The gains come partly from better tools: long, snappy shafts, high-performance balls and clubheads the size of toaster ovens. At the same time, the fixation on distance has never been more acute. An entire golf subspecialty has emerged expressly for big-bombing bragging rights. Long Drivers of America (LDA), founded in 1994, now has close to a thousand members—up from 200 just three years ago—and sponsors more than 400 long-drive events annually.
"The big drive is the touchdown or home run of golf," says Jason Zuback, a four-time RE/MAX World Long Drive Champion. He has knocked a ball 412 yards in competition, the same distance Tiger Woods hit one during a practice round at the British Open in 1998. "The long drive is the thing that makes all your buddies crazy with envy," Zuback says.
But even the longest of the long hitters acknowledge that something extraordinary occurred on that autumn day in the Nevada desert thirty years ago. Guys like Zuback study footage of Austin in his glory years (the actual record drive was not filmed; Guinness corroborated the distance by interviewing witnesses, including Harper) to understand exactly how a sixty-four-year-old former actor with a steel-shafted persimmon driver and an oldfashioned two-piece ball could outdrive today's best golfers—by the length of an entire football field.
Austin's secret was a revolutionary approach to hitting a golf ball that evolved out of his engineering and physics studies at Emory University and Georgia Tech and his PhD work in kinesiology, the science of human movement. "Mike looked at the human body and said this is the best way to fit this machine with this job," says Reed. "It's the most efficient swing in history. You watch the old films, and the swing is so natural that it looks like Mike is laying up even when he's going for the moon." (Austin has a teaching video, available at peacerivergolf.com.)
What distinguishes the technique is a forceful lateral shift of the legs coupled with an unusual hand position and club swing. Unlike the standard Tour-pro approach, Austin relies on what conventional hitters might call "casting," throwing the clubhead around the swing circle. It's the only way, according to Jaacob Bowden, a long-drive specialist studying the Austin method, to swing fast enough to keep up with such a forceful leg shift. Finally, while a conventional swing squares the clubface only at the last second, Austin keeps his blade squared much longer throughout the swing circle—before, during and after impact. His left hand is actually palm-up during the take-away.
"This guy had a golf swing that was forty years ahead of its time," says Art Sellinger, the two-time national longdrive champion who cofounded the LDA. "Mike Austin could get more out of less than anyone. When amateur golfers sit on the couch, this is how they dream of hitting a ball."
The day was a typical Vegas scorcher under fair skies with an afternoon high of ninetyfour. The National Seniors Open, a precursor event to the PGA Senior Tour, was in its second day and Austin was playing in a foursome with Harper, Pete Fleming and Joe Brown.
Austin is the first to tell you he was having an exceptional round even before his monster shot. "I was hitting the hell out of the ball that day," he says from his home in the L.A. suburb of Woodland Hills. He's sitting up in a hospital bed in his cluttered living room, fiddling with a miniature golf club he keeps in the folds of his leopard-print sheets. Although it's almost spring, Tanya, his wife of fiftyeight years, is quietly taking down a Christmas tree. "On two par fives before that hole," Austin says, "I used a driver and a seven-iron to get onto the green."
Winterwood Golf Course is one of the oldest tracks in the Las Vegas Valley. It was built in 1964, and ten years later was still way out in the desert. Today it's called Desert Rose and is just another overplayed local course lost in Vegas's sprawl. The fifth hole (now the fourteenth) was a flat and narrow 450-yard par four with a slight dogleg right and a stretch of low trees down the right side. Approaching the tee that day, Harper made Austin a good-natured challenge: "You've been whacking the ball," he said. "Let's see what happens if you really let one go."
Austin says he passed word onto the foursome ahead to stand clear. And then, using a Wilson persimmonheaded driver with a ten-degree loft and an extra-stiff forty-three-inch steel shaft (by comparison, most of today's drivers, along with their titanium faces, have forty-fiveinch shafts, to generate greater swing speed), he struck with the power of the ages. "I knew I knocked the hell out of it," Austin says. "But the ball went up strangely. Went out about ten or fifteen feet high and kept going and going at that flattened level. I could put my finger on it the whole way until just before it dropped."
Chandler Harper is now ninety and living at home in Portsmouth, Virginia. His memory of that day is as vivid as Austin's. "Three of us hit our shots about 140 yards short of the green," he says. "But Mike's drive beat all that by a mile. I went ahead to look for his ball and spotted a ball on the next tee well behind the fifth green. I told Mike to check it because we couldn't believe it." It was, in fact, Austin's Titleist 100. Says Harper: "I had never seen a ball hit anywhere near that far. I played fifty times with Sam Snead and Ben Hogan, but nothing compared to this." Adds Tanya, who watched her husband play that day, "It was like God held the ball in the air."
Harper likes to joke about the hurricane-force tailwinds blowing that afternoon. After all, on the eighth and ninth holes, Austin drove the green again with four-hundredyard wallops. Guinness says there were 35 m.p.h. gusts; according to the National Weather Service, the maximum winds that day were out of the southeast at 27 m.p.h.