In the final round of last January's Mercedes Championships, Ernie Els and Tiger Woods, two of the Tour's longest hitters, launched mammoth drives on the downhill, downwind par-5 18th hole of the Plantation Course at Kapaula, in Hawaii. Woods's drive stopped 378 yards away. Els's ball came to rest next to Woods's. Big hits? Yes, but they didn't even come close to matching the 515-yard drive of Mike Hoke Austin in the 1974 U.S. National Senior Open, the tee shot listed in the Guinness Book of Sports Records as the longest hit in competition. More amazing, Austin was 64 when he crushed his record drive.
Austin, who turned 90 in February, remembers every detail from that day. "We were playing at the Winterwood Golf Course in Las Vegas, and I was grouped with Chandler Harper, Pete Flemming and Joe Brown, the best golfer ever out of Des Moines, Iowa," he says. Using a Wilson persimmon-headed driver with a 44-inch, extra-stiff steel shaft and a 100-compression Titleist ball, the 6'1", 210-pound Austin had already reached a pair of par-5s, the 527-yard 2nd hole and the 532-yard 4th, with a driver and a seven-iron when the threesome crossed a street that bisected the course and headed for the 5th hole, a flat, 450-yard par-4 that was playing with the wind. Says Austin, " Chandler Harper said, 'Man, I've never seen anybody hit the ball so far. Now let me see how hard you can really hit it.' "
Austin estimates that he had a tailwind of about 25 mph. "When I hit the ball," he says, "it didn't go real high. It went up about 20 feet and didn't make a parabolic curve. The ball seemed to stay on a line and carried about 435 yards. Then it bounced on the green on one hop and rolled 65 yards beyond the green."
Austin pitched back to the green and three-putted for bogey. Later, tournament officials walked off the drive with a measuring wheel. What was it like hitting a ball that far? "It was like God hit it," Austin says. "Who can hit a ball that far? No one. I feel like I got some assistance from God."
Austin credits his prodigious power to his first lesson, when he was six. The pro at his home course on Guernsey, an island in the English Channel, taught him how to achieve clubhead speed. "It had been raining," Austin says, "and the pro said, 'I want you to take this mashie niblick and go out to that muddy bank and swing the club into it. If you come back with any mud on your left sleeve, I'm going to kick you in the rear end.' "
To stay clean, Austin had to keep the clubhead ahead of his arms. He didn't know it at the time, but the exercise taught him to properly release the clubhead with his hands and wrists.
When Austin was 14, his family moved to a house in Atlanta that was next door to East Lake Golf Club, the home course of Bobby Jones. Austin says that one day in 1924 he caught the eye of the great man. "Stewart Maiden, the pro at East Lake, was giving Jones a lesson on the left side of the practice tee, and I was hitting balls on the right side," says Austin. "I was hitting them over a lake—a 300-yard carry—with a wooden-shafted club with a suede grip. Jones stopped, walked over and said, 'Son, how do you do that?' I said, 'Sir, you're taking lessons from Mr. Maiden; he'll tell you. I'm just an amateur.' "
Austin wouldn't remain an amateur for long. He turned pro when he was 18, and although he won 128 tournaments, he made more cash in private games than he did in official money. Austin says he also won 48 long-drive contests, appeared in Hollywood movies, sang in the Los Angeles Light Opera and studied physics, engineering, physiology and psychology. He received a doctorate in kinesiology from the National Academy of Applied Science in 1946. "Golf pros are dealing with a machine they know nothing about," he says.
If you want to see how much Austin gets out of that machine, stop by the Studio City driving range, which is just over the hill from the HOLLYWOOD sign in Los Angeles. If you're lucky, you'll see Austin, his right side partially paralyzed due to a stroke in 1988, take a five-iron and, using only his left hand and arm, whack a ball to the 150-yard marker. That might be sort of a record in itself.