Austin has heard every wisecrack in the book: The fairway was probably hard as rock; the high-desert elevation made all the difference; the ball took a fortunate bounce. Some question whether it happened at all. When asked if the ball hit a cart path or a sprinkler head, Austin gives one of his icy blue-eyed stares and says, "That damned ball hit nothing but my club and the ground it landed on."
Perhaps the saddest part of the story is that Austin merely shot par that day. He went on to finish in the top ten at that tournament, but he was never a professional all-star. His best finish on the PGA Tour was at the 1961 Ontario Open, where he tied for thirty-seventh place with a total of 291. His low score in a Tour event was a 285 at the 1958 Tucson Open, where he tied for fifty-first. After the 515-yard drive, Austin pitched back onto the green and three-putted. As Reed laments, "Longest drive in history and Mike walked away with a bogey."
"You are sitting here with the Leonardo da Vinci of the golf swing," Danny Shauger says as he arrives in Austin's living room. "Mike Austin created a swing that has the power to change the way golf is played." Shauger, 64, is as close to a protégé as Austin has ever had. A former Hollywood set coordinator with fading tattoos, Shauger has spent the last twenty-five years learning Austin's unique method, and he's become something of an Austin evangelist. Clearly, their time together hasn't been easy. When Shauger's cash flow ran low, Austin insisted that Danny buy him dinners, fix his cars and make repairs around the house to pay Austin's $100-an-hour teaching fee.
In his prime, Austin was tall and handsome with a physique to rival that of Jack La Lanne, who was one of his many celebrity students. Austin loves to talk about the Hollywood A-listers he's taught over the years, though it's hard to tell how much is bunk. He was an aspiring actor and claims to have had a movie contract with MGM in the 1930s; he says he shared an apartment with Errol Flynn around that time, and the two of them used to chase women around Hollywood. He especially enjoys telling the story of the time Howard Hughes showed up at his driving range in Culver City asking for lessons. Austin says he taught Bob Hope's wife to play and that Sylvester Stallone has dropped by the house for lessons. He takes credit for the swings of Seve Ballesteros and Tom Kite, among others. "Anybody who was anybody in the history of golf," Austin likes to say, "took lessons from me." Not surprisingly, he also claims that Tiger Woods stole all his secrets.
But spend some time with Austin and Shauger and you quickly understand why Austin's swing has for the most part stayed with Austin. It's only a matter of minutes before he and Shauger are bickering like an old married couple, arguing over club grip, foot position and arm motion. "Look here," growls Austin, "it's done like this."
"Mike Austin is a tremendous teacher and a brilliant man," Shauger says later over the phone, "but his anger has kept him from becoming one of the great teaching pros. If he were more personable, we'd mention his name in the same breath as Butch Harmon and David Leadbetter."
In his book, Reed offers some theories about the roots of Austin's bluster: He was bullied as a child for his snowwhite hair and near-albino skin. His father doted more on his two older brothers than on him. His life was forever altered by a mysterious fever during World War II that made it impossible for him to have children.
"Mike's always had problems with people," Reed says. "He should be a multimillionaire, but because he shoves and screams and curses, people feel alienated by him. He once told me during a golf lesson that I couldn't hit a bull in the ass with a bass fiddle."
Perhaps, just perhaps, Austin's message is finally getting through. The thirtieth anniversary of his recordsetting drive has sparked a Mike Austin renaissance, with a flurry of books, videos and articles. And then there's Jaacob Bowden, the twenty-eightyear-old golfer Shauger met last year at a driving range outside L.A. Like Austin in his prime, Bowden is sixfoot-two, 210 pounds and handsome as a matinee idol. He can also really clobber a golf ball. Shauger recognized Bowden's hitting potential and spent three months last winter teaching him the Austin method. Bowden's driving average has since bumped up from 285 to its current level of 336. In a recent competition, he knocked a towering four-hundred-yard blast.
"I used to look at John Daly and think, How does he do it?" Bowden says. "Now that I've adopted Mike's technique, I watch Tour events and consider Daly a short hitter."
It's hard to know exactly how history will record Mike Austin's legacy, but one thing is certain: Nobody will ever consider him an average golfer—especially if he has any say in the matter. When asked how he feels about his record having endured for thirty years, an actual smile steals across his face.
"It's an unbelievable thing," Austin says. "Nobody's ever done anything like it. People think they hit a ball three hundred yards and it's a goddamned miracle. But I know I did something all the greats couldn't do. That's something to really think about."