The unsuspecting ball, planted on a tee, has a moment to relax before it is shocked, squashed oblong by the fastest club on Earth. A second later the ball is a speck in the sky, 280 yards away and still rising. "Not bad," says Jason Zuback, "but I didn't get it all."
He is all about getting it all. Zuback, a 28-year-old pharmacist from western Canada, is golf's biggest hitter. His 48-inch, XXX-stiff shafts often snap at impact or even before impact. At last year's North American Long Drive Championship in Mesquite, Nev., he took a mighty whack that left him holding a decapitated shaft, but the clubhead made contact and drove the ball 410 yards. He ultimately won the event and its $50,000 first prize with a 412-yarder. Not bad, but 99 yards shy of his personal best.
A 5'10" weightlifter who graduated with honors from the University of Alberta, Zuback spent four years manning pharmacy counters in Drayton Valley, 400 miles north of the Montana border. The pharm boy sometimes moonlighted as a golf shark. "I had a friend who was long, too," he says. "We used to drive to other towns for Texas scrambles and bet on ourselves in the Calcuttas. Then we'd go out, drive the par-4s and take everybody's money."
Zuback tried the Canadian tour, but lost out to the likes of Tim Herron and Steve Stricker. Like a lot of longball kings, he is spotty from 100 yards in. But eight years ago he flipped on the TV and saw Frank Miller winning the North American Long Drive title and a check for $18,000. "Big money," says Zuback, recalling the days when his father, Gordon, won smalltown driving contests. "I marveled at my dad's drives, but he never got much more than a bottle of rum for winning."
Jason has now powered his way to 31 longball titles including the 1996 and '97 North American Championships, but he still subscribes to The American Journal of Hospital Pharmacy. No 500-pound gorilla, he is a 215-pound student of his craft. "The full swing is an athletic move. The legs are your stabilizers; along with your hips, abs and back muscles, they drive the swing," he says, explaining that his power derives less from muscle than from "timing and centrifugal force." He often generates enough force to split open the skin of his fingers—an occupational hazard he repairs with Blue Glue, a surgical adhesive he gets from pharmaceutical supply houses.
Despite his $50,000 payday last fall, he isn't rich. "I'm approaching $100,000 a year from contests, but there's so much travel that I burn up about $80,000 in expenses," says Zuback, who netted more money at the Medicine World pharmacy. Yet he is driven to explore the far reaches of his talent. "My clubhead speed has been measured by laser at 156. That's about 25 miles an hour faster than Tiger Woods's swing, but I'm always looking for more," he says. He boosts his income with corporate outings such as the Alberta Pharmaceutical Association convention, at which he showed his old drugstore colleagues how to pop the pill 280-plus yards while sitting in a chair. Zuback also drives balls through plywood planks. "You know what's tougher than doing that trick? Learning it," he says. "If you don't knock it through the wood, the ball comes back right at you."
An ad in Pinnacle's Drive Across America campaign has Zuback smacking balls off the top of the Empire State Building. "Ah, can't we shoot this in a studio?" asked the acrophobic star. Making another commercial at a diner in Ohio, he hit balls at a net designed to protect the customers, but his drives tore through the net and suddenly the luncheon special was duck.
All summer 8,000 long hitters will vie for berths on the shooting range at the Oct. 21-24 finals of the '98 Long Drive Championship in Mesquite. The defending champ, who'll be frontrunner for this year's $75,000 first prize, can't wait to meet them. "When I'm pumped and the crowd is electrifying me, I want to astound people," he says, "to show them how far a golf ball can go."