My ShotDecember 23, 2013

My Shot: Tim Burke

At 6-6 and 240 pounds, World Long-Drive Champion Tim Burke tells how he hit one 427 yards (and why there is crying in baseball)

Tim Burke / Age: 27 / Re/Max World Long-Drive Champion Photographed on December 6, 2013 at Volcano Island in Orlando.

Tim Burke / Age: 27 / Re/Max World Long-Drive Champion

Photographed on December 6, 2013 at Volcano Island in Orlando.

I'LL TELL YOU the sensation of hitting a golf ball 427 yards: nothing. That last drive at Las Vegas Motor Speedway felt almost like a whiff. When you find the center of the clubface and you've got the club in the slot, there's no feedback, no vibration. Joe Miller, the guy I went up against in the finals, went first, and his best was 405. I had three balls to try to beat that, and on the first one, I felt nothing. That's when I knew I'd won.

IT'S ALL ABOUT the ball flight. My clubhead speed is 150 miles per hour, and my ball speed is 222 miles per hour. Good numbers, but ball flight is where the money is. Some guys hit rainbows, some hit up-shooters, others hit low bullets. After my ball reaches the peak of its trajectory, it flattens out before coming down. It's the best ball flight to have, and it's a gift. You can't really teach it, can't high-tech your way into it. Training will take you only so far. It's sort of like Mariano Rivera having late movement on his fastball. You think a million guys didn't try to copy him?

JASON ZUBACK, who has won the Re/Max five times, had the idea that my 86-gram driver shaft was too heavy. He went to Lance Reader, the owner and founder of Krank Golf, and said, "We should try to put Burke into a 55-gram shaft and see what happens." Well, that instantly added 5 miles per hour to my clubhead speed. Note that Jason said "we." He's part of Team Krank. Long driving is a little like NASCAR, where the drivers help each other.

IN THIS SPORT, finishing second means absolutely nothing. When I finished second in 2012, I won $70,000—pretty good consolation prize. But this past year, it was winner take all, $250,000. It's sort of brutal that way. I mean, in the movie "Glengarry Glen Ross," second place at least got a guy a set of steak knives.

I COME FROM A FAMILY of baseball players. At age 10 I was 5-9, which was huge. I had a naturally good arm, and in Little League they made me a pitcher. I was so dominating that kids on the other teams would cry sometimes when they came up to hit against me. I actually felt sorry for them. When I would occasionally plunk one of them, they'd cry not out of fear, but pain. As a 10-year-old in Orlando I got drafted to play for an AAU team in Jacksonville. We were unbelievable, a total team of ringers. Behavior-wise, we were like the Bad News Bears. Parents would protest that I shouldn't be pitching against kids my age. Trust me, we would have given the teams in the Little League World Series a serious run for their money.

I ARRIVED at the University of Miami with a 90-plus-mile-per-hour fastball and a lot of confidence. First intrasquad game, the first two hitters I face are Yonder Alonso and Jemile Weeks, both now in the major leagues. Behind the right-field fence at Miami is a parking garage about four stories high. My third pitch, Yonder hit one so hard off the top story of that parking garage that the ball bounced back almost to second base. I thought, Uh-oh. I was exposed. I didn't have that late movement on my fastball, and with those aluminum bats, I started to imagine a line drive taking my head off. Now it was my turn to cry.

WE HAD this game we used to play during batting practice in college. Shagging balls in the outfield one day, somebody suggested we break up the boredom by letting fly balls hit us instead of catching them. So began the "line-drive game." You got points for allowing yourself to be hit: The lower the trajectory of the line drive, the more points you got. It was painful, and also hilarious. It went on until our best pitcher took a line drive on his collarbone and broke it. Anyway, watching the guys hit at the Re/Max, I thought, That game wouldn't work very well in golf.

IN LAS VEGAS, my swing thought was baseball-oriented. There was a row of poles sticking out from the top of the grandstand. The seventh pole over was well to the right of the grid. I aimed my clubface down the middle but thought of swinging the clubhead out toward that seventh pole, on a slightly upward path. It was exactly like hitting a baseball to the opposite field. Obviously I wasn't interested in singles.

