The Bomb Squad To the thickly muscled pros who will hit golf balls freakish distances at next month's World Long Drive Championship, length is all that matters

September 29, 2002

The visionary saw his niche, and it was not uptown. When Art
Sellinger created the Long Drivers of America eight years ago,
it was not with golf's gentry in mind. He was not thinking of
the members of Pine Valley or the readers of Herbert Warren
Wind. His aim was south of that. I To attend the Long Drivers of
America tour event at Eisenhower Park on Long Island in June was
to realize that Sellinger's aim was true. While the so-called
People's Open was being contested at Bethpage Black, five miles
down the Southern State Parkway, several hundred spectators
showed up for the qualifying round of the Long Drivers event.
(The finals would take place that night, under the lights and
accompanied by fireworks and a best-of the-'70s, -'80s and -'90s
soundtrack.) For blue-collar flavor, for tattoos, tube tops and
Bud tall boys in brown bags, the People's Open had nothing on
this wingding. My bleacher neighbors included a chain-smoking
blonde whose white halter top fit her like a sausage casing, and
a guy who lifted his shirt to reveal ribbons of scar tissue on
his back and his left shoulder. ("Stab wounds," his friend
explained.) Next to these characters, the Bethpage crowd looked
like the cast of Gosford Park.

The appeal was simple, primal: big men (and women) with big clubs
cranking the ball as far as humanly possible. There were no
marshals bearing quiet, please placards, no harrumphing old farts
in coats and ties saying, "Fore on the tee."

"About the only fans we get from PGA Tour events are the ones who
got thrown out," said up-and-coming LDA member Brian Nash.

The long drivers themselves seemed similarly salt-of-the-earth.
Over lunch with several of them that afternoon, a reporter was
treated (subjected?) to the story of the Fishing Trip. Last fall,
a week after battling one another in the RE/MAX World Long Drive
Championship--won in dramatic fashion by Sean (the Beast) Fister--a
bunch of these golfing brutes and their buddies got together in
Arkansas.

There were eight of them, and they arrived at the designated
cabin with these provisions: a bag of Doritos; three dust-coated,
battalion-sized cans of chili; two dozen tins of smokeless
tobacco; and 47 cases of beer. Six months later the long drivers
remain in awe of the terrible powers that those ingredients,
ingested together, bestowed upon them.

The chili soon manifested itself in the kind of wind that Herbert
Warren never wrote about. As the long drivers worked their way
through the beer, they fretted about the trauma to which they
were subjecting the upholstery and about the possibility that it
would cost them all or part of their damage deposit. Tempers
flared the following morning when the gang crowded into Fister's
Navigator for a trip to Wal-Mart for fishing licenses. "We had
all the windows down," recalls Mike (Lava) Moulton, the 2000 LDA
tour champion, "and Sean's brother still almost puked. Meanwhile,
the Beast is up front yelling at us, 'Would you guys cut it out?
My wife has to take my kids to school in this car!'"

A few days before the Long Island tour event, several LDA members
appeared on the Today show, during which they smote golf balls
into a net in Rockefeller Center and did not share the story of
the Fishing Trip. Their segment over, they returned to their
dressing room, only to find their personal effects neatly stacked
on a chair outside the door. The room had been taken over by
Freddie Prinze Jr. "We crap bigger than that guy," says former
national long-drive champion Brian Pavlet, still miffed at the
slight.

Humbling though their eviction may have been, it provides us with
a precise measure of the buzz being generated by their
up-and-coming sport. The LDA tour is hot enough to make Today--and
ESPN has aired last October's world championship six times--but
not quite hot enough to get its ambassadors rated ahead of the
star of Scooby-Doo.

The driving force behind these driving forces is Sellinger, who
at 37 remains physically formidable despite being a year or three
past his long-driving prime. Even as he was winning two world
long-driving championships, in 1986 and '91, Sellinger was
thinking about how much better he could make the event. Back in
those days the championship was run by Golf Digest. "They always
held it in Florida, at sea level, in the middle of the day, when
it was humid and windy," says Sellinger. "You had 320-yard drives
winning the thing, and about 200 people in the stands. I'd look
around and say, 'Man, these guys have no idea what they have
here.'"

