GOLF'S HUMAN HOWITZER

Big George Bayer hits a golf ball like Mickey Mantle hits a baseball, only three times as far. His one big problem: how to make the rest of his game match the quality of his drives
May 28, 1961

Hardly a golf course where George Bayer has played during his six years on the professional golfing circuit is without a legend about one of his enormous drives. On the 250-yard 8th hole at Tam O'Shanter he scored a hole in one, using his one-iron. On the 445-yard 7th hole at Tucson, where the air is thin and a 15-mph wind was in his favor, Bayer drove his tee shot 10 yards past the flag-stick. On the par-5 13th hole at Las Vegas he hit a drive that traveled 420 yards.

At Cypress Point in California club members marvel over a drive Bayer once hit on the 334-yard dogleg 18th. Helped by a tail wind, the ball sailed over some cypress trees and, still on the fly, struck a startled contestant on the far edge of the green alongside the clubhouse. "I'd have been in trouble if it hadn't hit him," Bayer says with a slight wince that is the closest he ever comes to a grin. "It would have gone off into the parking lot and been a rough shot to play back."

According to Bayer's own testimony, the most memorable shot of his career was made at the Lakes Club in Sydney, Australia during an exhibition match in 1956. On a hole that measured 589 yards, Bayer hit a drive that stopped about 50 yards from the green. "I guess that was about my longest," he says casually. "But remember I had some wind with me, the fairway was baked hard by the sun and it was a little downhill."

Most golfers are prouder of a long drive than a new born son, but Bayer speaks of his monumental shots with an indifference bordering on ennui. It seems to rankle with him that, as the longest hitter in golf, he is regarded by many fans as a sort of freak rather than one of the three dozen best professionals in the game, which he certainly is.

In the midst of a recent tournament Bayer was out on the practice green working on his putting when an elderly fellow started chatting with him. "You're the longest hitter there ever was, George," said the man. "Why, you can hit the ball farther than Tom Morris," referring to a Scot who was in his prime about the time that Disraeli was Prime Minister.

"Well, that was a long time ago," said Bayer politely.

"How many balls do you use during a round?" asked the old fellow.

"Usually about four," said Bayer.

The elderly man turned to a friend, "He has to change balls all the time because he beats them out of shape."

"That's not true," said Bayer. He then walked away, having talked enough about a phase of his golf that interests him less and less the more he hears and reads about it.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that Bayer and Tommy Bolt are the only two regulars on the PGA tour who always attract a curious group of followers for reasons other than their immediate standing in the tournament. They follow Bolt, of course, in hopes of seeing him lose his temper and throw his clubs around. They follow Bayer expecting to see him hit one of those Olympian drives.

Oohs for a screamer

When Bayer does hit a screamer, it's a sight worth waiting for. The crowd studies him with a kind of nervous anticipation as he pulls his Brobdingnagian driver out of its golf bag and removes the cover from the clubhead.

After bending over to tee up his ball, Bayer grasps the end of the shaft in his huge hands and gives the club a couple of shakes. In the grip of this mountain of a man (Bayer is 6 feet 5 and weighs 243 pounds), the driver, which is one of the largest used by any touring pro, looks no bigger than a riding crop. Bayer addresses the ball with his feet close together and almost never takes a practice swing. He is very relaxed. "Now watch him murderize it," a man may whisper to his wife, as Bayer is about to swing.

Bayer brings the club back loosely in a long, lazy arc, sometimes even past the horizontal position on the back-swing, but his left foot is firmly planted on the ground. When he unwinds, he scarcely seems to put any effort into the shot; in fact, he claims he seldom uses more than 75% of his potential. Still, this easy, graceful, upright swing of Bayer's can produce a clubhead speed that may be close to the maximum that human beings are capable of delivering to a golf ball with the equipment now available. As the ball leaves the tee and recedes into the distance, the gallery exhales an appreciative "ooooh."

For all the oohs and ahs, one gets the distinct feeling, after spending a little time with Bayer, that he would like to be someone else. He wouldn't tell you so, for he is not particularly given to introspection, or at least public introspection. But, as an ambitious athlete and a perfectionist, he would far rather be the best golfer in golf—and the richest—than the game's longest hitter. In addition, he has a strong yearning for security and the good life for himself, his pretty wife Beverly and their four children.

It may be the tragedy of George Bayer that at the ripe old age of 35 he is not likely to become the world's best golfer, and at bottom his disposition may be at fault. In six years on the tour he has won only four major tournaments—the Canadian Open in 1957, the Havana International and the Mayfair Inn Open in 1958 and the St. Petersburg Open a year ago. In between, he has had some very good rounds. He has never been consistent. This year, for instance, he started the winter" tour with an admirable first-round 68 at the Los Angeles Open, but thereafter he faded back to 41st place. He turned in another fine 68 in the second round of the San Diego Open but otherwise played indifferently. He led the Lucky International at San Francisco after two brilliant rounds of 65 and 66 and ended up with a tie for second and a $3,800 prize. On his second round at Palm Springs, Bayer shot an extraordinary 63 at Thunderbird for the lowest single-round score of the five-day tournament, but other rounds in the middle 70s dropped him into a tie for 16th. It has been this way all year.