IN 2009 I was doing an internship at the Biltmore in Coral Gables. Played a little golf, just messing around. They had a long-drive qualifier, and the head instructor, Justin Bruton, says, "You've got to try this." I was a little dubious, because it cost $40 to hit six balls, with the best six players out of about 100 advancing. I advanced but had to spend another $75 at regionals. I won that, and went to the finals.

KNOWING I WAS GOING to Mesquite, I figured I needed an edge. So I ordered a driver from Krank Golf over the Internet, from my dorm room. I was stoked. But the first day on the range in Nevada, Jason Zuback walks out with two staff tour bags packed with drivers. He must have had 30 of them in there. I looked over at that bag and at Jason, who had muscles popping out everywhere. I wondered, What am I doing here? But I finished 20th out of about 150 players. I made no money, but I thought, Maybe I can do this.

BUT I HAD TO MAKE a living. My great-uncle helped me get into finance. I started out as an internal wholesaler, cold-calling prospective clients from an office in Washington, D.C. You know who I was? Bud Fox, the Charlie Sheen character in the movie "Wall Street." I did OK at that, but looking out the window one day, it occurred to me that I'm only going to be young once, the Long Drive title is out there waiting to be had, and finance is something I can always come back to. I resigned this past November, a few days after cashing that first-place check for $250,000.

ONE OF THE COOLEST things that's happened is seeing my TrackMan numbers being compared to Dustin Johnson's. I can't tell you what a thrill that was. I'm not one-tenth the golfer he is, and here they are saying how similar our swings are. We're both long hitters, and we both are laid off at the top, but the comparisons kind of stop right there.

Tim Burke

PLAYING GOLF FOR SCORE is a challenge for me, like everybody else. Every time I play, it seems like I use the same four clubs and nothing else. My sand wedge flies up to 160 yards. My all-out 7-iron flies 240 yards. My driver goes, well, 400 yards. Then there's my putter. You know how golfers have awkward distances where no club seems to fit? For me, that's a shot of 320 yards. It's too short for my driver, and too long for my 7-iron. I come to these "drivable" par 4s of 320 yards and sort of short-circuit. I'll just bump a 5-iron out there and play in from there.

THE FACT IS, I'm just not that experienced. On a normal day I'll shoot around 75. I've never had a USGA handicap. What kills me: bad lies. I have no idea how to control spin from rough, and let me tell you, it's no fun hitting a drive 400 yards and then struggling on a shot of 50 yards. I've got a lot of work to do.

LONGEST DRIVE I EVER HIT was in Denver. There was a long-drive event there where the grid was 420 yards. Beyond the grid they had 20 more yards, and then hay. I hit one of those drives where I felt nothing and saw the ball go dead straight. Then it disappeared. Nobody saw it come down, and with no ball there to measure, the judge did a normal thing. "That was O.B.," he said. Lance Reader, my friend from Krank Golf, said, "Wait a minute." There was a $500 prize at stake, and Lance insisted that the officials look for the ball. They did find it, in the hay, and measured it at 440 yards. "We have ourselves a winner," the judge said. I got the money.

THERE ARE TWO MYTHS about long driving. The first is that a golf ball travels farthest in hot, humid weather. That isn't even close to being true. Hot, dry weather is when the ball goes forever. The second myth is that a draw goes farther than a fade. The longest drives I've ever seen—and certainly the ones I've hit—are either dead straight, or have a little tail at the end. I'm not talking a banana-ball slice. I'm talking a five-yard cut.

THE USGA LIMIT on club length is 48 inches (measured from grip to heel). Long Drivers of America abides by that, then adds its rule: The total length of the club, measured from grip to toe, can't be longer than 50 inches. I'm a little under that because the shaft I use is 47¾. But adding that extra quarter inch would really put my accuracy at risk. I guess there's potential there, but right now I'm happy where I am.

I LIKE to be on an empty stomach when I compete. I'll eat a protein bar a couple of hours before I head to the tee, but I like to feel a little gnawing in my stomach. In fact, my training diet is wearing me out. I've eaten so much brown rice, chicken and egg whites and sweet-potato fries—baked, not fried—that I could scream. But that's the price I feel I have to pay.