When Golf Digest walked away from the event nine years ago,
Sellinger took it over, then made it over. He moved it to the
desert outside Las Vegas and put it under the lights, at night.
This year his tour will have six events, culminating in the
RE/MAX Long Drive Championship finals on Oct. 19. Think of
Sellinger as Vince McMahon in Softspikes. He has positioned his
sport as a sort of extreme golf, a WWE on the range. In the
bleachers, decorum is discouraged, alcohol consumption winked at,
rowdiness the rule. On the tee, competitors with nicknames like
the Beast, Golfzilla and the Blonde Bomber are miked and
encouraged to grunt, scream and talk trash.

None of them grew up aspiring to do this for a living. Lee (the
Blonde Bomber) Brandon, the women's defending world champion,
wanted to be a jockey when she was a girl. "But by the time I was
in third grade," she says, "I was too big for that." Brandon, a
strength trainer, looks like Anna Nicole Smith might after three
years in the gym. She broke the NFL gender barrier in 1990 when
she was hired as a strength and conditioning coach by the New
York Jets. "One of the complaints about women's golf is that
there are no personalities out there, that it's bland," says
Brandon, who worked with the Jets for a year and a half. "Well,
we're not like that."

Most LDA members are good-to-great athletes who happen to be able
to crush a golf ball. Fister was a decathlete at Florida. Nash
started at tight end for Liberty University. Gerry James,
however, took a peculiar route to this peculiar sport: Before he
started making a nice living swinging a driver, he swung masked
men around a ring--and was, in turn, swung by them--as a
professional wrestler.

One sure way to offend a long driver is to imply that he owes his
length off the tee to souped-up equipment. While a few drivers
swing clubs with outlandishly long shafts for increased leverage,
most LDA members use shafts in the neighborhood of 47 to 50
inches. (The average PGA Tour shaft is about 45 inches.) All
drivers must conform to USGA specs, according to Sellinger. Clubs
are inspected on Saturday and marked with nail polish, then
checked again on Sunday "to make sure they haven't been tampered
with," Sellinger says.

While warming up on Sunday morning at Eisenhower Park, Nash broke
his driver. His Ping clubhead whizzed over the crowd like a piece
of shrapnel before clanging into a railing atop the bleachers.
Forced to use an unfamiliar club, Nash was eliminated in the
qualifying round by a taurine Floridian named John Downey, whose
crew cut was dyed a shade of yellow not found in nature. Downey
crushed a 393-yard Stinger missile in the quarterfinals--the
longest drive of the day--but tapped out in the semis after his
clubhead flew into the stands, glancing harmlessly off the
shoulder of fellow LDA member Brett Cleverton.

Downey's clubhead, a Cobra 350 with 5.5 degrees of loft, was
picked up and passed around with considerable interest. "How'd he
get that?" Sellinger asked. That piece of hardware was supposedly
restricted to members of the Pinnacle Distance Posse: Sellinger,
Nash, Pavlet, four-time world champion Jason Zuback and four
other endomorphs knighted by the company whose motto is Hit It
Long, Hit It Straight. Posse members appear in a series of droll
TV commercials with John Daly, confronting unsuspecting
golfers--one in his cubicle, another at a snack bar on the
course--and roughing them up. The Posse constitutes its own elite
fraternity within the larger club of LDA members. They are
coddled by Pinnacle (showered with free balls, given clubs
tailored specifically for them) and resented by some of the less
fortunate tour members.

"Why should that club only be for the Pinnacle guys?" asks
Downey. He admits only that he got the forbidden clubhead "from a
friend of a friend. We're all trying to make a living here, so
let's all have access to the same equipment."

Even the reigning world champ is tired of hearing about the
Posse. "I don't want this story to be all about Pinnacle," said
Fister on the eve of the Long Island event. For the record, the
Beast is a Dunlop guy. Maybe you've seen his TV commercial. He's
driving Dunlops under a full moon while his kids use telescopes
to follow the flights of the balls. It's cute. Dunlop flew the
whole gang out to Los Angeles for the shoot. To capture the sound
of one of his drives, an engineer asked Fister to whack a few
balls in a studio. He was told to hit into a special tarp. "What
if the ball goes through it?" Fister asked.

"That? You won't hit through that," the engineer replied. "It's
got Kevlar in it."

