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ON THE GREEN

Big Hitters Travel Country for Driving Competitions

August 16, 2000|MELANIE NEFF | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a drive that would have made Tiger Woods envious. Joe Shuba of Temecula launched a 440-yard drive at Los Serranos Golf Club in Chino two weeks ago while competing in the Pacific Bell Wireless Long Drive Championship. The ball flew 390 yards before touching down and rolling another 50.

Woods, known for long, sailing shots that land with pinpoint accuracy down the fairway, is averaging 294 yards a drive. His longest measured drive on the PGA Tour was 366 yards in 1998. John Daly is the longest driver on the tour this season, averaging 300 yards a drive.

Shuba followed up his 440-yard drive with blasts of 371 and 391 yards. And those weren't good enough to win. His 440-yard ball helped advance him into the quarterfinals, but Mike Moulton of San Bernardino topped him in the finals with a drive of 396 yards, winning the title and $10,000.

So why can't Woods hit it that far? And why aren't Moulton and Shuba on the PGA Tour?

Give Woods a 50-inch driver or better and he probably could hit the ball 400 yards on every drive, but when playing a round of tournament golf, that would be impractical. On tour, Woods can do more with a shorter driver. Add 60 pounds to Woods 6-foot-2-inch, 180-pound frame, and have him hit the weights for a few hours a day, and he could do it. But would he still be the No. 1 golfer in the world?

Moulton and Shuba and others like them live for the long ball. In fact, according to some of their peers, most of the long hitters don't play the game of golf very well, they spend all their time on the driving range.

"Some do, don't get me wrong," said San Clemente High golf coach Mike Hurlbut. "There are a lot of guys who are very good, but most of these guys just drive."

Long Drivers of America, an organization that hosts the largest long-drive competition in the world, the RE/MAX World Long Drive Championship, is the target of these power-hitting nomads. This year's tournament, Oct. 18-21 in Mesquite, Nev., has a purse of $250,000, with $75,000 for the winner. Last year's tournaments drew more than 8,000 participants.

For hitters to qualify for the world championship, they must place well in a local tournament, which qualifies them for a district tournament. Win the district and they are on their way to the world championships. Long drivers may compete in as many local and district tournaments as they want, improving their chances of getting into the championships. So for many competitors, this means driving around the country to the qualifying events.

Hurlbut hosted a local qualifying event last weekend at Northwood Golf Center in Irvine, and while he didn't participate, he got what he was looking for out of the event--an automatic exemption allowing him to advance to a district qualifier in October.

Hurlbut already has qualified for two district finals. His second-place finish at a local event in Costa Mesa put him in a district final Sept. 30 in Pomona, and a third-place finish in Tucson has him back in Tucson on Oct. 1. Hosting last weekend's event sends him to Pleasanton on Oct. 7.

"My van will be packed and ready to go in Pomona," Hurlbut said. "So if I don't qualify, I'll leave immediately and head to Tucson. If I don't make it there, I have three days to rest before heading to Northern California for another shot. I sleep in a lot of grocery store parking lots."

While he may seem like a die-hard long driver, he isn't. This is just a hobby for Hurlbut, who has a wife and two kids at home. For others, it's a living.

Frank Miller of Irvine won last weekend's event with a drive of 385 yards. In 1991 he was the national champion on the now-defunct Power Drivers tour. Miller, a former football player at Oregon, who has used his 6-foot-6, 250-pound frame to challenge the top long hitters in the world, says he was the leading money winner on the Power Drivers tour in the early '90s. But in the last four years he hasn't been able to topple the four-time Long Drivers defending champion Jason Zuback of Canada, who is 5-11 and 240 pounds.

"All the guys are big guys," Miller said. "Even the little guys are big guys."

Zuback, a pharmacist, makes up for his shorter stature by lifting weights regularly and hitting 200 to 300 balls a day. It has paid off. He has a club-head speed of 155 miles per hour (Woods' club-head speed is usually in the mid-130s), and can keep the ball in bounds the majority of the time.

"No one on the tour can come near that club speed," said Sara Souza, owner of the Long Drivers of America. "This is a game of accuracy and consistency. Jason can get almost all his balls in the grid on a consistent basis. It's not too often we get guys who can hit like that consistently."

In competition, athletes are given six opportunities to hit the ball as far as they can within a 40-yard grid. In one tournament final, Souza said 13 of the 24 shots were out of bounds.

In local events, participants may purchase as many six-ball attempts as time permits. However, once they reach the World Championship, contestants get only six balls.

"You have guys who drive or fly 4,000 miles and they get only one chance, only six balls," Miller, 40, said. "We wait all year for one shot at the big money. It's an enormous amount of pressure."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Driving Comparison

Joe Shuba set the Long Drivers record of 440 yards at a recent tour event in Chino. That's 40 yards longer than the San Clemente Pier, but still 75 yards short of the longest recorded drive in competition.

Tiger Woods' longest drive this season: 341 yards

Joe Shuba of Temecula: 440 yards

Mike Austin at the 1974 National Seniors Open: 515 yards

Sources: www.asmwest.com and Times reports

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