From 475-yard drives to worn-out shoes, the life of a professional long driver
MARICOPA, Ariz. -- Brad Stracke knew Kyle Berkshire was long off the tee. That's why Stracke recruited Berkshire from Maryland, where he was the fourth-ranked junior, to the University of North Texas.
But Stracke didn't know just how long Berkshire, who redshirted his freshman season, really was until he was watching a qualifying round during the first semester of Berkshire's sophomore season in 2016.
Berkshire was competing against his teammates to be one of the five golfers to play in a tournament. With the group in front about 275 yards up the fairway, Stracke told Berkshire he was clear to hit. Berkshire, who was hitting a 3-iron off the tee because the hole was tight, declined, opting to wait until the hole was clear. Stracke didn't push back.
Then Berkshire launched his tee shot 275 yards.
"I'm like, 'Oh my gosh,'" Stracke said. "I knew this kid was long but I just had no idea he could hit it that far with the 3-iron, let alone the driver. And the rest was history."
Berkshire's history was still in the making when his coach's jaw dropped that day. There was also the time, in another team qualifying round, when Berkshire bombed his drive on a 575-yard par 5 within 150 yards of the hole. For those counting at home, it was 425 yards. But Berkshire wasn't just long. He was powerful, too. His ball speed in college topped 200 mph.
That's fast. The average ball speed off a driver on the PGA Tour is 167 mph, according to TrackMan's website.
That's about when Stracke first thought Berkshire, who didn't play a competitive round for North Texas because he struggled to straighten his shots, was missing his calling.
He was meant to be a long driver.
The two had a conversation that resulted in Berkshire giving up his scholarship. He won his first long drive event, the Endless Summer ... with a drive of 474 yards.
Berkshire found his calling with World Long Drive, with 10 North American events and 11 international events that pit the longest hitters in the world against each other. First held as a competition in 1976, long drive has recently started to enter the mainstream of golf. Golf Channel began airing WLD events in 2013 and, in 2015, acquired Long Drivers of America, the former governing body of the WLD.
The exposure has helped, said Justin James, the defending WLD world champion.
"It's the last two years that it's really grown because of Golf Channel," James said. "People want to be on TV and people know about us because we're on TV. I think that's so good that people can say, 'Oh, I can do that or I would like to do that,'"
On Wednesday, the championship rounds of the men's and masters divisions will be held.
"It's definitely not golf," said Ryan Reisbeck, who's ranked fourth in the world. "It's a component of golf but it's a different mentality, a different approach altogether. A lot of it is the same. You're trying to maximize your ball flight and your speed and everything - but to the extreme. We don't have to hit a soft wedge into a green and make a three-foot putt.
"We're just trying to kill it. For me, it's a lot more fun. I can chip in and I say, 'Yay that's great.' But when I kill a drive and I just hammer it, I just love it. It's just exhilarating."
Those involved agree that long drive is golf's obnoxious cousin.
"It's part home run derby, part WWE, part NASCAR, part Top Golf, if you will," said Wes Whittingham, Volvik's vice president of sales.
It's part shot put and part javelin, said Jeff Flagg, the WLD 2014 champion, because long drive is about whoever is longest wins.
Traditions be damned. Long drive is a party.
"It's like the rock 'n' roll of golf because the crowds are loud and clapping and it gives you so much energy," said Carlborg, who's won five titles since 2011. "In that part, it's very different from regular golf. It's a very different feeling.
"On the golf course I try to calm down, but here you want to pump up."
Getting into WLD and staying there
Trent Scruggs' plan in high school was to play college baseball.
Then he tore his labrum 180 degrees and it was time for a backup plan. Scruggs had played golf as a kid. When he was 14, he bombed a drive 315 yards in a Drive, Chip and Putt competition.
The foundation for being a big hitter had been laid. After his injury, Scruggs picked up a club again. Armed with a speed in the 130s and his history of long drives, Scruggs entered a long drive event.
He was 16. A year later, he made the tour's championship. He's now 23 and has competed in the last six world championships.
Everybody in World Long Drive has their own story about how they discovered they could smash a drive long enough to become a professional. But Ryan Reisbeck thinks "most everybody" in WLD got their start in similar ways.
"They see you hit the ball and they say, 'you should try that,'" said Reisbeck, who has a full-time job in Utah selling home, auto and life insurance. "And, so, when I've talked to people and done a non-scientific poll, it's the same story all the time. You'll be playing golf and you'll kill it, and somebody would have seen long drive or has some understanding of it will say, 'You need to do long drive. You need to try that out.'"
