Long And Wrong Victor Schwamkrug takes pride in hitting the ball farther than any tour pro alive. That may be why his career has hit a dead end

May 04, 2003

The tales about Victor Schwamkrug, the heavy-hitting Texan with
the monstrous swing, are as prodigious as his drives. There was
the time in Sandy, Utah, last September when Schwamkrug, 25,
arrived at the final hole of the Nationwide (then Buy.com) tour's
Utah Classic in contention for the first time in his career. Two
shots out of the lead standing on the 18th tee, he weighed his
options: hit an iron on the 364-yard dogleg left and take the
pond guarding the green out of play, or go for it all. He chose
the far riskier move and smashed his drive onto the green, pin
high.

He didn't win the tournament, but his legacy was cemented. Says
tournament director Evan Byers, "I've never seen anything like
it. We're still talking about it in the clubhouse."

Then there was the driving-range incident at the Knoxville
(Tenn.) Open, where a half dozen pros goaded the Texan into
trying to hit a row of houses at the end of the driving range,
370 yards away. Schwamkrug, a rock-solid 6 feet, 198 pounds,
pulled out his 7-degree TaylorMade 300 Tour and fired one
mind-boggling missile after another onto the neighboring patios
and roofs. On his final attempt his ball faded into the distance.
Then came the unmistakable sound of breaking glass. The next day,
when Schwamkrug arrived at the practice tee, a sign had been
posted: NO DRIVERS ON THE RANGE.

Schwamkrug's drives have turned him into a folk hero on the minor
league circuit, which is mostly populated by unknowns toiling in
obscurity. "Everyone out there knows who he is because he's
putting the ball in places no one else can," says PGA Tour rookie
Darron Stiles, who finished ninth on the 2002 Buy.com money list
to earn his card. Schwamkrug has even created a buzz on the
regular Tour. Says 22-year veteran Blaine McCallister, "Victor is
definitely locker room fodder on Tour. His ability to hit that
far is phenomenal. A lot of us have played the courses he's
playing, so we're fascinated when we hear this kid has driven it
such and such a length."

Schwamkrug's statistics are staggering. Last year he averaged
328.5 yards on the Buy.com tour, blowing away his nearest
competitor, Stiles (Big Daddy) Mitchell, by almost 16 yards, and
crushing the previous record (312.9 yards) set by Tom Carter in
2001. Schwamkrug was nearly 20 yards longer than John Daly, the
PGA Tour's leader in driving distance for 13 of the last 14
years. More than 85% of Schwamkrug's drives carried more than 300
yards, and 30 soared beyond the 350-yard marker.

Distance, however, does not always correlate with success. In 44
Nationwide events, he has finished in the top 10 only three
times. Last season he lost his playing privileges by missing the
cut in 13 of 25 starts and finishing 82nd on the money list with
$48,655. (Only the top 55 retain their Nationwide status.) He
could have redeemed himself with a good showing at last fall's
PGA Tour Q school but instead flunked out during the first stage,
finishing 23rd and failing to advance by a shot, leaving him with
limited status on this year's Nationwide tour. The only way for
Schwamkrug to get into tournament fields now--besides a sponsor's
exemption--is the 18-hole Monday qualifier that can attract
upward of 250 players for only 14 starting spots.

That hasn't worked either. On April 21, at the Fort Smith (Ark.)
Classic, he struck out for the second time in two tries this year
by blowing a drive O.B. on his way to a one-over 73, missing a
coveted spot by three shots. "Everything about my game feels
really good," Schwamkrug says. "I just need to keep trying for
those Monday qualifiers until I get in. That's the stressful part
of the game."

It is an unseasonably chilly morning in November in Ponte Vedra
Beach, Fla., where Schwamkrug has recently moved into a
one-bedroom condominium. He has been waiting an hour in the TPC
at Sawgrass clubhouse for the frost to clear. "I'm trying to get
my overall game sharper, but my driving is the area I feel most
comfortable with," he says, cracking his oversized knuckles. "The
way I see it, I can play aggressively and hit driver all day and
shoot 71, or I can play irons and shoot the same score. My game's
not at the point where I can play conservatively and go low, so I
might as well use my driver."

Friends and peers think Schwamkrug has gone off the deep end in
his quest to get longer. They tell him to work on course
management, putting, mid-irons--anything but distance. "He's got
to learn length isn't everything," McCallister says. "Golf has
become a power game, but that doesn't mean he can overpower the
course. He needs to think his way around."

Schwamkrug has increased his driving average 33 yards since he
turned pro in 1999, and even with his struggles over the last two
years, he remains undaunted by the naysayers. "I think I'm really
close," he says. "I just need to work on playing smarter and
getting the lucky breaks."

As the sun melts away the frost, he heads to the far end of the
range reserved for pros. He warms up by hitting low fades with a
seven-iron before yanking a driver out of his bag. He picks out a
target 400 yards away on the opposite end of the range, where
amateurs are practicing. Schwamkrug is about to take his club
back when his swing coach, Tommy O'Brien, suddenly rushes forward
to stop him. "Maybe you should face more in the other direction,"
he says, "or you'll kill someone."

The Blond Bomber resets his ball on a three-inch tee and takes
back his driver, one of two he carries. (The other, what he calls
his minidriver, is a 10-degree Callaway Great Big Bertha II that
he uses when he wants to bunt the ball a mere 300 yards down the
fairway.) He has tremendous width in his takeaway, and at the top
of his swing his shoulders are rotated 120 degrees, creating
massive torque. Generating clubhead speed in excess of 130 mph,
Schwamkrug scorches a 350-yard drive, ending with a tall,
balanced finish.

