February 6, 2010

My Shot: Sean Fister

From the belly of The Beast comes insight on 150-mile-per-hour clubhead speeds, 500-yard drives, 20-second hang times and 280-pound foes in spandex shorts

Sean (The Beast) Fister, photographed Dec. 28, 2005, in Little Rock.

Sean (The Beast) Fister, photographed Dec. 28, 2005, in Little Rock.

Age 43 Three-time World Long Drive champion Little Rock, Arkansas

When I swing the club at 150 miles per hour and hit it absolutely pure, it feels like a whiff. The club is designed so that if I unload the shaft correctly and catch the ball dead in the middle of the sweet spot, the transfer of energy is so efficient that I feel nothing. In long driving, feedback is for losers.

My longest carry ever is 466 yards, at a course not far from Castle Pines in Colorado. A guy lasered it from the ball mark back to the tee. I prefer to measure that one not in distance but in hang time: It was in the air for 20 seconds. I'm very proud of that. Ronnie Lott, the football player, was one of the people standing there counting.

When I started out in long driving, persimmon drivers were still around. To this day the longest drive I've ever hit was with a Bert Dargie persimmon driver with a steel shaft. With a 40-mile-per-hour wind at my back and a firm fairway, I drove the ball three yards past the hole on a straightaway, 512-yard hole. Could have been a triple eagle, a hole-in-one on a par 5. But I pulled it a bit.

With the new balls, persimmon won't hit it anywhere. I've tried.

I've hit people on courses before. Never with a crooked drive. It's always somebody on the green of a par 4. My playing partners get tired of waiting, and they goad me: "You can't reach them," and "It's OK, if you drive the green I'll apologize for you." I've hit two people on the fly, one a guy I hit in the face and cut him around his eye and nose, another a lady I hit on the shoulder. They both went to the hospital. I've bounced balls into many people. I refuse to be goaded now and even give a speech: "You have to be patient with me because I've hit people before, and it's not pretty. It's fun to watch me hit it far, but it comes with a price."

When they say I hit the ball out of sight, for me it's literally true. I'm blind in my left eye because of macular degeneration. If it's overcast, I need some help telling me where my ball came down. Most of the time in competition I can tell by the sound and feel.

Freaky things happen when the clubhead is traveling more than 150 miles per hour. I mean crazy stuff, like the top of the driver flying off or the whole clubhead disintegrating. One time I shattered a clubhead, and a shard of metal flew up and hit me in the cheek. It cut me pretty deep. If it had hit me in my right eye, I'd be cooked.

I can't count how many driver heads I've caved in or the number of shafts I've broken. Thousands, I guess. Heck, I caved in or cracked 42 faces at the World Long Drive Championship last year. At first I snapped the shafts about six inches up from the hosel. After the manufacturers started adding more boron down there, I started snapping them just below the grip. It's still a problem. If I had to pay for my shafts and clubheads, I'd be on welfare.

I've got too many drivers at my house. Roughly 600 completed, and if you count the number of driver heads I have in boxes, it's over a thousand. The average person would be set for life. But the way I break them, I doubt what I have on hand would last a year.

In our sport, accuracy matters — a lot. The grid is only 52 yards wide, and when you're hitting the ball close to 400 yards, your misses become exponentially worse. I've got to rein it in a little, or none of the six balls in my round will find the box.

I can play a little. I've had good days with tour players where they suggested I work on my game and take a crack at playing professionally. My best score is a 64, eight under par, here at Chenal, my club in Little Rock. My short game would probably surprise you; playing with Tommy Bolt in a charity tournament a while back, I chipped in three times. Tommy was dancing all over the place. "Sean is the greatest player in the world," he said to anybody who would listen. But I know how good tour players really are, and I'm smart enough to stick with what I know best.

On the wide-open course at Chenal my index is plus-1.3. On the tight one I'm five strokes worse, a 4. It's not that I'm crooked. It's that there's no place for one of my straight drives to land.

I make a good living. I do more than 80 appearances a year at up to $15,000 a crack, and I won $100,000 for my last win at the World Long Drive Championship. I make extra off endorsements. I'm not the richest guy in Arkansas, but we do have the full cable TV package, we have pizza delivered a couple of times a week, and none of our clothes have holes in them.

I've done a lot of clinics and exhibitions with John Daly, who's also from Arkansas, and he likes to point out that he has to go play his golf ball after he drives but I don't. What can I say? He's right. I like John. He can really move it, too, though he used to be a lot closer to me than he is now. My best against his best, I'd have to spot him at least 30 yards.