That's how Reisbeck got his start in 2010.
He was playing in a church golf tournament back home in Utah, using his father's clubs. On the 18th tee, he borrowed his neighbor's driver and ripped a shot that went over the ninth hole's green, which was adjacent to the 18th's green, and landed on the No. 1 tee box -- about 380 yards. After his round, Reisbeck went into the clubhouse to get a drink, and on TV was a replay of the ReMax World Long Drive Championship. The drive he watched was hit by long drive legend Jerimie Montgomery and went 383 yards.
That afternoon, Reisbeck and some friends went out to a sod farm so he could hit and they could accurately measure with a cement wheel. The next morning, he went to a driving range and, coincidentally enough, Montgomery was on the other side of the range for a photo shoot. Reisbeck approached him. Montgomery sold him a driver. And Reisbeck drove to Albuquerque, New Mexico, for a long drive event that weekend and finished second.
"From then on, I was hooked," Reisbeck said.
So was Sandra Carlborg, a Swedish long driver who's the defending women's world champion and has won five of the last seven women's titles. She played professional golf for 14 years, including occasionally on the Ladies European Tour, before trying long drive in 2008. She hasn't gone back to playing stroke-play professionally.
Eddie Fernandes had his sights set on being a professional golfer. He started playing professionally in 2004. He went to PGA Tour Q School five times, making the second stage a couple times. Then he got married, had kids and took 10 years off from golf as he entered the worlds of video surveillance and restaurants. But the itch to compete came back in 2014, a year after watching the World Long Drive World Championship on TV. He was 43. He was swinging a club 134 mph and his ball speed was 196 mph. Now, Fernandes is 48 and tied for the 22nd-best long driver in the world.
While Fernandes made the transition from one profession to long drive in his 40s, Jeff Flagg did it much younger but also because that competitive itch was missing.
He was a power hitter toiling in Class A baseball for the New York Mets when he was released in 2010. He spent two more years playing independent baseball and retired in 2012. But his life was missing something. Flagg knew he had always been long off the tee. Long drive seemed like it could, possibly, potentially fill the void baseball left. In 2013, he paid $40 to enter a local qualifier.
With one driver, he advanced to the regionals. He won and qualified for the world championship that year. He won the ReMax World Long Drive Championship in 2014.
"It's funny to sort of just step into it," he said.
Then there's Justin James, the reigning World Long Drive champion. He has long drivers in his DNA. James is the son of Gerry James, a two-time long drive world champion. Justin was driving 300 yards at 12 years old. When his baseball career ended, James turned to long drive. And it's worked out.
"It was something," James said, "I wanted to pursue on a deeper level."
To gym ... or not to gym
Paul Howell is proof that to compete in World Long Drive, you don't need to live in the gym. He can swing a golf club 145 mph and hit a golf ball 460 yards, and claims he hasn't seen the inside of a gym in more than a decade. It's tough to doubt him, though. He stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 305 pounds, and looks as sturdy as the pines that fill his home state of North Carolina.
"I'm completely different from all of them," Howell said of his fellow long drivers. "Every single one of them goes to the gym and does some sort of thing. Yeah, I haven't seen the gym since 2007.
"But I hit a lot of golf balls during the week. I'm practicing daily."
Howell is the exception, not the rule, on tour. Form-fitting golf shirts that seem extra snug against biceps appear to be the choice on tour.
While strength is important to crush a drive longer than most par 4s, it's not the only facet of training most long drivers work on.
"It's just full movements," said Justin James, who'll spend two to three hours in the gym before practicing for five hours. "The easiest way to explain it is I'm just trying to train to become a better athlete. It's sprinting, it's athletic moves, there's certainly strength exercises, compound exercises, squatting, deadlifting variations, just trying to take my athleticism to the next level - jump higher, run faster, swing a club harder.
"It's not what people would think. They would think CrossFit, or powerlifting. I love doing that. There's nothing wrong with that, but think a little more athletic. Guys are like professional athletes. So, that's what it takes. That's what it takes to be competitive."
Reisbeck wakes up at 5:30 a.m. five or six days a week during the season to hit the gym. But he's careful about his workouts. He stays away from weightlifting because he has a tendency to bulk up, which slows down his swing. Instead he does resistance-band and core workouts while focusing on "explosive moves," flexibility and mobility.
Fernandes is in the gym three days a week, often with Flagg, who is also a personal trainer. Carlborg learned early in her career that she had a strong core, so she's focused on maintaining strength there and building up her legs.
