In anticipation of the 44th annual World Long Drive Championship (August 30-September 4), we’re highlighting a collection of past world champions in a series titled “World Champion Reflections” leading up this year’s Championship. Next up is Sean (“The Beast”) Fister, a three-time World Long Drive champion.
“When I started out, I didn’t really know what to expect, and I didn’t know anybody,” said Fister of his long drive initiation. “It really wasn’t easy to make friends because the higher-level people looked at you as though you [had] to prove yourself first.”
Fister’s road to long drive success certainly wasn’t a direct ascension, but rather a series of stepping stones.
“There’s been a lot of long drive champions that started out and won right away and never had to play around the bottom for years like I did.”
Back in the 1980s-90s, the long drive community was small, and hitters had to pay their dues by earning merit on the grid to prove they belonged.
“It’s a small community, and there’s a hierarchy,” Fister says. “One of the questions that a guy has, you know, when he’s first [starting out] is whether he belongs? Is he long enough? Some guys never get that answer. There’s some luck and a lot of skill involved. There’s been times when I’ve gotten lucky and there’s times when I wasn’t so lucky. I used to tell people it’s kind of like being on a merry-go-round: you just have to stay on it.”
That’s exactly what Fister did, and he got confirmation from a previous champion that sticking it out could pay off for him.
“I remember the first time I went to the championship in Boca Raton in ’89. I was sitting in the airport, getting ready to connect over to the Bahamas and I was looking at people wondering if any of them were long divers. I saw this one guy who looked pretty big and athletic, so I went up to him and asked if he was a long driver and it was Wedgy Winchester.”
Winchester had claimed the World Long Drive Championship title in the Open Division a few years prior (1984) with a winning drive of 319 yards.
“We started talking, and within a few minutes he looked at me and said, ‘You’ll win it. I think you’re probably gonna win it if you just stay after it and don’t quit.’”
Fister would have to wait his turn, as Scott DeCandia won that week (in 1989) for his second world title. It would take another six years before Fister would finally claim the title of world champion in 1995. That year also marked the first time that a long drive competition was broadcast at night on television.
“It was the first one televised at night,” said Fister. “I think it was on ESPN. I had a car accident about a week before I went to the championship. I had a hairline crack in my sternum, and I had broken my right finger and my left knee went through the dash, so I had a knee brace on my left knee.
“I almost withdrew three or four times because I couldn’t close my right hand onto the grip. I was icing it and trying to grit through the pain, and I kept getting lucky and winning these rounds and advancing. Back then we only got one time a year to do something. Now, there’s a tour and a lot of events. Back then, we were basically competing for entry fees at most events and those weren’t broadcast on TV. Most guys weren’t out there to make money.”
That changed after he won his first championship. Sponsorship money and endorsement deals presented themselves to Fister, who began to look at long drive as a career.
“I ended up doing pretty well with sponsorships and was getting a lot of endorsement deals. At that time, it was the 90s and the economy was great, and people were spending money on golf events. It was a booming time for business.”
In 1996, the long drive world ran into a buzz saw in Jason Zuback, who won the world championship in the Open Division four straight years from 1996-’99, before adding a record fifth title in 2006.
Competitively confounded with his fellow competitor’s reign of success, Fister vividly remembers passing a group of other hitters in the hotel after Zuback’s third championship.
“I was walking down the hall at the hotel and passed [Brian] Pavlet’s room and Gerry James was in there and they were moping and kind of complaining. So, I walked in and asked, ‘What’s up?’ Gerry said, ‘Man, we gotta do something about this guy.’ And I said, ‘Well Gerry, what do you recommend? You want to stuff him in a trunk and drop him off in the desert?’”
Fister knew by this point, it had nothing to do with luck for Zuback.
“I told [James], ‘Come on man, the guy’s good.’ It made everybody work harder because he wasn’t going anywhere. So, we had to try and catch him, or we would get left in the dust.”
Fister’s second world championship title would come in 2001, and he added a third in 2005.
Fister is still the only American to win three World Long Drive championships in the Open Division.
It’s a feat that’s within reach for two-time world champion Tim Burke (2013, 2015) to try and match in a month’s time. It would mark the third victory of the season for Burke, but more importantly, would put him in elite company if he were able to make it come to fruition, as only the third hitter in the Open Division to win at least three World Long Drive Championship titles.