To be on the safe side, they doubled the thickness of the tarp by
folding it over. Fister's first drive blew through both layers
and ricocheted wildly around the studio. "Guys were hitting the
deck, throwing themselves over their cameras," he recalls. "It
was pretty funny."

"I couldn't give a rat's ass about this event," said Fister of
the Long Island competition. "My focus is October. This weekend
is all about Pinnacle--promoting their guys and their product."

As one of Fister's fellow LDA members says, "Sean's got a little
bit of a bitter streak." Indeed, Fister remembers warming up on
the range at the world championships in Mesquite, Nev., last
October. He recalls how reporters beat a path to Zuback. "I
didn't get a single question," he says, "and I realized: They
don't think I can do it."

Had they given him 15 minutes, Fister would've filled their
notebooks with gold. He would've told them about the hard times
before his first world title, in 1995, when he had to use his
wife's credit card to pay the entry fees at qualifying events. He
would've told them about the time the clutch on his old Maxima
went out after a contest in Huntsville, Ala., and he drove home
to Little Rock "kind of timing the gears." At red lights he would
coast to a stop, cut the engine, jam it into first, then restart
the car.

He would've told them about his heartbreak at Mesquite in 2000,
when his new glove ripped in the semifinals. Sellinger wouldn't
stop the clock for him, so he sprinted across the range, grabbed
another glove and sprinted back. His focus was shot. He failed to
advance. After that he slumped against his car and wept. ("Don't
make it out like I was, you know, bawling," he says. "My buddies
might read this. I have to go duck hunting with those guys.") His
wife, Karen, came over and shed some tears with him. When they
got home, they had a heart-to-heart. Fister would make one last
push. If he couldn't win the title in 2001, he vowed, "I'll find
something else to do."

Last year he outworked everyone on the tour. He hired a strength
coach and worked on his mental preparation. "He went from 255
pounds down to 220," says Robert Farqua, the strength trainer.
One morning the Beast called Farqua looking for pity. "I've got a
102-degree fever," he said.

"Get your ass in here," came the reply.

Fister tore his way through the draw in Mesquite, going
head-to-head in the final with his good friend Pavlet. Down to
his final ball, the Beast needed a 374-yarder to win. Throughout
the championship, he recalls, "even though I had advanced, I
still hadn't caught a ball perfect."

"Hit it hard," Pavlet told him.

Fister beat him by two yards and change. He was back on top. It
was called the most clutch swing in the history of long driving.
A week after making it, however, Fister picked up a copy of Golf
World, which had sent a reporter to the championships, and there
on the cover was Zuback. Fister was but an afterthought in the
story.

"Jason's a great guy, and I consider him a good friend," says the
Beast, "but, yeah, that was pretty disappointing. Even though I'm
the reigning world champion, I still don't get a lot of press. I
use it as motivation."

"Sean is a great talent," says James, the former pro wrestler and
former Mr. California, "but he's no Jason Zuback. Jason put this
sport on the map."

Zuback, a pharmacist from Lethbridge, Alberta, won the title four
times, from 1996 to '99. George Sine, a vice president of
Acushnet (which makes Pinnacle equipment) and the Posse's de
facto sugar daddy, credits Zuback with nothing less than
"legitimizing the sport of long driving." Before Zuback's
four-peat, Sine says, "long driving really didn't have that
marquee player."

To meet this modest Canadian is to know at once that he had
nothing to do with coining his nickname, Golfzilla, which
nonetheless suits him well. Zuback's physique is Tyson-like. Six
days before the event on Long Island, Zuback and Sellinger put on
an exhibition at the Red Hawk Ridge golf course near Castle
Pines, Colo. The sky was an ominous cloak of yellow and brown:
40,000 acres of the state were on fire. After treating software
execs and their guests to a variety of trick shots, Sellinger and
Zuback took turns driving the green, 380 yards away. So riveting
was the show that very few of the golfers so much as mentioned
the wildfires.

"I can't really swing hard," Zuback explained to one foursome,
"because I've been sending it over the back [of the green]." They
laughed, unsure if he was serious. He spends 40 hours a week in
the gym and has squatted 735 pounds. He was serious. His swing is
a study in scarcely controlled violence. The ball detonated off
his club face and into the ionosphere. After about six
Mississippis, it bounced onto the green and stopped rolling 20
feet past the pin. The spectators started high-fiving, and Zuback
allowed himself a thin grin.

