Going Deep

Five fascinating long drivers tell the stories behind their success

April 24, 2020
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There’s a feeling that professional long driving today resembles ordinary golf only in the way a Nerf basketball hoop over your trash basket resembles the NBA. Kyle Berkshire, the reigning king of World Long Drive, swings at 150 miles per hour and has hit a 474-yard drive in competition—at roughly sea level. Cameron Champ, widely considered the longest hitter on the PGA Tour, has a clubhead speed of 130 mph, a popcorn hitter by Berkshire’s standard. “I don’t even play regular golf anymore,” says Berkshire, 23. “I love the PGA Tour, but let’s be honest: I can’t do what they do, and they can’t do what we do. They’re two different games.”

The vibe at the 2019 World Long Drive championship was sensory and primal, a theater of stunning physiques, crashing walk-up music, violent club/ball sounds and TrackMan-frying numbers. It’s not bomb and gouge, just bomb, with nowhere to hide if you can’t deliver. It’s unabashedly physical and without guile, a siren call to the game’s most atavistic desire: seeing how far one can smash the ball. It’s done for cash (Berkshire took home $125,000) and bragging rights.

But the driving force is the competitors, an unlikely cast of swing outliers and specialists who do this one thing very, very well. Male and female, they are as eclectic a bunch as you’ll find in sport. Here, we’ll meet five of the best and most appealing.


CHLOE GARNER

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On one hand, Chloe Garner fits the brash, iconoclastic template of the modern World Long Drive competitor. As we saw at the nationally televised final of the World Long Drive Championship in Thackerville, Okla., in September 2019, Garner’s right thigh, upper back and both arms are fantastically embossed with tattoos featuring characters from the cartoon show “Adventure Time,” Hindu words, motivational phrases, Mother Nature and an indigenous woman from her native South Africa. Add to that her quirky bucket hat tipped back, untucked polo, blaring Metallica walk-up music and the insane violence of her golf swing through impact, and she exudes the smackdown persona one might expect.

But talk to Garner and you find that body art is only skin deep and that Metallica plays soft music, too. At 29, Garner is a diverse and reflective soul whose journey to the front of the World Long Drive stage was highlighted by winning that 2019 World Championship, defeating Phillis Meti with a 347-yard blast. That she arrived there at all is an unlikely tale, one suited to the peculiar world of long driving.

“I played college golf at Texas A&M and then East Tennessee State, and only one girl hit it up with me, and that was with me hitting 3-wood only,” Garner says. “My senior year, I put a driver in my bag and was a lot longer than everyone else. No training, really; it was just a gift.” The source of her distance was mystifying. Garner then as now stood 5-feet-6 and weighed 130 pounds, downright wispy compared to imposing counterparts.

Garner’s scoring ability did not match her length or effort she applied, and soon after graduation, she abruptly quit the game. “By quit, I mean I hardly picked up a club for three years,” she says. “It happens, I think, the game beating people up.” Garner turned her competitive nature—she played various sports in South Africa from age 8—to maniacal CrossFit training. “I can do 25 pull-ups, snatch 175 pounds and have pretty good numbers in other areas,” she says. Invited to participate in a golf pro-am in conjunction with a long-drive event in Tennessee, Garner was shocked to discover that her CrossFit training had had an explosive effect on her distance driving. After some swing-refining help from instructor Bobby Peterson, Garner began signing up for WLD competitions.

In 2016, her rookie year, Garner won two early-season events. Then came the World Long Drive Championship final, where she had the title within her grasp only to be “eight-balled” by Meti. Eight-balled means losing on the final drive of a set of eight, and for Garner the loss at the mother of all long-driving tournaments was devastating. “I went back to my hotel room and cried,” she says. “I’m emotional, and it’s hard for me to accept that in golf, we fail more often than we succeed. I’m getting better at that.” The next few years included various ups and downs—a couple of wins interspersed with travel snafus and close-but-not-quite finishes—but the 2019 title made up for all of it.

