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The Fringe

Driver Off the Deck: Social media star Carter Smith has PGA Tour aspirations

March 19, 2024
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During golf’s ongoing distance debate about whether to roll back the gear golfers use, Nick Faldo suggested removing a certain piece of equipment. The six-time major champ’s unorthodox solution to players hitting the ball too far was to ban . . . tees.

“They could hit 3-wood, and that would be their optimum,” Faldo said on the Geoff Shackelford podcast in 2020. “They could hit 3-wood off the ground. Rory would still hit it 285 yards in the air, but it’d be tough to hit a driver off the deck.”

One golfer who would have no problem if such a rule were ever implemented, though, is Carter Smith. Heck, he would welcome it. If the name is not familiar, that’s because you’re not online much or you know him by a different name and title: The Driver-Off-the-Deck King. Eventually, he wants to be known as the first tee-less golfer on the PGA Tour.

For the past year-plus, the Norfolk, Va., native has been gaining social-media followers faster than Faldo racked up trophies thanks to one of the least-tried shots in golf. However, for Smith, 24, the driver off the deck is his go-to strategy. He loves to remind people of that in entertaining fashion. In one video, he declares “tees are for cheaters” before smoking a high draw down the middle. (He also thinks tapping the ground to make a “turf tee,” like Laura Davies does, is cheating.) In another video, he plays a 600-yard par 5 using only his driver and says, “You can never be the King” as he completes an up-and-down birdie from the sand with a no-look, between-the-legs putt.

“I’ve been enlightened about the dangers of tees, and I’m trying to spread the word because I used to be insecure,” says Smith, who has been tee-less since shooting a competitive career-low 67 in the first round of the 2021 Vermont State Open when he opted for more accuracy at Lake Morey Country Club. “[With tees] you start hitting defensive shots. You start having defensive thoughts instead of saying, Screw it, I’m going to attack this ball on the ground. I’m going to attack this course. I’m going to defeat my own brain—because if you can beat yourself, you can beat the golf course.”

For Smith, that motto has translated into beating many challengers—or “weasels” as he calls them—from the comments section in money games. As “The Wire’s” Omar Little famously says, “Come at the King, you best not miss.” In fact, a loss to this golf royalty could wind up being extremely costly. Smith recently put up his GMC Yukon in a match at his home course of Sleepy Hole—and drove away with an opponent’s Nissan Altima.

“I want to put an end to the era of the keyboard warriors,” says Smith, who has a combined 250,000 followers on Instagram and TikTok under the handle CVAGolf to go with 55,000 YouTube subscribers. “When I go to play in these amateur events for a little plastic trophy, they don’t know the kind of pressure I’ve seen.”

Smith’s brazen approach has helped him beat plenty of competitors in golf ‘s crowded social-media space to grow his following to the point of quitting his jobs as a fitness instructor and construction worker. He used to work those jobs to fund his golf career with dreams of playing professionally, but now he gets to work on his game while he works.

“I feel like a lot of people study social media, and they study trends and all these little details where at the end of the day, if you’re authentic and you have a specific niche, I think you’ll be successful,” Smith says. “It blew up so quickly, and we just ran with it.”

What took longer was convincing Smith to get on social media. A friend and assistant golf pro at Cedar Point Club, Winston Davis, thought Smith’s no-tee strategy and on-course trash-talk translated well to videos. Smith finally agreed to let him post some to Davis’ feeds before creating his own accounts in December 2022. Davis soon became Smith’s producer, and another friend Doug Lyons became his manager for this unexpected ride. Smith has made videos with celebrities like Fred Durst, Vernon Maxwell and World Long Drive champions Kyle Berkshire and Martin Borgmeier, has been invited to events such as DJ Khaled’s charity golf tournament in Miami and LIV Golf’s Chicago tournament, and Smith has even enlisted famed instructor George Gankas as his swing coach.

“One thousand percent social media is not my goal,” says Smith, whose growing team handles merchandise as well. “But it’s the stepping stone to what I want to do. It has given me the resources to get me to the next level and given me the ability to meet all these champions in different sports who I’m learning a lot from.”

Given Smith’s newfound fame, he has rubbed elbows with some tour professionals as well. He says Graeme McDowell and Bryson DeChambeau are the best at hitting a driver off the deck that he has seen, other than himself, of course. The DOD King uses both 8- and 10-degree drivers depending on course conditions and averages about a 300-yard carry. He realizes he is giving up some distance by not using tees, but he feels the move gives him an advantage elsewhere.

“To me, the mind is the biggest attribute in the game of golf and in life and especially in competition,” says Smith, who maintains a plus-2.5 Handicap Index and never plays money matches that involve giving or receiving strokes. “For me, having my mental competitive edge and more accuracy outweighs those 10 yards every day of the week and twice on Sundays.”

Smith is surprised and grateful for the success he has had building his brand, but his ultimate goal is still to reach the PGA Tour without a tee. He knows how crazy that seems, especially for someone who played only a year of college golf at Palm Beach Atlantic University. Seven years later he still uses the fact he never heard back from 200- plus college coaches he sent letters to as a high school senior as motivation. In addition to being blessed with what he calls “soft mitts,” Smith has plenty of “delusional confidence.”

“If Instagram is no longer an app tomorrow and YouTube’s no longer a thing, I will go right back to work, tiling bathrooms and saving up money for pro golf,” says Smith, who plans to play a full slate of amateur events this year before turning pro. “It might seem delusional at times, but if you truly believe in your process, your fundamentals and whatever you want to do, it will happen.”

Driver off the deck might not be the best strategy for every golfer, but those are words we can all live by.