A lot of people who know him well point out that on the golf course Bayer is not a very happy fellow, although he is as affable and friendly as can be when he isn't working. As he strides purposefully from tee to green, Bayer is hunched over as if he would like to get his distasteful task finished as quickly as possible. His big, blond, crew-cropped head bobs loosely on his shoulders, and there is a frown on his craggy, suntanned face. His downcast pale-blue eyes seem to be trying to count every blade of grass on the fairway.

If a slow player forces him to wait, Bayer will stand in a kind of S-shaped slouch with one hand on his hip while tipping the ground impatiently with the club he holds in the other. When his turn comes to hit, he plays quickly—sometimes without giving the shot sufficient mental preparation. If he strikes the ball improperly, he will talk to it while it is still in flight. "Get up there, Pierre," he may yell at the ball, waving it on with his left hand. Or if the ball takes a nasty kick in the wrong direction, Bayer will say bitterly, "Nice bounce, nice bounce."

Even the very best golfers make plenty of shots they don't like, but Bayer violates what is perhaps the very first commandment of tournament golf by letting his bad shots haunt him. In his early days on the tour, he would blow up like a pin-punched balloon when his game went off. During the Kentucky Derby Open in 1957 he became so exasperated with himself that he chipped the ball all the way down the 17th fairway with a seven-iron and took a score-of 17 on the hole.

Bayer ended up with a 90 on that round and was given a 30-day suspension for "unsportsmanlike conduct" by the PGA, a penalty that was later reduced to a $200 fine and 90 days' probation after he and three similar offenders apologized and promised to mind their manners. Fortunately, such temper tantrums have been outgrown, but Bayer's disgust still burns hot (and visibly) when he is playing poorly.

Despite this serious handicap, Bayer has been generously rewarded by golf. He earns considerably more than the Chief Justice of the United States, and this has enabled him to invest in stocks and real estate and a bowling alley outside Dallas, which he owns in partnership with his closest golfing companions, Julius Boros and Bill Collins.

A man of means

In 1960, the second-best year that he has had since he turned pro in 1954, Bayer ranked 19th among all the golfers on the tour, with winnings of $24,950.55. Applying a rule of thumb that is widely accepted in the trade, it can be assumed that Bayer's total 1960 income from golf came to approximately twice this figure-between $40,000 and $50,000. However, he had to work extremely hard to make it. He played in 40 of the 44 tournaments on the regulation PGA circuit, as many as any other pro.

"I needed to keep the money coming in," was Bayer's simple explanation of this exceptional display of endurance. "I'd made financial commitments on real estate along with my investment in the bowling alley, so I couldn't afford to knock off for a rest."

The real estate Bayer was referring to was a vacant lot in one of the most select residential districts of Pasadena, a name that means wealth and prestige in the Los Angeles suburban area. Some time in the future Bayer hopes to be able to build a house on this lot, where his immediate neighbors will be the richest business and social leaders of southern California. In the meantime he lives just across the city line in South Pasadena, a smaller but still exclusive hamlet, and uses that town as his playing address on the tour.

Like most modern athletes, Bayer is deeply interested in automobiles and clothes. Having once been in the car business he can talk knowingly and at length about new models. Currently he drives a Pontiac for the logical reason that Pontiac supplies 25 of the leading pros with new cars to drive free of charge while they are on the tour. Usually these are grayish-white sedans, but Bayer operates a station wagon which he intends to buy for his large family when the time comes for a replacement.

Because of his size, Bayer is not a man who can make clothes look especially smart, but he takes great care with his appearance and dresses in neutral colors—whites, grays, and pastel shades of blue—having no urge to attract any more attention to himself than his size compels. Like all the better pros, he has arrangements with various clothing manufacturers to endorse their products in exchange for a free supply in kind. In his closets at home Bayer has 25 pairs of shoes and 42 pairs of slacks. When he travels, he takes along one suit, three pairs of shoes, a dozen shirts and 10 pairs of slacks. Each year he figures to wear out at least four pairs of size 14D Foot-Joys.