He grew up as a jock, playing half a dozen sports. He dreamed of
playing on the Canadian tour, but his pharmacology studies
prevented headlong pursuit of that goal. In 1995 Zuback was
playing with a couple of club pros, trying to qualify for the
Alberta Open, when they told him they'd never seen anyone so long
off the tee. One of them invited him to a long-drive qualifier at
his club the following week. Ninety-six guys showed up. No one
came within 30 yards of Zuback. Golfzilla was born.

Halfway through his second season, Zuback was no longer working
as a pharmacist. He is one of 15 or so long drivers making a
six-figure living from the sport. A big chunk of his income comes
from appearances like these. Given a choice of hiring some
cold-fish second-tier PGA Tour pro or a long-drive luminary, a
lot of companies go with the big hitter.

"These long-drive guys are showmen," says Chuck Lively, a
recently retired executive who has hired Sellinger and his fellow
long drivers for company outings for 15 years. There was
Sellinger at Red Hawk Ridge, explaining that he "didn't get a
chance to do any putting" before heading out to the tee, then
crushing a drive 280 ... with his putter. He launched another
drive 300 yards off one foot. He put a ball on a three-foot tee
and drove the green with a baseball swing. He stood a sleeve of
balls upright and obliterated the box, reducing it to confetti.
The middle ball in the sleeve went 290. He hit through a sheet of
half-inch plywood. He had his shtick down cold.

After the show the big hitters bestowed parting gifts on their
clients: golf balls and Sellinger's instructional tape, The Art
of Long Driving. "Cool," said one guy, accepting a cassette.
"Porn?" Predominantly male corporate golf outings being what they
are, this triggered a torrent of one-liners about shafts and
length and sweet spots. It was a vulgar but nonetheless
instructive interlude. It reminded us that even though women
compete in long driving, it is, at its core, a guy thing.
Regardless of what we may hear to the contrary from short-game
guru Dave Pelz or short sex guru Dr. Ruth, we know on a primitive
level that size does matter.

Zuback hadn't been swinging as hard as he could, and Sellinger
wanted to see Golfzilla in all his glory. "Jase, I got one on the
green," Sellinger said after putting a ball on the back fringe
with one of those baseball swings. "You go ahead and bomb one."

Zuback's expression, during address and backswing, was one of
intense constipation--until impact, when he unleashed a mighty
grunt, then walked away from the target, squinting over his left
shoulder at his handiwork. "Nobody can hit it harder than that,"
said Golfzilla to no one in particular. "Guarantee you."

That boded ill for the wannabes fantasizing about outdriving
Zuback on Long Island five days later. The Pinnacle Distance
Challenge is held the night before the LDA tour event, at the
same venue. It gives ordinary Joes off the street a crack at a
member of the Posse. The challengers began arriving at the gates
of the park at 4:30 a.m. on Saturday. By 11 in the morning 250 of
them had gathered in the grandstand. The 10 longest drivers among
them would get a chance to go mano-a-mano with Zuback that night.
To the one who was man enough to outdrive Golfzilla, Pinnacle
would write a giant check for $10,000 and issue an invitation to
the season-ending event in Mesquite. There, finalists will duel
with Daly for the chance to win $100,000.

Most of the challengers were local, but a few were "gypsies"--guys
who travel to as many of these Pinnacle events as possible. Some
never got the ball airborne. Some failed to reach the grid, which
started at 250 yards. The grid was 60 yards wide and bordered on
each side by a succession of signs with prodigious yardages,
forming lines that seemed to intersect at the horizon.

Early in the afternoon Zuback was approached by a muscular,
camcorder-toting young man who asked, "Hey, Jason, ready to get
dethroned tonight?"

Zuback smiled graciously and said, "We'll see."

Such impertinence (indeed, insolence) is the norm at these
events. Challengers are encouraged to see themselves as
gladiators going up against the emperor's legions. Sometimes the
gladiator wins. In Greensboro, N.C., last April, a guy off the
street launched a ball 328 yards. Posse member Dan Boever, a
six-time World Long Drive finalist, answered with a 323-yard
shot. After hitting his next ball out of bounds, Boever was down
to his final swing. The crowd, pulling for the underdog, screamed
throughout his backswing. "Dan almost missed the ball," recalls
Sellinger. Pinnacle was out 10 large.