If you think the average Joe longs to hit the ball farther, you should see tour players. I imagine there are guys on the PGA Tour who would pay $300,000 for 15 more yards of driving distance, because being that much closer to the green would put at least that much in their pocket. Most of them say the same thing: "If I hit it as far as you do, with no loss of accuracy, I'd shoot nothing." The quest for distance in golf is a drug, and tour players are the biggest addicts out there.

One day I did an outing at Bay Hill in Orlando. It so happened that my all-time hero in sports, Arnold Palmer, was there that day. I met him, and when he asked what I did for a living and I told him, he got a very devilish look on his face and asked if I'd like to play golf with him the next day. Of course I said yes. He then led me over to the starter and asked him to make room for one more — "and make sure Sean is on my team."

I barely slept that night. The next morning I was so excited I forgot to eat breakfast. That was bad news, and potentially dangerous because I'm hypoglycemic, so I get very weak and lightheaded. When I got to Bay Hill, I was hoping I could finagle some crackers from the restaurant before we teed off. I know it sounds silly, but it's not like you can ask your host, Arnold Palmer, to go get you a sandwich. But as I was walking toward the clubhouse, Mr. Palmer saw me and led me inside. He put his hand on my shoulder and looked at me with a knowing smile and asked — I swear he was reading my mind — "Sean, have you had anything to eat?" Was I ever relieved when he took me into the dining room. He asked two members if they would sit with me while I ate, so I wouldn't have to eat alone. That lesson in consideration was the first of many things I learned from Mr. Palmer that day, which rates as one of the great days of my life.

The second lesson I learned from Mr. Palmer came after he pulled out my chair and seated me at the breakfast table. He leaned over and said in a kind, grandfatherly tone, "Sean, I know you're excited to be here. I'm going to do all I can to make it a great day for you." He paused for a moment and then laid the lesson on me: "Sean, after you eat but before you leave the table, you might want to consider zipping up the fly on your trousers."

I'm entirely self-taught.It's a good way to learn, but you do have moments of frustration and confusion. To fix that, I took seven years' worth of Golf Digests and divided them into stacks on my kitchen table. I went through every one and wrote down every distance tip I came across. It took a while, and when I was finished I had 397 tips. I eliminated all of the duplications, then I went to work dealing with the tips that conflicted — stance, grip pressure, wrist cock, and so on. All of the contradictions I put to the test. Using each tip, I noted the balls I absolutely murdered. Tips that produced a ball in the "kill" column made the final list, which resides in a little black book I carry wherever I go. I call it The Bible.

There are a hundred little tricks to hit the ball farther. But only one is absolutely, positively guaranteed to work for every golfer. All you do is turn your shoulders farther, all the while keeping the butt end of the club as far away from your sternum as possible. It takes practice and physical effort, but if you work hard at that for two weeks, you'll for sure pick up 20 yards with the driver.

The best instruction tip I ever got came by accident. On ESPN Classic one night they were replaying one of Nolan Ryan's no-hitters. He was throwing serious heat, almost nothing but fastballs. I noticed that before every pitch, he would wiggle, shake and rotate his right hand and wrist. It struck me he was trying to put oil in them, to make them as relaxed as possible so he could throw the ball faster. That turned a light on for me. I went out the next morning and, keeping my shoulders, arms and hands as relaxed as I could, thought only of swinging the club fast through impact. Almost without trying, I hit some of the longest drives of my life. Straight, too. When I'm fluid and relaxed, I'm very dangerous.

Before I earned the nickname The Beast for the distance I could hit a softball, I was known as The Pipe Wrench. For a time I laid pipe for a utility company, and on one of my first days a water line broke. While a couple of guys ran off to get a pipe wrench, I unscrewed the pipe with my hands. When they came back and saw what I had done, they stood there with their mouths open. I was The Pipe Wrench from that day forward.

The other thing I could do was work a jackhammer like nobody else. A jackhammer weighs 75 pounds, and after it penetrates a layer of asphalt the bit gets wedged in tight. It takes the average construction worker a couple of good pulls to yank it out and start on a new spot. Well, I fell in love with the jackhammer. I once worked a mile-long stretch of asphalt in a day, which made me a legend of sorts. What it did for my forearms you can see if you tune in. [The RE/MAX World Long Drive Championship is in October and televised during the December holiday season on ESPN and ESPN2.]

I'm 6-5 and weigh 245. When I started out in the early '90s I was one of the bigger guys. At the finals this year I looked up at more than half of them. John Colborne is 6-9. Kurt Moore is 6-7. Viktor Johansson is 6-7 and weighs 275, and his arms are as big around as my head. He's a lumberjack type more than a pure athlete. The days of someone other than a physical superman winning are over. I seriously doubt whether anyone under 6-2 will ever win again.