All this is very far off from the modest surroundings in Bremerton, Wash, where George Bayer was born and grew up. Even as a schoolboy Bayer was always bigger than the other kids and blessed with a wonderful coordination that made him a standout in football, basketball and baseball. After a wartime hitch in the Navy, Bayer entered the University of Washington across Puget Sound from his home. By then he weighed about the same as he does today and was just as tall, and he put in three years as an outstanding tackle on a Washington football team that was noted more for its individual stars than its group achievements. Playing the other tackle was Arnie Weinmeister, later to make a name for himself with the New York Giants. Hugh McElhenny, the All-America who went on to star with the San Francisco 49ers and who will play with the Minnesota Vikings this year, was on the team before Bayer graduated, and so was Don Heinrich, one of the best college quarterbacks of the period. After college Bayer was drafted by the Washington Redskins, but he played only a few exhibition games before hurting his knee and having a salary squabble with George Preston Marshall, the contentious owner of the team. When asked how he came to quit pro football without giving it a real go, Bayer replies, "Well, you know George Preston Marshall"—as if no more need be said.

After his abortive football career, Bayer moved to California, where he became a salesman for a local Ford dealer and took up amateur golf in earnest. Those were fairly palmy days for a sharp trader in cars, and Bayer managed to clear around $10,000 by just selling 100 or so cars a year.

As his golf improved, he began to enter some of the local tournaments. At one of these in 1953 he met Bob Hope. Like everyone who played with Bayer in those days, the comedian was awed by the distance if not the accuracy of Bayer's shots. Through Hope, Bayer met Toney Penna, a pro who scouted promising young talent for the MacGregor Co., one of the leading purveyors of golfing equipment. Penna saw the potentialities in Bayer's prodigious golf shots and took a hand in persuading him to turn pro. Before another year Penna had signed Bayer to a small annual retainer as a member of the MacGregor staff and helped find him a job as a teaching assistant at a club on Long Island.

Throughout the year 1954 Bayer devoted himself to the duties of a club pro and to learning the finer points of golf. He played in a few tournaments around the New York area with more than ordinary success and finally made up his mind to join the touring pros on a full-time basis at the start of the next season.

Bayer was an instant celebrity on the tour. Galleries were enthralled at the sight of this powerful newcomer pasting the ball out of sight even though he wasn't too sure where it was going. It wasn't long before he was being invited to play in some of the exhibition matches where the big-name pros figure to pick up anywhere from $300 to $1,500 an appearance between tournaments. Few neophytes ever qualify for this lagniappe, but Bayer converted it into a steady income now worth between $5,000 and $10,000 a year.

Thus was it impressed on Bayer from the very start of his professional career that his tremendous power was his most marketable asset. On the other hand, he was not long in learning that he couldn't win much tournament prize money with his driver alone. It is a dilemma that has dogged Bayer six years, and he hasn't yet achieved the perfect solution.

When Bayer is pressed for a specific reason why he hits the ball as far as he does, he will concede that the tremendous strength in his shoulders and arms and hands makes it possible for him to swing a driver that would tear the ligaments off the wrists of the average golfer. The swing weight of his club is calibrated at E-2, which is equivalent, as one pro puts it, to swinging a telegraph pole. Among the touring pros only Mike Souchak, another equally powerful former football player, is strong enough to handle such a weapon, and it is no coincidence that Souchak is the only one who can give Bayer any serious competition in a driving contest.

In mechanical terms, Bayer's great height combined with his heavy club make it possible for him to deliver the utmost in kinetic energy to a golf ball at the moment of impact. When Bayer swings, the clubhead travels through an arc some 28 to 30 feet in circumference; with the other top golfers the arc of the clubhead averages only about 20 to 22 feet.

Maybe too relaxed

Because of Bayer's effortless style, it is always surprising to see the ball take off as it does. Some pros feel that Bayer is actually too relaxed, particularly at the top of his backswing, and that if he took a firmer grip on the club at that point his shots would not be so prone to wander. Bayer, conversely, believes that you can lose a lot of power by squeezing the club. He likes to show you how his left hand, on which he never wears a glove, is completely without calluses—a rarity among golfers.

"If you grip the club too hard, it's like other things you do wrong," Bayer explains. "You squeeze a saw too hard sawing wood and you'll get blisters, but you won't saw the wood any better. You want to hold the golf club firm, but don't squeeze it. That'll make you all tense, and you won't swing right."

Bayer's earnings of $9,166.46 by early May are on a level with his pace of past seasons and place him well within the first 30 players on the tour. At that rate, he won't be crowding Hogan, Snead and Palmer out of the record books, but those who have seen him hit his mammoth drives will be talking about him as long as golf is played. And whether or not it is exactly the way Bayer would wish to have done it, he will at least have found his security in the suburban comfort of Pasadena.

PHOTOGEORGE AT THE TEE, powerful and big-armed, whips wood through longest arc in golf. PHOTOGRIMACING IN THE SUN, BIG GEORGE FOLLOWS HIS SHOT DURING A FLORIDA MATCH PHOTOBAYER AND HIS GOOD PRO FRIEND BILL COLLINS (LEFT) FISH BETWEEN TOURNAMENTS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)