Garner recently moved back to South Africa. Cancellation of the first 2020 WLD event because of the coronavirus has tested her watchword of “patience,” and she has shifted her attention back to CrossFit training. But with her 130-degree shoulder turn (90 degrees is typical), fundamentally sound swing and experience, she remains excited about her future: “I feel I’ve gotten over some humps and that there’s nothing I can’t do.”

HOW CHLOE CRUSHES IT

“Tee the ball high, and place it well forward in your stance. Make as big a turn as you can, then start the downswing by squatting at your knees. Explode up with your lower body through impact, swinging up on the ball. I totally believe in the ‘tee it high, let it fly’ philosophy.”


KYLE BERKSHIRE

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For starters, there’s the Samson-like mane of hair, which Kyle Berkshire hasn’t had cut since 2017 and which during competition conceals a heart that beats a chest-bursting 200 times per minute. As he strides to the tee, you see the outline in his back pocket of the notes marking firm spots and tiny slopes of every yard of the grid he’s about to attack. Unseen but going on in his head, is his favorite “music”—Chic Anderson’s call of Secretariat’s 1973 Belmont Stakes victory to win the Triple Crown. And the vision of actor Robert Duval whispering in the golf movie, “Seven Days of Utopia”: “Feel it. … Trust it.”

Then comes the good stuff. After teeing his ball so high that his driver could easily pass clean under it, he begins a sumo-wrestler-like side-to-side step, each foot dramatically clearing the ground, his backswing beginning when his right foot settles to earth on the last stomp. Berkshire’s turn is huge, his hands so high at the top, he seems to touch heaven.

Berkshire’s downswing might be the most powerful in golf history, the consistent 150-mph-plus clubhead speed and 230-mph ball speed substantially higher than his competitors. He has won his last three WLD events, including the championship in September 2019, and his goals are even loftier. “I just started serious training for the first time,” Berkshire says. “To now, my results have mostly been due to genetics, and we’re addressing that. The goal is to produce 240-mile-per-hour ball speed within a couple of years, and I totally believe that’s possible.”

Berkshire, who has 42 percent mid-frequency hearing loss in both ears, a condition since birth (he barely can hear the roar of the crowd when he’s competing), goes far beyond typical measures such as launch angle and spin rates. He notes the ball’s speed at “terminal velocity,” studies the angle at which the ball returns to earth and even the efficiency of its spin. “My teacher, Bobby Peterson, is a former military tank expert and knows how missiles—in my case, the ball—should perform,” he says.

Berkshire takes 12 to 15 drivers to competitions, each tweaked and spotted with lead tape, just so. “There are a lot of layers, nooks and crannies in this sport,” he says, “and I’m serious about looking inside them all.”

He started in the game at age 3, played at the University of North Texas, then finished his degree at Central Florida. He began long driving in 2017 and was a force almost from the beginning. His father, Bill Berkshire, is a former Secret Service agent who travels with his son. “It’s hard for Kyle to rent a car because he’s only 23, so I do that,” says Bill, who notes that his son was hitting it 250 yards by age 6: “He’s gifted, no doubt about it.”

HOW KYLE CRUSHES IT

“The first move down, think of rotating your hips so fast that the belt loop to your right points to the target well before the club meets the ball. Make that belt loop move up, too—an explosive upward move, combined with the rotation, is how you hit it forever.”


MARTIN BORGMEIER

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Martin Borgmeier makes no secret of his mercenary plan of attaining long-drive fame in America so as to promote the European Long Drive Games, a series of overseas events he and a partner co-own. Worldwide fame might not be far off. Borgmeier, 28, a personable and hirsute German (he’s known as “The Beard” in European long-drive circles), was runner-up to Kyle Berkshire in the 2019 ROC City Rumble in Rochester, N.Y., and reached the quarterfinals in two other World Long Drive events. Before that, in 2018, he won three times on the now-defunct European Long Drivers Tour, in Belgium, Russia and Italy.

