pro swings around 114 miles an hour, the average amateur below 90 mph. Dustin Johnson averages a swing speed of 123 mph with a top of 128 mph. Some of the long drive specialists reached 152 mph clubhead speeds. Is that strength? Not totally. Its great athleticism combined with flexibility, suppleness, and relative tension free unrestricted movement. What we can learn is that flexibility and suppleness should be what you concentrate on most while building strength in the body, but not sacrificing agility.

On the range, try being a long driver. Swing longer, let it all hang out and be as tension free as possible. Don't be afraid to fall off balance. Sure the ball will probably go in some crazy directions, but you will soon realize that your old way of tensing up and muscling that ball isn't the answer to longer drives. Some of the longest hitters on the PGA Tour look like they aren't swinging hard at all. Louis Oosthuizen and Ernie Els and others have effortless power. They have long efficient swings with relaxed muscles that they allow to swing freely. Experiment and go outside of the box with being a bit out of control on the range. That freedom you will experience will help you understand where your power comes from and help you when you shift down to hitting regular drives and irons.

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