May 14, 2009

Long Drives: Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em

The electric blue A4 fits right in on Memphis' neon-infused Beale Street.

The electric blue A4 fits right in on Memphis' neon-infused Beale Street.

If the goal for the Long Drives series is to take an interesting new car on a real-world weekend golf trip, call this particular adventure an exception. From using long underwear as a bribe to get the car onto pedestrian-only Beale street (for the photo above) to destroying racks of dry-rub ribs with a long-drive champ called The Beast, my trip from Memphis to Little Rock in a slick, electric blue Audi A4 was like something from a Mel Brooks movie.

The sight gags started when my wingman met me in the lobby of the Peabody Memphis hotel. Sean (The Beast) Fister is a three-time World Long Drive champion, and at 6-feet-4 and 265 pounds, if he says he's moving the seat back, suck it up and get your knees out of the way -- which is what our wiry, 175-pound photographer did.

"Dynamic five-link front suspension" might be nothing more than geek-speak on the A4's long list of standard equipment, but the midsize Audi swallowed the two of us XXL guys without protest, and The Beast's cartoonishly large staff bag disappeared into the trunk with plenty of room to spare for my clubs and bag cover.

Map of Memphis

After the requisite snickering from Fister about the Audi's fashion-forward "Aruba blue" paint -- The Beast rolls in a black pickup with a lift kit and custom 22-inch rims -- we set out for Cherokee Valley Golf Club across the border in Olive Branch, Miss. (__ __, $40-$56,, the best public course in metro Memphis.

Entertaining as it is to play with a guy who can carry the ball 390 yards off the tee, it makes for some interminable waits for the group ahead to get out of the landing area -- an activity made less fun by a cold snap. Shivering, we had plenty of time to plot the route to the best meat palaces on the I-40 corridor. Fister's old friend John Daly pointed us toward the legendary Rendezvous barbecue joint in downtown Memphis, but Sean swore that we'd find places just as good over in Arkansas.

We'd get to investigating that potential barbecue heresy, but first we needed some pictures of the Audi on Beale -- which would prove to be an unexpected challenge. Beale is closed to car traffic, but trucks come through the portable barricades for deliveries in daylight, before the crowds arrive. Our photographer sidled up to the homeless guy who "supervised" the barricades, and for $40 and the new pair of long underwear we were using to dust the car for the pictures, we got an escort through. He even chased off other "enemy" panhandlers.

Shots secured, we angled back to the alley basement where the Rendezvous has been hiding since 1948. You could order something else, but the only real choices are dry-rub ribs and the pork shoulder sandwich (below). We actually hit the 'Vous twice in one day -- snacking on pork shoulder sandwiches at lunch, then returning for four racks of spice-encrusted ribs at dinner. Staggering up the steps in a protein coma, we pointed the A4 down I-40 toward Little Rock.

Audi specs

The previous generation A4 caught criticism for its ponderous handling: Outfitted with the heavy quattro all-wheel drive kit, the Audi would plow you straight through an aggressive curve, albeit in leather-lined comfort. The '09 version has a wider and stiffer frame, and the power bias is pushed to the back wheels. You can also use the car's computer brain to modify things like the shift points and suspension stiffness to change the ride. Or, let the car judge the way you drive and pick the appropriate settings. Technological sleights of hand don't completely obscure the need for 40 more horsepower, but now the A4 is far more than just a capable Interstate cruiser.

The next day, we pulled into an anonymous strip mall along the Arkansas River for lunch at the Whole Hog Cafe. Calling it the best barbecue in Arkansas is no idle boast -- its pulled pork won the 2002 Memphis-in-May World Championship, and the ribs finished second. You line up cafeteria-style and take your heaping plate of meat over to a low-slung picnic table, where you can apply six kinds of sauce. Whole Hog's food beat the Rendezvous', even if the atmosphere is a little more, um, suburban. Of course, it is nice to see your food without a flashlight.

Even though Fister enjoyed his time in the A4's plush cockpit, he insisted we park it off to the side at his home course, Chenal Country Club in Little Rock. "I do have an image to protect," he joked. If anybody had watched us play the 307-yard, par-4 eighth a couple of hours later, he wouldn't have had anything to be concerned about. After I aimed right, to the safe side, and skanked my hybrid out there 185 yards, Fister rotated 20 degrees and aimed straight at the flag -- directly over the long hazard protecting the entire left side of the hole -- and casually smoothed a 5-iron to the middle of the green, 18 feet from the flag. At least he missed the putt. Making eagle would have been just showing off.

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