Though Borgmeier is still largely unknown in America, a couple of performance snapshots warn of his might. At the Russia event in 2018, he won with an astounding blast of 436 yards, impressive even by long-drive standards. Another achievement is more foreboding: In March 2019, hitting indoors in West Palm Beach, Borgmeier attained a ball speed of 231.9 mph, an unofficial (for now) TrackMan record. At 6-5 and 240 pounds—years ago he was a small forward for a pro basketball team in Bavaria—Borgmeier is a good natural athlete. And his technique is still improving under coach Lee Cox, a distance specialist who helped Joe Miller to two WLD Championship titles.

Borgmeier might have made an even faster impression on the American circuit had it not been for getting accustomed to the format. In a typical WLD event, players execute 14 eight-shot sets, with top point-getters advancing to match play. “In Europe, it’s more about hitting the one big ball,” Borgmeier says. “It’s not about consistency, it’s about going all out on every shot. I’m still getting used to the American way.”

Then there was the culture shock of his first stay in the United States. “Everything in America is oversized,” he says. “I can’t get over these huge stores, like Wal-Mart, which we have none of in Germany. The number of fast-food places here is unbelievable. So is the heat in some of the cities here. Even the driving takes getting used to. I’ve gone 160 miles per hour on the autobahn—I’m talking in my car, not my clubhead speed—and felt more safe than here. I’m not used to being overtaken [passed] on the right.”

Inspired as a youth watching on TV as Tiger Woods won the 2005 Masters, Borgmeier developed a sound technique, and by age 14 he was a 3-handicapper. His swing is more classic than quirky, though on the backswing, he rises to his full height before lowering himself coming down. He swings up and through the ball viciously along an in-to-out swing path, resulting in a powerful draw.

“If I can win here, it will go a long way to helping the sport in Europe and golf in Germany,” he says. “That’s my goal.” He then murmurs, “Ich kann nicht scheitern.” That’s German for, “I cannot fail.”

HOW MARTIN CRUSHES IT

“If you want to swing all-out, you have to be willing to let your feet ‘dance’ a little during the swing. On the backswing, let your left heel rise, and don’t be afraid to come up on your toes a little through impact.”


RYAN STEENBERG

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The modern golf ball is virtually indestructible, its urethane and thermoplastic materials impervious to rocks, cartpaths and sometimes, mowing equipment. But in Ryan Steenberg, golf balls apparently have met their match. “I’ve had the centers burst through the covers on me,” Steenberg says. “Another time, we cut one open, and the center was like the crumbled yolk of a hard-boiled egg.”

Whew. Steenberg, who won the 2019 Exchange: Fort Jackson WLD event by outdriving Kyle Berkshire by 25 yards, is not to be trifled with. A nine-year veteran from Rochester, N.Y., who at 5-10 and 240 pounds is still the most physically imposing player in long driving—fellow-competitor Paul Howell describes him as “scary”—Steenberg has produced some of the most legendary drives in history. Foremost among them was a 485-yard blast at the 2017 Mile High Showdown that other hitters still talk about.

“I’m still trying to duplicate that one,” says Steenberg, who has a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and conducts golf-specific training sessions privately and online. “The adrenaline, the eruption in my swing, the feel of that shot and the ball flight, it’s something that gets in your soul.”

Steenberg, 37, says long driving has come a long way since his rookie year of 2011, when he brought his massive biceps to competition for the first time. “Back then it was a good-ol’ boy, smash-balls-then-go-party, traveling circus, brute-force kind of deal,” he says. “It was a lot of fun, but far from the sophisticated athletic endeavor it is now.” Like most veteran golfers, Steenberg points to dramatic improvements in nutrition, conditioning, coaching and equipment. But he also alludes to an area that is the purview of veteran competitors such as himself, Jeff Gavin (age 52) and Eddie Fernandes (49): experience.

