By: Justin James
The below was written first-hand by 2017 Volvik World Long Drive champion Justin James, and is the first of a series of “Champions’ Corner” columns James will write that will be published exclusively on WorldLongDrive.com.
Did you tune in to the 2017 Volvik World Long Drive Championship last month on Golf Channel and find yourself thinking there were too many OB (out-of-bounds) balls, too many unconventional golf swings, and that the competitors more closely resembled body builders than golfers? I get it – I really do. But let me tell you why your assumptions about Long Drive only account for a surface level observation, and how Long Drive in reality is becoming an instrumental beacon in the athletic advancement of golf.
Perception is not reality
Your perception of Long Drive is likely misguided at best. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard every cliché comment you can imagine: “these guys can’t break 90,” and “but what about their short game?” Now, while it’s not likely that the guy slipping on a green jacket every April got his start in the game by competing in World Long Drive events, I still think you’d still be surprised to know that guys like Kyle Berkshire, Paul Howell and Wes Patterson – each of whom made the quarterfinals at Worlds last month – all carry handicaps of +3 or better. And that’s the case for many of us Long Drivers. Guys out here generally can hack it, and for the most part have done so at the professional level. Former NCAA Division I golfers? Yep. Web.com Tour experience? Yep. Long Drivers like David Mobley, Mike Gorton, Brian Pavlet and Bobby Wilson and dozens of others have multiple mini-tour victories. PGA TOUR winner Dennis Paulson was the Long Drive champ back in 1985. Two-time Long Drive champion Jamie Sadlowski’s current foray into competing in several TOUR events is another great example. Gerry James – my father – is a PGA professional and former Long Driver who competed in the U.S. Senior Open in 2014. I myself am a Titleist Performance Institute power and golf coach, and previously was the head golf coach at Trinity Baptist College in Jacksonville, Fla. It’s not hyperbole to consider the golf chops that Long Drivers boast so-to-speak, and my point is that Long Drive competitors are as much a part of the fabric of the professional golf scene as their PGA TOUR counterparts.
Of course Long Drive has its subtleties. A TOUR player is rewarded for accuracy, and distance is obviously paramount for a Long Driver. But while distance is our main objective, accuracy is a major contributing factor when measuring the success of a Long Drive competitor. Sure, we often miss the grid, which can be disconcerting to watch. But when you take into account the nature of the competition, the way our equipment is constructed and the setup of the grid, you quickly realize why. Our grid is roughly 50 yards wide, regardless of how far the ball goes. Therefore, the farther we hit, the more difficult it is to find the grid. At 400 yards away, hitting a 50-yard-wide grid is like asking an amateur golfer to hit a fairway that’s only 12 yards wide. Good luck!
Our equipment is not designed for accuracy. While we hit the same USGA-conforming equipment and technology that is available to TOUR players and amateur golfers alike, our setups are vastly different. Our lower-degree driver produces a spin rate of roughly 1400-2000 rpm (revolutions per minute) at a launch angle of 8-12 degrees. This ensures a maximum rollout upon contact with the ground. This low spin rate also drastically increases the “shape” of the shot, whereas accentuating draws and fades. This is why it is more difficult to fade a 7 iron than a 3 iron. The increased spin and height of a 7 iron keeps the shot tighter and straighter. Conversely, a TOUR player will want to spin the ball in the range of 2200-2800 rpm. This greatly increases their accuracy and ability to control their shot dispersion. They’re willing to sacrifice a potential 10-15 extra yards in exchange for keeping their ball in the fairway.
Long Drive setups make equipment less forgiving and harder to control. Long Drivers want to achieve the lowest spin rate possible, making accuracy extremely difficult to maintain. This is why every shot must be the best and longest of your life, with the lowest spin rate, highest ball speed and a little bit of good fortune to have your ball land on the hottest point on the grid any given night, otherwise you’re trunk-slamming and headed home.
Golf’s movement toward athletic advancement
Whether you realize it or not, golfers are hitting it farther and doing things that golfers in previous generations could not do. Long Drive is at the forefront of that movement, driven by fitness and performance specifically geared toward the golf swing.
Consider that the average ball speed on the PGA TOUR is around 167 mph, and the average swing speed is around 113 mph. This year, the highest ball speed at the Volvik World Long Drive Championship was 227 mph, while the highest swing speed was 157 mph. Why are Long Drivers able to move a golf ball 60 mph faster than an average TOUR player? The answer is simple: we train for it. What you see in Long Drive training programs today will be the foundation for programs of PGA TOUR players of tomorrow.
Don’t believe me? In Major League Baseball, pitchers never lifted weights before a man named Nolan Ryan came around and set the new standard. Skeptics said he would become too big, too stiff, and too inflexible. Instead, he hit 108 mph and had a Hall-of-Fame 20+-year career. Tiger Woods and Gary Player were often criticized for their gym habits. The reality? Tiger dominated for a generation by being more fit, more athletic and better prepared than his opponents. Player did it a generation prior. Now we see athletes like Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy taking the game to a new level by thinking of themselves as athletes first. With golf returning as an Olympic sport, children across the world will be starting the game at a younger age, and as a result, Olympic federations will invest more in golf and its accompanying fitness and training advancements.
This isn’t a debate about whether fitness and weight training belong in golf. It’s already a prevalent reality at the highest level. A Long Driver’s training program is a huge contributor to this movement. Long Drive possesses some of the most powerful athletes in the world. How else could you explain how someone swings a golf club 155 mph, hits the ball at 225 mph, and flies a ball 400 yards and rolls out to 450? How many people on planet earth can do that? This is why Long Drive is arguably the most athletic element of golf.
Golf’s embrace of Long Drive
Golf is in a great place with young stars such as Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler, and Justin Thomas to name a few. But the audience remains similar to previous generations. The unique element that Long Drive brings to the table offers the potential to reach a newer, more diverse and broader audience. With the popularity of Topgolf and other alternative forms of traditional golf becoming more widespread, Long Drive is strategically positioned as something many can identify with. Be honest, what do you and your buddies actually do when you head to the driving range? Hit wedges? I didn’t think so.
There needs to be variation for people to have a sustainable interest in the game of golf. Attention spans are short. People don’t necessarily have time to spend six hours playing 18 holes. People increasingly do not want to join a country club and have to wear clothes they wouldn’t normally wear. People want to play golf their way. They want to have fun, and they don’t want to have to take out a mortgage to do so. The norms of golf are changing because our culture is changing. We live in a brave, new, social media 140-characters-or-less kind of world. Society’s attention span for golf in its traditional sense will continue to evolve.
Mixed Martial Arts was heavily criticized by the boxing community for years. The old guard of boxing thought that this new style of combat was too ruthless and undisciplined. They believed it was too unorganized, with a bunch of Neanderthal dimwits that had no business being recognized as legitimate fighters. But instead of posing a threat to combat sports, MMA has brought attention and recognition to all forms of combat. Boxing is more popular because of MMA. Wrestling, Ju-jitsu and karate are more popular. As John F. Kennedy once said, “a rising tide lifts all boats,” and combat sports as a whole have grown because of MMA. The recent highly anticipated Conor McGregor–Floyd Mayweather fight was an overwhelming success that elevated boxing, MMA, and all of combat sports. Similarly, Long Drive has the potential to drive more fans to the world of golf who may otherwise not be as likely to be interested.
My hope is that people begin to appreciate Long Drive for the dynamic element of golf that it is. It continues to play an integral role in advancing the game athletically and bringing more people to the sport. A 225-mph ball speed is astonishing. A 450+ yard drive under the lights is something everyone should witness first-hand. So before you criticize, give Long Drive a shot.