Long DriveSeptember 7, 2017

On second glance, the World Long Drive Championship is a winner

Everyone makes mistakes. Tom Selleck passed on Indiana Jones, the Trail Blazers picked Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan and Time Warner believed America Online was the future. Though not as infamous, my take on the Long Drive Championship was just as misguided.

After observing the 2015 contest, I pulled a drive-by on the bomber's event, ripping the commentary, production and performance. Lowlights included:

-- Referring to the players' theatrics as "grunts from Tim (The Tool Man) Taylor" mixed with an NFL receiver's touchdown exaltation.

-- Knocking the competitors as former Division II backup linebackers.

-- Closing the article with "Because in its current configuration, the Long Drive contest comes up short." ZING!

As one can imagine, the reception from the Long Drive community was a tad chilly. And by "tad chilly," I mean "universal calls for my castration." The inbox filled with threats; others claimed the piece emanated from jealousy, that I couldn't hit my tee ball further than 200 yards. The only thoughtful, non-expletive response I received came from Jeff Crittenden, an instructor, professional golfer and Long Drive legend, asking me to give it a second chance.

Which is why, with admitted reservation, I watched this year's event on Tuesday and Wednesday night. And, I swear with the utmost conviction -- without worry of castration -- I regret every insult and slight previously hurled.

Make no mistake, the observations hold true. It's the cadence that warrants tune-up. It remains hammy, with melodramatic narration and camp presentation reminiscent of a WWE show. And the over-the-top personalities, at times, make you wish for a tranquilizer dart.

But this doesn't deserve slander. It's the display you want from this pageant. The last thing the Golf Channel should do is cover the Long Drive Championship with the solemnity of a tour event. This is a fringe experience, one designed with fun at the forefront. Golf keeps beating the "Grow the Game" drum, and the Long Drive is a fine reverberation. Adding some color to the sport should be welcomed with open arms.

As for the contestants themselves, yes, the volume on the "world class athletes" rhetoric needs to be turned down. The fact that quarterfinal participant Wes Patterson has only been a Long Drive competitor for three weeks puts an end to that argument.

However, this is not a bad thing. Patterson's story should be shouted from the mountaintops. For all the amateur romanticism surrounding the U.S. Open, it's mostly a myth, the spots taken by professionals, college kids and high-school prodigies. The Long Drive is a true platform for such Tin Cup tales like Patterson or Maurice Allen. For average hackers that want to dream big, this is your canvas.

Moreover, Long Drive contestants aren't just bodybuilders. Most are damn good players in their own right, with college or mini-tour backgrounds. They aren't outsiders; like most of us, they're simply looking to get their golf fix in any fashion possible.

The event is not perfect; a viewer can numb to 400-yard drives relatively quickly, and the English vocabulary has only so many ways to describe rocket-launched shots. But the one-on-one competition is not short on drama, evidenced by the theater in the final match between Justin James and Mitch Grassing. James won with a 435-yard walk-off drive, a finale that was just as thrilling as a buzzer-beater or bottom-of-the-9th home run. That Grassing delivered breathing room by not finding the grid sounds like a asterisk, but in the moment, it was anything but.

For those that shun the Long Drive because it's not traditional golf, well, it doesn't want to be. It's not trying to replace it, either. The Long Drive Championship is a side dish, a treat to a plate that never seems full to our liking.

Most importantly, it's a competition on the upswing, with the Long Drive tour finally gaining traction. To dismiss its validity would be ignorant. Take it from one who's already learned his lesson.


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