"You hit as hard as you can," she said. "It's important to be strong in your whole body so you don't hurt yourself."
When she started touring in Sweden in 2005, she was often the only woman in the gym, she said. That's changed. Most of her fellow golfers work out, she said.
"I have worked out since I was young," she said. "I love working out. I played different sports so I think it's genetic, but it's also that I love to work out."
We're talking about practice
Paul Howell is also proof that a long driver can hit balls -- a lot of balls -- every day of the week and not get hurt or burned out.
While most long drivers hit the range for a few hours a few days a week, at most, Howell will hit four to five buckets of balls a day and then play either nine or 18 holes. In a week, he'll hit anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 balls. He'll usually only practice long drive when other long drivers visit North Carolina to work with their shared coach.
Other than that, it's regular stroke-play golf.
That, like Howell's workout routine, or lack thereof, isn't typical among the World Long Drive players. Fernandes works on speed training three days a week. Flagg is on the range 45 minutes to an hour working on his driver four to five days a week, but has a club in his hands, whether it's hitting or doing mirror work, seven days a week. He organizes his practicing sessions like he's competing, hitting six or eight balls then taking a break. He hits less than 100 drives a day, topping out around 70.
"It's short bursts," he said. "I'm not out there all day.
"Hard as I can and then I bounce. I want to move as fast as possible. The more I'm out there, the slower I'm going to get."
Carlborg subscribes to Flagg's way of training.
She hits balls four days a week, sometimes five, for two hours. And then she's done. That's the biggest difference she's noticed transitioning from stroke-play golf to long drive. When she played stroke play, Carlborg always thought someone else was practicing more, which drove her to keep practicing. She physically can't do that anymore and it's not beneficial in long drive to overhit.
"For long drive, it's more explosive. Hit as hard as you can," she said. "My body can't do it for full days. I use my FlightScope and when I see my number go down, it's time to go to the gym."
They're golfers, too
Most of those who can smash a tee shot 400 yards aren't one-trick ponies.
Before Paul Howell, 27, competed in the Ak Chin Smash in the Sun Event in early May, he played 18 at Southern Dunes, one of the toughest public courses in Arizona. He shot 68 the first time seeing the course.
That's not even his lowest score. He's shot 61 a couple times, he said.
For him and other long drivers, golf was and still is their passion. And playing it professionally is still their goal.
"The dream is to still be on the PGA Tour," Howell said. "I know that I can do it. This is really fun thing to me."
He hasn't let that dream die. He played four years at Campbell University in North Carolina and has spent the last few years paying various mini tours. He went through PGA Tour qualifying
School two years in a row, making it to the second stage both times.
"That's the hardest, most expensive job interview in the world, honestly," Howell said.
Scruggs isn't that far into his career -- yet.
After being in World Long Drive for seven years, he wants to transition to stroke-play golf and enter Web.com Tour qualifiers.
"I want to test the water," he said. "I feel if I put the same amount of effort into golf, I can make a splash and I'm not afraid of competition or anyone, really."
His lowest tournament round is 66, but he recently shot a 62, his lowest round ever, on his home course.
Some of the best long drivers in the world are just as good in stroke play. The defending World Long Drive men's and women's champions, Justin James and Sandra Carlborg, are both scratch golfers.
But being a scratch golfer is not a condition of being a talented long driver.
Reisbeck played a full round of 18 holes maybe anywhere from three to 12 times a year and he shot in the low 90s.
"I was not a good golfer," he said. "I'm still not a great golfer.
"I readily admit that. I don't have a problem with that."
Big drives, small margin of error
In World Long Drive, speed wins.
Club speed and ball speed are the two most important numbers to any long driver because the right combination gives them the one number they want the most: distance.
And World Long Drive, despite its fancy, souped-up clubs and bright balls, is about one thing: who can hit it longest.
"It's kind of a very simple, straightforward competition," said Jeff Flagg, who won the 2014 World Long Drive World Championship. "There's no gray area a lot of times."
There isn't a faster ball in sports, but with long drive speeds of up to 220 mph, control is almost as important as speed and distance.
Analytics have taken over long drive much like launch angle and exit velocity have encompassed baseball. The TrackMan launch monitor has become a long driver's best friend. One mph either way on either club or ball speed can be the difference between making the final eight on the TV show, and then winning and losing in front of a national TV audience.
"The competition is getting so good now, every little thing counts," Reisbeck said. "Every little edge you can get makes a difference. It's a matter of inches a lot of times. And you can hit your best ball and somebody else gets a better roll than you and they beat you.
"Even when you hit it well you still can lose. It all matters."