THERE'S A CHANCE I might get to play with Michael Jordan soon, and if that happens, it will be one of the biggest thrills of my life. See, I started in golf too late to really have a golf hero, except for Tiger. But Jordan is different. I got my first pair of Air Jordan basketball shoes when I was 8. Our family didn't have money, and it was a sacrifice. I got a pair every year because I practically worshiped the guy. And I still do idolize him. He makes a limited-edition golf shoe that I think is absolutely the hottest item in golf. You can't buy them in stores, and I don't even know where to get them. Keegan Bradley rocked some at the Presidents Cup. Ray Allen has a pair. A couple of other guys. It's funny how we desire most the things that are hardest to get. If Michael and I hook up and he brings me a pair of those shoes, I'll owe him forever.

REMEMBER what I said about my training diet? It's been bothering me, because I do cheat. Last night, after working out and then playing golf, I was starving. I ordered a Papa John's pizza. Large, with pepperoni, mushroom and peppers. I ate the whole thing.

THIS MIGHT SOUND CRAZY, but my best attribute might be my feet. For being a tall guy, I have small hands and feet. I wear only a size-12 shoe. But when I'm hitting, I feel quick and agile. They help me shift my weight without losing my balance, and help me fire my hips. I see guys with real big, clodhopper kind of feet and wonder if they don't slow that person's swing down.

THE MOST COMMON injury for long drivers is small bone fractures of the hand. I had that. It comes from stress from all the repetitions. In 2012, I lost in the first round and had to fight my way up through the losers' bracket. Over the course of four or five days, between practice and competition, I hit so many drivers I felt like I'd been in a car accident.

MY DRIVER is different, and it's not just the specs. It's handmade. It's assembled differently, the metal is forged and of a better quality, the weighting is crazy advanced, and it's basically 20 yards longer than anything I've tried that came out of a golf shop. It's sort of the best-kept secret out there.

WHEN A LONG DRIVER refers to another guy as "fast," look out, because that means he can bring it. But the adjective I really listen for is "pop." It describes a late snap through impact, a fast-twitch-muscle thing, which seems to come from nowhere. It's another thing that can't be taught. Jamie Sadlowski has pop. Jason Zuback has it.

Tim Burke

I LEFT THE SPEEDWAY thinking, I can't hit a golf ball better than that. Everything came together in an almost freaky way. But now I feel that with a lot of work, I should be able to increase my ball speed to 230. My swing can be a lot better. I swing from in to out at an angle of 3 degrees and would hit it farther if I could get that number to 6. Then there's the quarter-inch I could add to my driver shaft. The second you stop seeing room for improvement, that's when you stop improving—and get beat.

WHEN IT WAS OVER and I was doing interviews, I noticed a group of men waiting nearby. Finally they came over. One man—their host, apparently—said the men were from Asia and were in Las Vegas on business. Their host had taken them to the Re/Max for entertainment. Very timidly and one by one, they reached out and stroked my forearms lightly. They kept going Oooh. "They have never seen a man as tall [6-feet-6] as you," the host said. "They've seen blond hair before, but never on someone's arms." It was flattering, but strange.

BEFORE I GO OUT to hit, I have my headphones in and am by myself, visiting a quiet place. Well, it's not a quiet place, really. I listen to "Let's Go" by Calvin Harris. It's a song with a driving beat that builds in the beginning, hangs back a little, then explodes at the finish. When I take those headphones off, the adrenaline almost has me coming out of my skin.

THIS ECONOMY is rough. My mom is living with me right now because she's having difficulty finding a job. She's smart and able, but it's surprising how tough the job market is. As you know, I'm not the only person out there needing to help a relative in this economy.

I'M NOT A GRUNTER. There are guys in long driving who grunt and yell, which is sort of an outpouring of all the stress that has built up. Joe Miller is a grunter, and Ryan Winther is a yeller. It works for them, but I was always afraid to get into that. What if I let out this big grunt, and then a gust of wind came up or my ball spun a little too much and didn't go anywhere? I'd be sort of embarrassed. So I'm pretty quiet. After the winning drive at the Re/Max, I did shout "Go!" But just that once. Grunting just isn't me.

DON'T CONFUSE excitement with nervousness. Huge difference there. Nervousness is a killer. That's when fear, doubt and anxiety creep in. It comes from not being prepared. Nervousness is why I finished second at the 2012 Re/Max; I just wasn't prepared and started making bad swings. This year, I was ready. Feeling excited and on edge, but knowing you're prepared, is the best feeling in the world. You feel like you can't lose.