“I hit 500 to 600 full drives during a competitive week, which sounds like lot, but we’ve had talented young guys come along who hit a lot more than that and burn themselves out,” he says. “When I lost in the WLD Championship final to Joe Miller in 2016, I felt like I’d been through a war. I learned from that. Managing your energy is important. So is avoiding injury. So are watching the scoreboard to know where you stand points-wise, eating the right things at the right time of day, and a few secrets I won’t go into. They all come from experience, and they all add up.”

Steenberg, with two children younger than 10, plans on staying in long driving for years to come. “This sport has taken me to Dubai, London, Portugal, Beijing and Mexico City, places I never dreamed I’d go,” he says. “The best days for long driving are still ahead, and I’m going to be there to see them.”

HOW RYAN CRUSHES IT

“To hit a power draw, make as big a turn as you can and finish the turn so you don’t jump on it from the top. Swing down from the inside, keeping your upper body back so you swing into the ball on a shallow angle. Contact the inside one-third of the ball and release like crazy with your hands and arms.”


ALEXIS BELTON

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In August 2019, flight cancellations on the eve of the Tennessee Big Shots left Alexis Belton with no clubs, no suitcase and seemingly no way to get to Kingsport, the host city. “I’d missed the cut in a Symetra Tour event earlier that day and was feeling a little low, which is unusual for me,” says Belton, 26. An inveterate journal keeper who hand-writes her thoughts and experiences nightly, Belton soon would have a remarkable tale to tell. After hitching a rental-car ride with a Golf Channel employee caught in the same predicament, she arrived in Kingsport at 4 a.m. Using a driver borrowed from Phillis Meti and wearing clothes from the night before, Belton ground her way through qualifying and match play, and in the final she hammered a 328-yard drive to beat her benefactor, Meti. It was Belton’s second WLD title. “My first thought was, Cool,” she says. “My second thought was, Poor Phillis.”

For Belton, there always seems to be a way. Her venture into golf has been scrappy from the start, her success unlikely. Lithe and slender at 5-foot-10, she became a celebrated high-school basketball player in Ruston, La. Then she discovered golf at age 16, and a year later, quit basketball.

“My parents were horrified because I passed on several full-ride basketball scholarships to concentrate on golf,” she says. “I wasn’t very good, but golf makes you dream big.” Belton walked on at Texas Wesleyan, got a golf scholarship within a year, and played three years at the school, eventually earning a degree in mass communications.

Belton has many interests, including playing guitar and preparing shrimp dishes that impress her culinary-proud Louisianans. But she has independent tastes, eschewing some music (“Harsh sounds make me angry”) in favor of gentler tunes. She follows her heart in golf, too. After turning pro in 2017 and experiencing little success in small events in America and Australia, a failed attempt at 2018 LPGA Tour Q school set her back.

“I wanted to get my $2,500 entry fee back somehow,” she says. A naturally gifted long hitter, she entered the 2017 WLD Championship on a whim and made it to the semifinals with a 348-yard blast against Troy Mullins. Buoyed by a small paycheck and knowledge she had used only a standard-length driver, Belton acquired a longer stick and won the second event she entered, the 2018 Clash in the Canyon. She then sought help from instructor Brad Pullin, who has refined her classic, rhythmic swing. In Belton’s seven most recent events, she has failed to reach the quarterfinals only once.

Though smitten by long driving, Belton has a goal of making it to the LPGA Tour. “The adrenaline of long driving hasn’t always transferred well to actual golf,” she laughs. “Out of nowhere, I’ll hit a 9-iron 180 yards and airmail everything by 30 yards. But I’ll get there. My dream is the same as when I was 16: to be the best in the world.”

HOW ALEXIS CRUSHES IT

“On the backswing, create as much distance between the handle of the club and your body as possible. Stretch both arms so they straighten before your right arm bends naturally at the elbow halfway back. From the top, start down slow and then just rip it.”


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