When Brian Pavlet quietly claims to be the world's longest hitter of a golf ball, he doesn't get too much dissent from his proud peers, but if he ever had any question about where he stood with the rest of the American public, he found out in January at the Phoenix Open.
In a pretournament long-drive contest for PGA Tour players, organizers all too easily planted Pavlet in the crowd of several thousand fans. He was then "randomly" chosen to receive a lesson from the event's moderators, ex-Tour player Gary Koch and 1984 National Long Drive champion Wedgy Winchester. Without instruction Pavlet made a weak and awkward swing on one shot, but upon receiving a tip from Koch and Winchester, he miraculously hit each of his next two nearly 300 yards. The hoax was then unveiled: Pavlet was introduced as the 1993 National Long Drive champion and given one ball to show his stuff. Unwinding his 6'4", 215-pound frame with frightening speed, Pavlet hit a bullet that flew smack into the 350-yard sign set up for the event. Pavlet got some applause and then went back to being a spectator, watching as John Daly won the official contest with a drive, including roll, of 336 yards.
"The one question I always get asked is whether I'm as long as Daly, and I thought that maybe I had answered it," says Pavlet, who was not paid for his participation and was ineligible for the $3,000 first prize. "But even that night I got asked again."
Pavlet, a modest 27-year-old from Phoenix who shoots in the mid-70s, has no illusions about being accorded the same status as a winner on the PGA Tour, but he is puzzled by his apparent lack of any status. "Everyone in golf seems obsessed by distance," he says. "If it's such a big deal, I don't understand why people don't focus on those of us who specialize in it. Nobody knows what we can do."
Strangely, the small circle of individuals who can literally hit a golf ball a quarter mile is becoming less visible. Although the golf industry plays more aggressively than ever to the public's lust for more length off the tee. and Daly's feats have brought unprecedented attention to long hitting, there are fewer than half a dozen events a year in which the top long drivers get together, and seldom is the total purse more than a few thousand dollars.
Never big-time, Long Drive is getting smaller. The first National Long Drive Championship took place in 1975 and was won by the aptly named Jeffrey Long. From 1976 to '84 the event was held at the site of the PGA Championship, during the Tuesday practice round, and it benefited from touring pros' participation, network coverage and big galleries. Distance was the draw, but then as now, accuracy was important. To be counted, one of each competitor's four shots per round had to land within a grid, usually 40 yards wide. The Long Drive had a charismatic two-time champion early on in Evan (Big Cat) Williams, whose blow of 352 yards, 24 inches in 1977 remains the record for the event. "Those first years it was like a heavyweight championship fight," says Williams, who stopped competing in 1984 and now makes a bundle doing exhibitions and corporate outings. "It seemed to mean a lot, and people talked about it."
But in 1985 the PGA stopped hosting the contest, network TV lost interest and long driving was reduced to a cable trash sport. In the '90s, while Daly has signed contracts worth tens of millions of dollars, only a third of the 50 or so top long drivers earn enough from their specialty to make a living, with a handful at best pulling down six figures, the bulk of which comes from endorsements and exhibitions.
The National Long Drive Championship was held at various resorts through 1993, but after Pavlet won his title, which was worth $18,000, the Long Drive lost its sponsor, Chrysler, and was discontinued as a professional competition. It was replaced last year by the first U.S. Open Long Drive Championship, held in Las Vegas in November, where one Darryl Anderson took the first prize of $10,000 with a poke of 343 yards. This year long-drivers Art Sellinger and Randy Souza have put together the RE/MAX North America Long Drive Championship, to be held in Las Vegas in September, for the largest purse in the history of the sport—$100,000, almost a third of which will go to the winner. ESPN will broadcast the event on tape delay, but that is the only national TV exposure long drive will enjoy this year.
The main reason for the lack of interest among sponsors and networks is that long-drive kings such as Pavlet; Monte Scheinblum, the 1992 national champ; and Mike Gorton, the '87 titleholder, all tend to have the Q rating of a paper-mill worker, which is what Anderson was when he won. Some golf fans might recognize Sellinger, the '86 and '91 champ, and 1990 king Frank Miller from their appearance in a commercial for the Nitro golf ball, but they are more likely to remember the duffer who closed out that spot by saying, "Wacka-wacka-wacka."
Pavlet is right to be confused by his lack of fame. After all, the promise of power sells—clubs, balls, even shoes. When Daly exploded onto the scene with his win in the '91 PGA Championship, he brought with him mantras like "Kill!" and "Grip it and rip it." And in the current marketplace, which promotes the concept of oversize and bigger is better, long drivers would seem to be natural endorsers. Elite long drivers tend toward the size of an NFL tight end—at 6'5" and 250 pounds; Miller is their prototype. They use drivers with shafts as long as 60 inches (the standard length is 44 inches), with lofts as low as five degrees (the norm for a driver is 10). They generate up to 150 mph in club-head speed (compared with the PGA Tour average of 110), enough to cave in faces and snap graphite shafts "like kindling," according to Pavlet. Most excelled in other sports. Pavlet and Scheinblum were power pitchers who injured their arms, Miller and Souza former bodybuilders and weightlifters. "What we do is not normal," says Pavlet.