When a tough guy walks into a bar, he instinctively identifies the other tough guys in a matter of seconds. In most cases the tough guys will give each other a nod, and one will send a beer over to the other in a display of recognition and respect. The idea is to give each other space and circumvent the possibility of a confrontation later in the night. If trouble does develop, the two tough guys will often side together. Now, if one tough guy refuses the beer, you might have trouble. If one guy doesn't leave, they might completely rearrange the furniture. I've seen it happen a hundred times.

Long drivers as a group are big people, but because we dress like golfers I guess that makes us suspect. A bunch of us were in a bar in Phoenix drinking beer a few years back when some big construction guys walked in and sat near us. After they'd had some beers one of them came over to the table and said, "Any one of you guys like to arm wrestle? I got $20 that says I can take any one of you." None of our guys came forward, which embarrassed me. "Hell, I'll go you for $20," I said. So they cleared an area and squared us off across one of the tables.

When one of his guys said, "Go!" my opponent moved my arm a little and gave me a pathetic look. At that point I slammed his arm down hard — pow! My opponent said it was a fluke and demanded a rematch, so we did it again, and I beat him again, this time faking a yawn while I put him down. What nobody knew was, I'd helped put myself through college tearing up guys by arm wrestling in bars. Be careful who you challenge in life. Size matters, but it doesn't tell you everything.

The most intimidating person I've ever met was Bo Jackson. I was playing in George Brett's charity tournament when Bo's group came through. The airline had lost his luggage, and he wasn't in an especially great mood. I said something to him, and when he looked up at me I saw the face of a shark, like there was no human he couldn't tear apart if he put his mind to it. If you were in a war, you'd want Bo Jackson at your side.

Bill Clinton is from Arkansas, and we've played together several times. He's the most intent listener I've ever encountered; talking to him is almost intimidating because you have his undivided attention, and you can tell he's weighing every word you say. He also has a phenomenal memory. Several years passed between visits, and when I saw him again he asked how my wife was — he remembered her name — how my two children were doing and how was my back feeling? He's a remarkable man by any measure. When I saw him a few months ago, he looked 10 years older than I expected.

A lot of great athletes believe that proper mental preparation sets the stage for great physical performance. I've found it to work the other way around. By training very hard physically, I find it much easier to reach the state of mind necessary to perform my very best.

I practice hitting drivers 300 days a year. Most every morning I'm on the ninth tee at Chenal, hitting drivers from 7 to 9:15, when the first group comes through. I then go straight to the range and hit for another hour or two, then take a break. I then hit all afternoon. Nothing but drivers; as many as 1,000 balls a day. It's my job, man, and I work at it. On my days off I'm at the gym. Very rarely do I have a day where I don't beat balls.

The purpose of hitting that many drivers is to reach what I call "hitting shape." It's a razor-edge level of physical conditioning that's unique to my sport. It's a combination of flexibility, strength, speed and stamina that can be obtained only through hitting many, many balls. No regimen at the gym can replace it. Have you ever hit so many balls that your muscles become fatigued and you start hitting the ball shorter instead of longer? The purpose of being in hitting shape is to guarantee that my thousandth ball in a day goes as far as my first.

It's through repetitions that you find answers. A good example of that was at the 1997 Long Drive Championship. I was in great hitting shape, but my technique was poor. On the day of the finals I started hitting on the range at 10 a.m., and at 10:30 Mike Gorton showed up. He hit for 45 minutes, then said, "I'm going for some lunch and a nap. You coming back out later?" I told him I would, at around 4. When Mike came back at 4, I was there waiting for him, hitting drivers.

"When did you come back out?" he asked.

"I never left," I said.

Mike said, "Beast, what the hell are you doing? You'll have nothing left for tonight!"

I told Mike, "I'd rather be tired and hitting it good than be rested and hitting it bad. And I'm real close."

In the semis that night I caved in the face of a great driver head. I had only one good head left, and that was on a shaft I didn't like, so I had to change it over. The finals were 12 minutes away. I got the head off, drilled out the hosel, applied the glue to the shaft and stuck it in the hosel. It was cold outside, the epoxy wouldn't dry and the head wouldn't set. I was in a panic; showtime was only a couple of minutes away. I dove into my van, turned the heat on full blast and held the driver against the vents. After a few seconds the head locked, and I ran out to my spot just in time to hit. My first ball went 406, but it barely rolled into a bunker in the grid. Jason Zuback blasted a big one. and it rolled out to 412. He nipped me, but the tension and pressure was great.