The best long driver in the game right now, Justin James, swings anywhere from 148 to 155 mph, which can produce a ball speed of faster than 220 mph.
"Hopefully we're about 220," he said, "or I'm in trouble."
But the margin of error at those rates are tiny, James said.
"You can hit a millimeter low on the face and you don't have a chance," James said. "You got to match that up. The harder you swing, the more volatile that ball is going to be.
"It really takes the perfect shot to be able to execute what you need out there."
When long drivers find their perfect recipe, their shots fly. And every long driver knows off the top of their head just how far their longest drive ever is.
James' is 480. Carlborg's is 401. Flagg's is 463. Howell's is 460. So is Scruggs'.
"The sport's changed a lot," Scruggs said. "There used to be only two or three guys with 220 ball speed. Now there are a dozen of them. Getting them into play kind of is not really the play anymore. It can sneak up on some people."
It's in the equipment
The drivers that the long drivers use aren't your parents' clubs.
You won't find them in a local pro shop or the neighborhood golf store. They're made longer, stiffer and straighter specifically for the long drivers.
Two companies dominate the long drive equipment battle. There's almost an even split among the men in the open division in World Long Drive between Callaway and Krank. But Callaway sponsors 16 long drivers, including eight of the top 11 in the world rankings.
The average tour driver is around 44¾ inches long, according to a Callaway spokesman. In World Long Drive, most hitters use clubs that are 48 inches long, the maximum USGA length. Also, the club head doesn't have the loft found on most -- if any -- other drivers. While Tour players usually like their driver loft between 9.5 and 10.5 degrees, long drivers set their loft between 2 to 5 degrees. A putter sits at 3 degrees.
But long drive clubs aren't just longer and straighter. They're also sturdier.
"The face is just a little bit stronger, obviously," James said. "So, if a regular person hit mine, they wouldn't be able to compress the face. If I hit a regular driver up here, it would crack easier."
Advancements in golf club technology the sport as a whole. But when Callaway got involved in the sport in 2013, long drive evolved. Their technology gave golfers the ability to switch out heads, so less equipment was needed in general.
Over the past five years, long drivers have seen a decline in the number of clubs they go through.
Reisbeck used to use 25 drivers in a year. With Callaway, he's going through 10 to 15. He practices with two drivers, at most, and rotates between three or four heads for competition. Carlborg travels with one shaft. Just one. She doesn't break clubs, she said, because her force isn't as great as on the men's side.
Scruggs used to carry 14 drivers with him when he was with a different equipment company. That changed when he switched to Callaway.
"They really put a lot of time and effort into long drive and we definitely appreciate it," Scruggs said. "It can get better but it's going to take more time. Same thing with iPhones or anything else. It takes time and they got it down to a science now. They know what they're doing.
"The sport's evolving. It's getting more modern. It's making it more easier to make the adjustments on the tee box."
But keeping a club intact and reusable isn't as much about the equipment as it is about the swing.
The more center-faced shots a long driver hits, the longer the club will hold up, Reisbeck said. But once shots start going off the toe or heel, bottom or top of the driver, that's when the metal starts moving on a club and its strength deteriorates.
Scruggs has club heads from two years ago he still uses.
Those long drivers with a golf background don't rely as much on their clubs as they do on their golf skill, James said. Instead of switching out his club on the tee if something isn't working, he'll just adjust his swing.
Even the balls, made by Volvik for the World Long Drive, are stronger and more durable. Volvik makes four-piece balls with a 110 compression rating specifically for World Long Drive, Wes Whittingham, Volvik's vice president of sales said. By comparison, tour players are hitting balls with a 90 to 95 compression rating, he added. The long drivers don't just need a tougher ball but they want one that reduces spin, he said. But even with Volvik producing a unique ball for WLD, the long drivers still hit with such power that they're "deforming" the ball with ever shot, Whittingham said.
If the long drivers hit a regular golf ball sold off the shelf -- of any brand, not just Volvik -- it would "fatigue" after a while, Whittingham said.
Or they'd just fall apart.
Just like Scruggs' shoes.
Scruggs stands just 5-foot-9 and weighs 215 pounds, but he goes through shoes like golfers go through wooden tees.
He's gone through 50 to 100 pairs of shoes in the last five years because of "heavy footwork." He averages two to three pairs of shoes per tournament. He has "the Jordan Spieth foot roll," so his left foot stays grounded longer than usual, and that friction causes the sole to separate from the rest of the shoe.
"It's not fun," Scruggs said. "It makes my travel bag a lot heavier."