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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

Austin also was a fearsome boxer, winning fights as a heavyweight across the Southeast. But as he was being examined for a match in Atlanta, the doctor found Austin's heart was beating 166 times a minute, apparently because of the adrenaline pouring into his system. Austin recalls the doctor became alarmed, saying, " 'Get this man on a gurney. He's dying!' I said, 'I've never felt better in my life.' " But the doctor declared him unfit, the fight was canceled, and that was the end of Austin's boxing career.

The adrenaline surges Austin experienced played havoc with his short game on and around the greens. "I was the worst putter on the tour. I had no control over the adrenaline in my system. It gave me extra power, but when I went to hit a putt, it went off on me." (In fact, on the hole where Austin hit his record-setting drive, he chipped onto the green and three-putted for a bogey.)

In 1939 Austin moved to Los Angeles to be a pro at the Wilshire Country Club. He was an accomplished operatic singer and had contracts with several major studios. He also roomed with actor Errol Flynn, and together they prowled the local hot spots. He worked as an engineer on a highly classified aerospace project in the late 1940s, the beginning of what would later become the space program. All that time he was playing tournaments and teaching as much as he could at the driving range at the Studio City Golf and Tennis Club.

Because of his education in physics and engineering, Austin couldn't settle for just playing the game of golf. He developed revolutionary putters, irons, drivers and a swing trainer called "The Flammer." The device, best known after Kevin Costner wore one in the film "Tin Cup," connects the club to the body by a telescoping rod and teaches golfers to turn their body for more power. Austin has sold more than 500,000 Flammers.

my long-anticipated lesson with austin came one blistering afternoon in July. Although Austin still drives his big white Cadillac to teaching sessions at the Studio City range, he prefers the convenience of coaching students on his front lawn. He sits nearby in a lawn chair as I set up over a practice ball. As soon as I take the club back, Austin stops me, a tortured tone in his voice as if I've committed a mortal sin.

Dunaway recalls similar encounters while Austin was coaching him. "We'd almost get in a fight. He cannot tolerate someone not doing what he says to do." Dunaway began videotaping the lessons and watching them later, when the heat of the moment had passed and left him in a better frame of mind to absorb Austin's teachings.

I struggled to fully comprehend Austin's instructions, and my teacher grew more exasperated. But later, reflecting on his demands, I realized that Austin had identified a distance-siphoning flaw in my swing. At the top of my backswing, my wrists were completely uncocked. As Austin correctly pointed out, how could I expect to get distance if I had already expended my most potent weapon?

jon mortensen, director of biomechanics for farnes golf in Tacoma, Wash., says golfers come to the facility to have their swings analyzed by a computer that makes a 3-D picture of their motion. Their swing is then compared to a database of the swings of more than 200 golf pros. Mortensen is amazed when told about his record-setting drive.

I explain to Mortensen that Austin believes the secret of distance is in the release. He agrees, saying that their studies have shown the release is a tremendous part of a golfer's distance. He said that, among the world's golfers, long-ball hitters "have the most explosive power in the release, and they do it later" in the swing. Mortensen also agrees with Austin that bending forward from the hips is better for the back and puts the golfer into a more powerful position.

How can these elements be taught to the average golfer? "The release is tough to teach," he says. "In all the books I've read, I've never seen a good way to teach it. A lot of it is genetic, natural-born athlete stuff." Plus, he says, "we're talking about a sequence of actions that are separated by hundredths of a second."

Still, Austin has had remarkable success as a teacher. Over the years, Austin gave golf lessons to the rich and famous, from crooner Bing Crosby to Spanish pro Seve Ballesteros to billionaire industrialist Howard Hughes. James A. Ullrich of Conroe, Texas, took lessons from both Austin and Dunaway. At 62 years old, he is belting the ball farther than ever, occasionally more than 300 yards. "There's no question that I'm longer because of Mike. And down here in Texas, that's what it's all about."

Betsy Cullen, an Austin student and three-time winner on the LPGA tour, teaches at the Pine Forest Country Club in Houston. "He's not only a good teacher for students, but he's a good teacher for teachers," she says. "He expresses things in different ways, and uses images that makes it easier to understand."

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