The college kid with the wicked slice probably wouldn't believe it if you told him. It's a summery Monday morning at a public driving range in Studio City, California, and the greatest big hitter ever to swing a golf club just showed up in the stall next to his. Not that Mike Austin makes much of a grand entrance these days. At ninety-four years old, the man who hit the longest drive ever recorded on a golf course struggles just to make it from his bed to his wheelchair to his usual spot behind the stalls. Then again, any weakness of the body is offset by the still-sheer immensity of Austin's personality.
"No, no, no, no, nooo!" he shouts, crunching his one good hand into a fist. Austin is giving a lesson to Nancy McClaskey, 69, a retired elementary school principal from Pasadena, and she hasn't quite mastered the "supple quickness" that characterizes Austin's superpowerful swing ideal. Her shots are plinking short and left. Austin, who was paralyzed on one side by a stroke in 1989 and came close to death during an illness last year, hunches forward in his chair in a fit of fury. He is often in a fit of fury. "Whip that club! Whip it, Nancy! Where's the speed in your hands?Let me see some goddamned fight in that club!"
In his prime, which extended into his eighties, Austin packed as much punch from the tee—and off it, for that matter—as any golfer ever. He couldn't putt to save his life, which kept him from any real success on the PGA and Senior PGA Tours, but stick a driver in his hand and small miracles would happen.
Always a showman with a salty vocabulary, Austin dazzled Bobby Jones as a teenager with three-hundred-yard tee shots at East Lake Country Club in Atlanta, around the corner from Austin's childhood home. He claims to have broken the four-hundred-yard barrier in 1937.
By the 1960s he was hosting The Mike Austin Golf Show on television, on which he once displayed his power by knocking a ball through the Los Angeles telephone directory. Another time, he says, to win one of his many hustles, he hit a two-hundred-yard drive with a taped-up Coke bottle.
But those were mere mulligans compared with the rocket he launched on September 25, 1974, at the U.S. National Seniors Open Championship in Las Vegas. Goosed by his playing partner, 1950 PGA champion Chandler Harper, to "really let one go," Austin, then sixty-four, unleashed all hell on the ball, sending it 515 yards before it finally came to rest—sixty-five yards beyond the flagstick on the par-four fifth hole. Thirty years later, it's still the longest drive ever, according to Guinness World Records. (The PGA Tour began logging individual driving distance in 1980. The longest drive since then is thought to be 457 yards, by J.C. Goosie, at a Senior Tour event in 1988; the longest recorded drive on the regular Tour is 427 yards, by Chris Smith in 1999.)
Austin's nearly unfathomable accomplishment seems lost on the Monday-morning hackers at the Studio City range. The cantankerous old man is all but invisible to them as they swing like Visigoths for the far target 250 yards out. McClaskey, meanwhile, can't crack 125. It's more than Austin can stomach.
"Look here, get me up!" he demands. His sandpaper growl bears traces of England, where he was born, and the American South, where he grew up. With an awkward hoist, Austin is on his feet, leaning heavily on McClaskey's left shoulder. He wants to hit the ball. Standing on the square of fake grass, he reaches for her driver but suddenly feels unsteady and calls for his wheelchair.
"Last year," Austin says, down but undaunted, "I hit a seven-iron one-handed, backhanded. It went 147 yards."
Every day on every golf course in America, the game within the game isn't putting but driving. How far you hit the ball from the tee establishes your worthiness as a player, perhaps even as a man. Bomb a ball into the center of the grid on a long par five and you're God's gift to everything, if only for a moment.
"Distance is freedom," says Philip Reed, who has written a new book about Austin, called In Search of the Greatest Golf Swing (Carroll & Graf, $20). "If you're a long hitter, you can do things other golfers can't. You can cut a dogleg. You can get on in one. You can say, 'Your ball's way back there. Looks like I beat you.' And that's the game of golf."
In the three decades since Austin set his record, average driving distances have crept upward like crabgrass around a forgotten green. In 1980 the length of the average drive on the PGA Tour was 256.9 yards. In 1990 it was 262.8 yards. Last year it was 286.3 yards, with long hitters such as John Daly and Hank Kuehne averaging north of 300.