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The Man Who Cracked The Code

L.A.'s Mike Austin Has Hit a Golf Ball Farther Than Any Human. But There's Something Even More Astounding About His 1974 World-Record Drive: He Knew Exactly What He Was Doing.

October 07, 2001|PHILIP REED | Philip Reed last wrote for the magazine about working as a car salesman

Mike Austin's golf swing first appears in a flickering black-and-white film clip. He's a young man, wearing plus fours, his long hair flying as he lays into the ball. In the film's next segment his hair is white, and he sports a thin mustache as he drills laser-like iron shots. Finally, he's in his 70s, crushing balls at a local driving range, the crowd cheering wildly as he launches each shot at the same trajectory, as if firing the balls from a mortar.

Austin, now 91, cuts off the video and leans back in his easy chair. The living room of his Woodland Hills home is decorated with photos of his long career in golf. Putters and drivers still lean against the walls. But the clubs aren't for him--a stroke has left him partially paralyzed and he no longer plays golf. The clubs are for the students who come from all around the world wanting to learn from this man, the longest hitter ever to play a game that today is reaching new heights of popularity.

Watching films of Austin's swing sometimes puzzles his students. Where is the raw power from someone who once blasted a golf ball through the Los Angeles phone book? Where is the savage strength from someone who, in his prime, could drive the ball past any of the young guns on today's PGA tour, including Tiger Woods? Instead, Austin's swing looks graceful, balanced and effortless. As Austin puts it, "I just felt like I was swinging at cruising speed."

What separates Austin from the pack of golf gurus, know-it-alls, and bulked-up long-drive champions is his knowledge of physics, anatomy and kinesiology. Not only could he knock the ball out of sight, but he can tell you what every bone and muscle needs to do to hit every shot dead solid perfect.

It was Austin's unique knowledge, coupled with superb athletic ability, that put him in the "Guinness Book of World Records" for hitting the longest drive in a tournament. And he did it while in his mid-60s, using a persimmon driver with a steel shaft. It wasn't just a solo shot, either. He had been astounding the golf world for years with his length (not to mention his larger than life off-the-course exploits). He could hit the ball righty, lefty, with one arm, with clubs turned upside down, or even--as he once did to win a bet--with a taped-up Coke bottle.

Is it possible that Austin succeeded in cracking golf's code? Did he find a way to match this imperfect machine--the human body--to the perfect golf swing? If you ask Austin to explain how he does it, he first fixes you in the sights of his piercing eyes, then he begins speaking in a rumbling voice hinting of his upbringing in both Scotland and the Deep South. Listen carefully because the lesson is about to begin.

on sept. 25, 1974, austin was playing in the u.s. national Seniors Open Championship at the Winterwood Golf Course in Las Vegas, a course since renamed Desert Rose. He was 64 at the time, and had been a PGA pro for many years. He had been driving the ball exceptionally well that day, even by his standards. On the 450-yard, par 4 fifth hole, one of his partners, PGA pro Chandler Harper, told Austin, "I've never seen anyone hit the ball as far as you. Let's see you really let one go."

Austin, a longtime gambler and trick shot artist, took the challenge. Word that Austin was going to go for it was relayed to the foursome on the green ahead. They stood safely to one side. Austin drew back and unleashed a blast that flew more than 400 yards, bounced in front of the green and came to rest 65 yards beyond the flag-stick. That shot set the Guinness world record as the longest drive ever recorded in a PGA tournament: 515 yards. Austin recalls that the ball didn't follow a normal parabolic curve. Instead, it went up 20 feet, leveled off, and held its line. Austin's wife, Tanya, who was also at the tournament, said, "It was like God held it up in the air."

Skeptics might try to explain away such a feat. True, a tail wind was blowing. But consider Tiger Woods' description of his longest drive last February. "I remember hitting one in a practice round at Royal Birkdale at the British Open in '98," Woods said in an interview on "Larry King Live." "It was howling downwind. And I hit it as hard as I possibly could, just for heck of it. And I hit it 412 yards"-- 103 yards shorter than Austin's record-setter.

For pros on the PGA tour, distance is one of several factors leading to victory. The motto "Drive for show, putt for dough" holds a lot of truth. But the galleries love the big drives unleashed by Woods and John Daly. When a tour player drops a nice putt, it rarely prompts a fan to holler, "You da man!"

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