What muscles do you want to develop to get more distance? The shoulder girdle is huge, on the left shoulder especially. On the left arm it's the triceps, the right arm the inner triceps and the biceps. The most important muscle of all is the muscle that meets your biceps on top of your forearm, the one that bulges near that sharp bone on top near your elbow. See mine? It's similar to Mark McGwire's. That's the muscle that will win or lose for you.

My driver heads have anywhere from 3 to 6 degrees of loft, which doesn't sound like much. But I try to hit the ball slightly on the upswing, and the shaft kicks the head forward before impact, and that adds even more loft. It takes serious swing speed to take advantage of those factors. The average player would be lucky to hit anything more than a line drive with one of my clubs.

My driver is 48 inches long. I've hit a 60-inch driver, and one ball out of 50 I hit went 30 to 40 yards farther than my best pop with my regular driver, but I couldn't control it. If I were standing in the center of a giant bull's-eye and could blast the ball across concentric circles, I'd go with a longer shaft. But like I say, long driving is somewhat like real golf. Accuracy does matter.

Truth be told, I think all long-drive competitions should be limited to a 45-inch driver. In performing exhibitions, I've found that average golfers can relate better to normal-size clubs. They appreciate my ability more, even though the ball flies shorter than with my 48-inch model.

If you miss the sweet spot by a quarter of an inch, you'll lose maybe 5 percent of your distance. To me that's fatal, because 5 percent of 400 is 20, and I can't afford to give 20 yards to the monsters I go up against. Same with keeping the clubface square. If my clubface is open or closed 2 degrees, I'm a dead man.

Tommy Bolt and I hit it off so well he invited me up to his ranch to hunt deer. I was so excited the night before I couldn't sleep. Tommy came by my cabin to pick me up at 4:30 a.m., and boy, was I excited about going deer hunting with Mr. Bolt. He drove me in his golf cart over to a tree stand — we're hunting right on his property, remember — and he says, "Good luck. I'll pick you up in five hours." I said, "Great, Mr. Bolt. Where's your tree stand?" He said, "Hell, son, I ain't hunting no deer. I'm going back to bed!" And with that he drove off.

My dad left us when I was 7. There were seven of us kids under age 13, and he didn't help out with child support. You can imagine how tough that situation was on my mother. Somehow she got it done. She was small, but she ruled the house with an iron fist. We used to say that it was her arm on the box of Arm Hammer Baking Soda. But there was only so much she could do. Two of my older brothers went to prison — drug-related things. The rest of us turned out all right, and four of us went to college on athletic scholarships. But when I think of my brothers, who are talented, good-looking, athletic guys, it makes me feel bad for her. She deserved for all of us to become standout people in life.

There was no way my mother could afford to put me through college. Thankfully I learned how to pole vault, and it won me a scholarship to the University of Florida. I also competed in the decathlon, but everything revolved around the pole vault, and it very nearly killed me. Before arriving in Florida I had a late growth spurt and shot up three inches and gained weight. My size was a big problem because I started breaking a lot of poles.

When you break poles, you get hurt. My back, my right foot, my left foot, cartilage in both knees. I cracked my skull on the edge of the pit on a bad vault, and another time I almost lost my left thumb. But I had to do it. It was either jump or give up my scholarship and go back home to a life of who knows what. Desperation will make a person do things he wouldn't ordinarily do.

All I've done playing golf is tear both rotator cuffs. As a result of that and my pole-vaulting adventures, I've become an expert on anti-inflammatory drugs. I gulp more naproxen than I should, because it can wreak havoc with your liver. But I won't be a long-driving champion forever, and taking over-the-counter medication sure beats taking 24 cortisone shots a year, which I did one year when I was banged up. When I'm finished competing, I hope the naproxen is going in the garbage can.

The characters who show up to take a bite at the apple in our competitions seem to be getting stranger. The weirdest show up at the local level. A guy showed up a while back who weighed 280 and wore a tank top and spandex shorts. I don't wish anybody ill, but when he got up to hit I said a silent prayer: Please, Lord, don't let this guy advance to the finals. Our sport deserves better than this. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought how this guy might be just what we need. We're a grass-roots sport. It's entertainment. We can use a little color.

I have a fantasy. I'd like to get a bunch of long-drive buddies together, get geared up, head out to the course and play a golf-ball version of paint ball. A test of skill, accuracy and power. I can hit a ball through a three-quarter-inch sheet of plywood, so we'd have to gear up good. But it'd be a blast.

Even if I catch a ball dead on the button, it's possible someone out there can outdrive me. But it hasn't happened yet.