There seemed little chance of such an upset on Long Island. As
Zuback had said in Colorado, no one on the planet was hitting the
ball harder than he was. After being delivered to the tee at
Eisenhower Park in a canary-yellow Jeep, he easily dispatched his
first eight challengers.

"You're seeing Jason at his healthiest and best-conditioned,"
said Sine, the Acushnet VP. The night's ninth contestant, David
Gureckis, from blue-collar Brockton, Mass., promptly cranked a
drive 350 yards. As Zuback addressed his next ball, Gureckis's
buddies--including the guy with the shaved head and camcorder and
the guy with the stab wounds--were not exactly models of golf
etiquette. "Miss it!" shouted Shaved Head during Golfzilla's
backswing. The other guys in the Posse glared daggers at him.
Zuback's ball rolled to a stop 340 yards away. He'd have two more
swings.

"No pressure, Jason--you do this for a living!" shouted Stab
Wounds. Zuback's next ball went 338. He was down to his last cut.

"Don't worry, Jason!" screamed Shaved Head. "It's not your
money!" Zuback's final drive was 30 yards short. Gureckis won,
and his boys went nuts, Shaved Head shouting into his cellphone,
"He just beat Jason f-----' Zuback! Ten thousand dollahs, baby!"

The Acushnet guy looked food-poisoned. But the worst was still to
come. A cocky 24-year-old named Andy Zianio had showed up at a
Distance Challenge earlier in the year and said to Pavlet, "Fear
me." Pavlet laughed in his face. Now Zianio, whom the guys in the
Posse had dubbed Fear Me, slugged a drive 345 yards. Weary and
discouraged, Zuback lost to him, too. Acushnet was out $20,000 on
the night.

After the guys had been handed their oversized checks, Stab
Wounds told me that Gureckis stays in golf shape by "swinging a
lead pipe for a half hour every day." One got the impression
after a few minutes in the company of the Brockton boys that
procuring a lead pipe was not a problem for them. Shaved Head,
who obviously knows his way around a set of free weights, was
talking to Zuback the next day about strength training. Looking
Golfzilla up and down, Shaved Head posed an impolite question:
"What kind of sauce are you on?"

Easy there, Bobby. The fact that Zuback is built like an NFL
linebacker, with trapezius muscles like a musk ox's, doesn't mean
he's juiced. Rude though Shaved Head may have been (Zuback
ignored him), he did raise an issue that Sellinger and his
charges must frequently address: Are these guys clean?

Sellinger forcefully denies that his guys are on steroids. As the
tour gains popularity, with corporate America awakening to its
charms, the LDA has much to lose if Sellinger is proved wrong.
That's not likely to happen. He doesn't test his guys and, like
the PGA Tour, isn't about to start.

In their defense, the long drivers point out that the muscle
growth promoted by steroids would restrict their range of motion.
Of course, major league baseball players could make the same
argument, and we don't place our blind trust in them, do we?
Moreover, if the long drivers are so concerned about flexibility,
why do some of them pound legal supplements--creatine, protein
powder and other products--designed to increase size and strength?

"There's a lot of beef out here," says Zuback, who uses creatine
and protein powder. "What people don't realize is that we're
spending 40 hours a week in the gym in addition to the time we
spend on the driving range. Is there potential for abuse? In any
sport there is, especially when money is at stake. But I can't
think of any situation where I've seen it."

Nash, the former tight end, admits that he hasn't touched a
weight in four years. He neither arouses nor harbors suspicion.
"In three years," he says, "I've never been beaten by anyone I
thought was using anything."

Not at the time, anyway. James, the former pro wrestler and
bodybuilder, is a born-again Christian who speaks candidly of his
former steroid use. While searching for him at Eisenhower Park, a
reporter was told by Fister, "You can't miss him. He's 6'5", tan,
got them big ol' California teeth."

