What does it take to drive a golf ball over 500 yards, recognised as the longest ever hit ‘in competition’?
Circa 1974. The US National Seniors Tournament is underway at the Winterwood GC (now known as the Desert Rose GC), and the largest galleries are following a four-ball in which PGA Champion at the time, Chandler Harper is playing along with Mike Austin—an eccentric pro known as much for his off-course shenanigans, trick shots, as for his prodigious length off the tee.
The group started on the back nine during which Austin has already hit several 400-yard drives—exceptionally long, even by his standards. On the front nine, standing on the tee of the fourth hole, Harper tells Austin, “Mike, let’s see you really go after one.” Using a persimmon driver with 10 degrees loft and a 43.5 inches long extra-stiff steel shaft, 64-year-old Austin proceeds to hit a balata ball (engineered more for spin than distance) that lands on the green of the 450-yard par 4, rolls past the pin, over the edge and finally stops next to the fifth tee.
In an interview he gave in 2003, Chandler said he found the ball and called out to Austin: “This is impossible, but there is a ball over here.” The ball was duly identified as Austin’s and measured as lying 65 yards from the green, making the total distance an extraordinary 515 yards. The drive was recognised in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world record for longest drive ever hit ‘in competition’—confirming the veracity of the record. That last bit is important because over the years, there have been a number of naysayers who have cast aspersions on Austin’s achievement. For reference, the current Guinness record for the longest drive (in a long-drive event) is 551 yards.
We know now that there was a liberal 25 mph tailwind helping the group when Austin blitzed it off the tee. But none of that takes away from the fact that a man in his 60s, using what today seems like antiquated golf equipment, hit a balata ball that far—it boggles the mind to imagine what Austin could have done with modern clubs.
I was taken with Austin’s swing when I was in my teens, and for a while appeared to get the hang of it. During one purple patch I played some of the best golf of my life before it disappeared, leaving me desperately searching for clues on how to get it back. Eventually I gave up and moved on. But as my experiments with it demonstrated what makes the ‘Austin method,’ different from other swing theories is that it he showed it could work for other people.
Mike Duanaway, who Greg Norman once called the ‘Longest striker of a golf ball on Earth,’ wasn’t even a golfer when he sought out Austin for instruction, reportedly asking him, for help to become ‘the longest driver of the golf ball.’ Dunaway became Austin’s protégé and in a demonstration in the 1980s hit the green 10 out of 15 times on a 375-yard hole. Dunaway even made the cover of Golf Digest magazine in August 1985 and November 1987.
Another student, Jaacob Bowden, won the 2003 Pinnacle Distance Challenge with a televised 381-yard drive among other qualifiers for the RE/MAX World Long Drive Championships (one drive that set a grid record of 421 yards).
Austin himself was quite a colourful character: if this piece motivates you to look for lessons by him on YouTube then pardon his colourful language directed toward unreceptive students. Playing at a time when weekend bets made more money than pro golf, Austin’s hustles with Chicago gangsters during the Great Depression are legendary. Soon the mafia caught on and refused to bet against him. Austin proceeded to conjure up seemingly impossible odds to convince make a play. These unusual gambits included playing left-handed, or one-handed, and even, as stories go, replacing golf clubs altogether with things like a soda bottle (Austin won a $5000 bet on that instance).
All of this contributed to his moniker of ‘The Golfing Bandit.’ When steel shafts first came around, Sam Snead passed his set on to Austin, reportedly saying, “…you’re the only one who swings fast enough to hit these.”
Coming back to Austin’s swing philosophy. On the face of it, when you watch his videos, Austin’s swing seems anything but unorthodox. Players of his generation had a great deal of lateral motion and practiced the swinging of the hands inducing the motion of the body, and Austin was no different. The biggest difference lies in the way Austin pivoted his upper body, angled away from target on the backswing, and inverted that on the way forward. There was less rotation and more of an up-and-down movement. He also made no attempt to delay the release of the club, ‘throwing’ it on the way down to get maximum velocity. He even made a training aid, called the ‘Flammer’s training aid,’ which featured in ‘Tin Cup’, the popular Hollywood flick. The aid is no longer available (I’ve been scouring the internet for years) and all you can really do is listen to Austin’s lectures, lessons and try and incorporate the ‘supple quickness,’ he spoke about.
I’m not for a moment suggesting that you try Austin’s swing. But if you’re considering a swing change, then a swing that apparently puts very little strain on the body and yet is capable of hitting the ball incredible distances is difficult not to be tempted by. I’m going to have another go this year.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game