Golf has always been the thinking person’s sport, one in which strategy and finesse play a far bigger role than brute strength. And then there are long-driving competitions, where the goal is slightly less complicated: Rear back and hit the hell out of the ball. Longest shot wins. "It’s the golf version of Home Run Derby," says two-time world champion Jamie Sadlowski. "You tee it up, hit it as far as you possibly can," says David Mobley, former Open and Senior Division world champion, "and man, you just feel Cro-Magnon."
While long-driving contests have been around for decades, the showdowns were typically one-off events. Since 2002, however, the Long Drivers of America (LDA) has been the official governing body of the sport. The 2012 LDA Tour kicked off in early March in Mesquite, Nevada, and culminates there October 16–25 with the Re/Max World Championship.
To put into perspective how far these golfers hit, consider that the average pro on the PGA tour hits the ball in the 275- to 280-yard range. In the LDA, if you’re not close to 400 yards, you’re heading home. The record, achieved by Sadlowski in 2008, is 418 yards. (Balls have occasionally surpassed the 500-yard mark, but judges have ruled the wind deserved too much credit, keeping the drives out of the record book.) Even more impressively, long drivers must use USGA-sanctioned equipment—the same clubs and balls as the Mickelsons and McIlroys of the world. In other words, there’s no high-tech trickery here. "PGA guys generate about 115 to 120 miles per hour on their swing," says long-drive pro Landon Colling. "We’re more in the 150 miles per hour range."
But being successful, Sadlowksi emphasizes, is not contingent on being built like a linebacker. "I’m 5' 11", 165 pounds," he says. "Long drive is about generating the right club speed and hitting the ball perfectly."
Mobley concurs. "It’s all about finding the best way to execute your athleticism," he says. "Use your own unique talents to find the best way to hit the golf ball. Become a student of yourself, and that’s how you’ll succeed.
"It’s not the guy who swings the hardest," he insists. "It’s the smartest swinger."
There are approximately 350 members of the LDA. The majority play part-time. Colling is an ophthalmologist; Mobley also hosts a golf radio show. Others, like Sadlowski, are full-time, balancing their schedules between events and corporate outings. "I’m on the road easily for 200 days a year," says Sadlowski, who turns 24 this July. "This is my job."
While most LDA events host a field of 48 players or so (plus a Seniors event for those 45 or older), at the World Championship, held every fall in Mesquite, 128 players tee up. The 2011 champion, Carl Wolter (claiming his second title), walked away with a $150,000 purse.
The money is obviously appealing, Sadlowski says, though, like a true sportsman, he adds, "At the end of the day, if you’re a world champion, not a whole lot of people can say that in life."
Most tournaments are double elimination, and each competitor has two minutes and 45 seconds per round to hit six balls. Only the longest of the six determines whether a player moves on to the next round. There is one important caveat to long drive, however: You can’t just wildly fire a ball 390 yards to the left. The ball must land within a 70-yard-wide grid. "The 70-yard grid sounds wide, but it’s really not when you’re talking about hitting a ball the distances we hit them," Mobley says. "You’ve got to hit a pretty straight shot."
"It’s not the guy who swings the hardest. It’s the smartest swinger."
— David Mobley
Most of the competitors on tour are very good all-around golfers. They just happened to discover early on that they had the ability to hit the ball far. Very far. "When I was 14 years old and driving the ball well past everyone else, I knew this was something I wanted to focus on," says Sadlowski.
Along with a noticeable lack of irons and putters, one other thing makes an LDA event different from the PGA: noise. Let’s just say you won’t find anyone holding up those "Quiet please" signs. "It’s rock ’n’ roll," says former tour-competition winner Kevin Bullard. "There’s music blaring during the early rounds, tons of energy, and people are just there to have a good time."
So what’s it like to pull back, connect perfectly with all your might, and watch the ball launch like a sonar missile? "It’s a complete, 100 percent rush," Mobley says.
"When I hit it flush and pure, I don’t feel anything," says Sadlowski. "The ball just makes a different sound."
"I played professional baseball," adds Bullard, now a financial planner, "and this compares to the high of any sport I’ve ever played."
Clearly, long drive is a niche game. But if you ask the drivers, they think there’s plenty of room for growth. "It’s fun to watch, and it’s exciting to be a part of," Mobley says. "We’ve got some big personalities, and we put on a good show for our fans. If this thing ever catches on, who knows how far we can go?"
Possibly a lot farther than 400 yards.
Lane Strauss is a freelance writer based in Cleveland. He has written for ESPN the Magazine, Cleveland Magazine, and Ohio Magazine. His new book, Extra Innings, can be found at amazon.com.