"Victor's trajectory is unbelievable," says Keoke Cotner, a
Nationwide pro who frequently plays practice rounds with
Schwamkrug. "If you look at John Daly, his ball goes straight up
and down. It's a soft shot. If you watch Victor, he hits it so
hard that it comes hot off the face and keeps going."

But all that speed hasn't helped Schwamkrug's accuracy or
consistency. He holds the unofficial Nationwide tour record for
most out-of-bounds shots in a week, after pumping eight balls
O.B. at last year's Knoxville Open, where he finished 51st, at
two under, despite all those penalty shots. One spectator took it
upon himself to hand Schwamkrug a stack of golf instruction
articles in the middle of a round.

Last year on the Nationwide tour, his driving accuracy was an
abysmal 48%, ranking him next to last at 145th. Even this cold
data doesn't faze Schwamkrug. "The stats are a little deceptive,"
he says. "I could hit the fairway 80 percent of the time, but a
lot of times I'll roll it through the fairway into the rough on
purpose so that I end up with a little 30-yard chip shot on a
par-4."

The masses appreciate his unconventional approach. "Fans will
come up to me after I shoot a 74 and ask for my autograph," he
says. "I don't feel a whole lot of pressure to play well because
people aren't pulling for me to win. They want to see me drive a
par-4 or carry the ball over water 330 yards. Anytime I can make
a group of people happy, it means more to me than winning a
tournament."

Cruising down PGA Tour Blvd. in his white Chevy Suburban, the
longest hitter in golf reflects on why it's important to put on a
show. "If I weren't playing golf, I'd probably be stuck working
at the Exxon refinery back home," says Schwamkrug, who grew up in
Baytown, Texas (pop. 66,000), a working-class suburb of Houston.
"I never want to go back there."

Schwamkrug's father, Arno, who's a lawyer, introduced his son to
the game when Victor was 12. Playing golf at Goose Creek Country
Club became an escape for Victor, especially in high school.
Robert E. Lee High had earned a reputation as one of the most
dangerous schools in the area after a drive-by shooting in 1992.
Rival gangs roamed the hallways, and armed cops patrolled the
school. "I skipped class half the time to play golf," says
Victor. "It wasn't hard to get by at my school."

His world was shattered in 1991 when his father and mother,
Georgann, divorced. He was 14 at the time, and in a rage, he took
his clubs and laid waste to the backyard, chopping down plants,
hacking at trees and destroying everything in his path. "I
started spending all my time at the golf course," he says. "I
swung hard. I didn't have any instruction. I didn't know how to
hit it straight, but I learned to hit it far."

He had enough natural ability to earn a partial golf scholarship
to Houston, where he was an honorable mention All-America his
last two years. While he was considered long off the tee,
Schwamkrug didn't truly turn it loose until he turned pro because
he couldn't afford to keep replacing his clubs. But three years
ago Penley began supplying him with free ETA Triple X flex
graphite shafts. With cost no longer an issue, Schwamkrug broke
12 drivers last year, once snapping two in one tournament.

On a whim, he signed up for the 2001 Re/Max Long Driving
competition in Houston to earn extra cash. He qualified for the
national finals but lost to Jason Zuback, who mesmerized the
crowds--and Schwamkrug--with a 390-yard drive. "That's when
Victor started getting crazy long," says his caddie, Greg
Bitterly. "I'm constantly fighting to take the driver out of his
hand. The farther he hits it, the more I pull out my hair."

After eight hours at Sawgrass, Schwamkrug heads to the Gold's Gym
in Jacksonville to work out, concentrating on his upper body. He
hits the gym six times a week. Over a seven-year period
Schwamkrug has gained 48 pounds of muscle. He intends to add even
more. Exactly how much more, he doesn't know, because boundaries
have no meaning for him.

He begins with biceps and triceps curls, using 60-to 75-pound
free weights for a half hour. He then moves to the bench press
and pumps a few hard reps of 185 pounds with good form. "Just
like I swing my golf club," he says. Several sets later the
turquoise veins on his neck pulsate. His face reddens, his eyes
water and his cheeks puff out as he struggles to bench 255
pounds. His legs shake uncontrollably as he sets the bar down.
Schwamkrug has reached his limit. For now.

TWELVE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES Schwamkrug starts with a wide takeaway (1) and makes an unusually large (120-degree) shoulder turn (2). He "sits down" on the ball (3), a la Sam Snead, while retaining width (4). He has tremendous lag on the way down (5) and near impact (6). His clubhead travels at an amazing 133 mph through the ball (7), 8 mph faster than Tiger Woods's. COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL THE DOWN SIDE Schwamkrug was done in by wild drives at last week's qualifier for the Nationwide Fort Smith Classic. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES PUMPED UP Schwamkrug, who is coached by O'Brien (lower left), has put on 48 pounds of bulk in seven years. COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL NO GOING BACK Schwamkrug's logic: If his score is the same with an iron or a driver off the tee, why not hit the driver?

"Victor is definitely locker room fodder on Tour," says
McCallister. "His ability to hit that far is phenomenal."

"I think I'm really close," says Schwamkrug. "I just need to work
on playing smarter and getting the lucky breaks."

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)