James's wide, ready smile does indeed reveal a pair of artfully
capped incisors. A native of Michigan, he says he was a scratch
golfer by age 17. "But golf didn't have any buzz where I was
from," he says. "Now, bodybuilding--that was cool." He left
Muskegon in 1978 with $400 in his pocket--his winnings from a
Toughman contest--and boarded a bus for L.A. He was a bouncer at a
rock club called the Starwood and pumped iron every morning at
Gold's Gym in Venice. "I'd try to be there by 7 a.m.," he says,
"because that's when the big boys were there: Arnold
[Schwarzenegger], Frank Zane, Mike Mentzer, Franco Columbo. They
kind of took me under their wing. Arnold would show me how to do
calves. I was a skinny kid, but I was determined.

"For the first five years I never used a steroid. Finally some
guys who'd seen me busting my tail said, 'Look, you have to do
something.' They sent me to a doctor in San Gabriel. He gave me
some Dianabol and Deca Durabolin. In about eight months I gained
40 pounds. My bench went from 310 to about 490."

Huge and ripped, James won the Mr. California title in 1990--then
promptly got off the juice and out of competitive bodybuilding. A
couple things scared him straight. "Guys were dying onstage," he
says. "It's scary what your ego will lead you to do." Three weeks
before he won the Mr. California title, his wife, Debra, gave
birth to their son, Justin. When Gerry arrived at home after the
competition, an epiphany awaited. "She brought him out of the
bedroom, and I'm standing there with a trophy that's bigger than
me. I've got $20 in the bank, 'cause I've spent everything I had
on steroids and supplements. It kind of woke me up.

"I haven't taken steroids since, and I'll tell you why: I'm into
golf now, and steroids aren't necessary for what I do. Golf
requires a fluid motion. It's as much about timing as it is about
strength. If I took 'em now, they wouldn't help my swing."

James is an LDA crowd favorite who has no problem with
Sellinger's practice of miking contestants who make the finals.
"Keep going!" James roared at a 350-yarder he rocked in the
finals on Long Island. "Oh man, I tagged that one."

If James shows a particular flair for showmanship, it's because
he's had plenty of practice. He spent the mid-'80s on the
professional wrestling circuit. In his black tights and orange
cape and mask, he was a bad guy named--what else?--Agent Orange.

"I remember throwing Rip Oliver out of the ring in Portland,"
James says. "We're outside the ropes, and he gigs himself--cuts
his forehead with a little razor he's got taped to his wrist. He
was a great little bleeder. So we're going at it while this old
lady is whacking me on the back and screaming, 'Stop it! You're
killing him!'"

James's 350-yard drive was enough to beat the Beast by a yard. It
was hardly an epic poke by LDA standards, but on this soggy
night--the same thunderstorm that delayed the final round of the
U.S. Open soaked this place--no one was getting any roll. Carl
Hasselback, a mellow 32-year-old, won the event with a 358-yard
moon shot. Sellinger handed him a $10,000 check and a comely
crystal goblet.

Hasselback has an ideal pedigree for this determinedly middle- to
lowbrow sport. He hails from Buffalo, where his family runs a
truck stop off the New York State Thruway.

Buffalo works. The truck stop works. But that goblet seemed a bit
out of place on this tour, among this crowd, in this story.
Hasselback made things right later that night, handing the vessel
to a bartender with instructions to fill it with Bass ale. "You
know," he said, "I always wanted a trophy that could hold a
beverage."

"About the only fans we get from PGA Tour events," Nash says,
"are the ones who got thrown out."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BYDAVID E. KLUTHO Four-time world champ Zuback launches balls more than 400 yards with greater clubhead speed (160 mph) than Tiger Woods (125 mph). TWENTY COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO COLOR PHOTO: JOE MCNALLY LADIES' TEASE Brandon, the women's long-drive champ in 2001, was a strength coach with the New York Jets. COLOR PHOTO: JOE MCNALLY AGENT ORANGE Before he was a long driver, James had played a heavy in an orange cape on the pro wrestling circuit. COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA THE BEAST After a bitter near-miss in 2000, Fister won the world title in '01 and hopes to repeat Oct. 19 in Mesquite, Nev. COLOR PHOTO: JOE MCNALLY GOLFZILLA Though still a licensed pharmacist, Zuback spends 40 hours a week in the gym and has squatted 735 pounds.

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)