Jim Rice, the Boston Red Sox slugger, stood poised on a rubber golf mat with a 633-yard ribbon of asphalt airstrip stretched in front of him.
"O.K., two-and-oh count, get ready for a nice high fastball...." The voice was that of Jim Palmer, erstwhile Baltimore Oriole ace.
"Keep talking," said Rice, waggling his driver with relish.
"The best part is," continued Palmer, whose bane, even as he won 268 games, was the gopher ball, "I'm pitching."
January 14, 1985
"Perfect," said Rice, and he swung with the kind of power that makes even golf professionals gasp. But Rice carries a 10 handicap, and this blast ballooned to deep right, missing the edge of the 50-yard-wide airstrip by 30 yards and landing less than 250 yards down range.
"Whoops!" said Palmer. "Score that one F-9."
Likewise, score as a shutout the first and possibly last Spalding Long Ball Runway Competition, held last Friday on Runway 6-24 at Monterey Peninsula Airport. The sponsor's idea was that one of the participants would send one of its golf balls on the longest trip ever over unfrozen flat land. But once it became apparent that Monterey's runway was a slow one and that Rice was hitting more balls foul than fair, everyone got that hollow feeling often brought on by events like long-driving contests and refrigerator-carrying races.
Out of approximately 30 balls, Rice sliced a bunch of shots to rightfield and pulled a few others that would have punctured Fenway Park's Green Monster, but he never quite caught one flush that followed the straight path of the asphalt. His longest measured wallop of 497 yards did surpass the best of the other five contestants—PGA Tour pros Craig Stadler, Johnny Miller and Al Geiberger, Palmer and Chicago White Sox pitcher Tom Seaver—all of whom are paid to endorse Spalding products. But Rice's shot fell disappointingly short of the record 632-yard drive struck by an Irish golf pro named Liam Higgins at the Casement Aerodrome in Baldonnel, Ireland last September in a production also sponsored by Spalding.
The sporting goods company played down the fact that airstrip drives are not recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records. The 1984 edition cites a shot of 392 yards by Tommie Campbell at the Dun Laoghaire golf course in Dublin in July 1964 as the longest official drive, while mentioning other shots over 500 yards. The longest drive recorded off a golf course traveled 1.5 miles across ice at Mawson Base, Antarctica after being struck in 1962 by Australian meteorologist Nils Lied.
Neither Miller nor Stadler, both longer off the tee than the average touring pro, would disagree that the 6'2", 205-pound Rice had the best chance at the record. Palmer is also a long hitter, but the smooth Geiberger and the chunky Seaver, who feigned surprise that the teeing area in Monterey was not equipped with a phone to receive a call from the White House, were figuratively off the board.
To lend an official air, Spalding had Dr. Richard Brandt, an NYU physics professor who has tested golf balls for the company, on hand to analyze the results. Brandt may be best known for his TV "Fun with..." science segments on Late Night with David Letterman. For the Spalding extravaganza, Brandt played a sort of Carnac of the Tarmac, painstakingly measuring drives, dropping terms like "coefficient of restitution" and divining how far the shots would go.
Brandt had estimated that a record-breaking drive would have to carry some 260 yards in the air, bounce another 170 and roll a final 200 and change. But the Monterey airport—chosen for the contest after Spalding was told it could use a 200-foot-wide runway at San Francisco International only if it was willing to pay $50,000 for every plane that was delayed by the contest—is paved with a "friction layer" to ensure safe landings and take-offs on wet days. The rough and porous surface made true bounces rare and cut the roll distance to less than half of Brandt's estimate. "The balls really piddled out at the end," he said.
Rice began the contest by failing to hit the runway with his first six shots. The rule that each contestant could hit only six balls was quickly waived. On his seventh attempt, Rice hit a low screamer down the center that carried all of 60 yards but—porous friction layer or not—rolled 420.
That was encouraging, even if the four-mile-per-hour crosswind was not. But when Stadler, on his fourth shot, nailed a perfect low draw down the right center, only to have the measurement come in at 450 yards, it became clear that Higgins's record was safe. "I want to go home," said Stadler.
About that time, a private plane on its landing approach was instructed by the Monterey control tower to use another runway. When the pilot asked why, he was told, "Because they are trying to see who can hit a golf ball the farthest."
"Oh, that sounds really important," the pilot answered.
"Well, this is Monterey," said the tower.
On the whole, everyone might have been better off in Antarctica.