When Evan Williams bombs one, caddies cower, Jack Nicklaus sticks his fingers in his ears and owners of property anywhere near the fairway get nervous about their picture windows. Williams, ladies and gentlemen, is the world's longest driver. No one can match his monstrous hits, or his prodigious misses. Stand back there! Give the man room!
Give the man lots of room! With a two-iron, Williams can outdrive Nicklaus. He can hit a wedge shot 200 yards. He can drive 400-yard holes, knock down caddie shacks with a two-wood and, says Chi Chi Rodriguez, "make the ball look like a flying saucer." But best of all, as far as Williams is concerned, is that in a game that can reduce the most composed golfer to a blithering idiot, he does not have to keep score. Tee it high and let it fly is the long driver's way.
Nicknamed "Big Cat," Williams has won the National Long Driving Championship each of the last two years, blasting a 307-yard winner into a head wind at Congressional Country Club in 1976 and triumphing at Pebble Beach last year with a smash of 353 yards. Jim Dent, the longest hitter on the professional golf tour, finished sixth in 1977 with a "measly" poke of 316 yards. George Bayer, who in his day was golf's longest driver, says that Dent "not only uses a graphite shaft, he has graphite arms." Where she stops, nobody knows.
Big Cat is 6'6" and weighs 215 pounds, a boyish and ebullient 30-year-old who lopes through life looking for a cocktail party when he isn't wrecking driving ranges. He expects to make more than $75,000 this year, giving exhibitions at $1,500 a clip before galleries that are dumbstruck when he does his number. There is an other-world quality to a well-struck Williams tee shot as it whooshes off and up and away, the ball hanging for what seems an interminable time, growing smaller and smaller, finally descending, just a bouncing speck now, rolling to a stop somewhere between three and four football fields away. Often, after one of these mammoth pokes, the onlookers are so stunned that they fail to applaud, at which point Williams will turn to them and with a big smile, nodding his head up and down, begin clapping in self-congratulation.
Long hitters are admired, even adulated. Good putters are resented, as if somehow it is unfair for them to score well by doing something as delicate as pitty-patting a ball into the cup. The story is told of a long driver, a man who belittled putting as "golf needlework," entering his club's putting tournament and, to his and the other members' surprise, winning it. "Gentlemen," he said, "I've never been so ashamed in my life." In truth, it is rare to find anyone who brags about being a good putter, though one of the most telling phrases in golf, especially when uttered by a powder-puff hitter, is, "Drive for show and putt for dough." Asked to name his favorite person in the game, Big Cat Williams says, "Mr. Alternate Fairway."
By the nature of things, a long driver is going to be peering from behind trees and refreshment stands a lot. That will happen when he unloads a 540-yard drive, as Bayer once did on a sun-baked hole in Sydney, Australia. Off the course Bayer was friendly and amicable. But while playing, he would grouse and mutter dire imprecations over every misfortune, particularly when he sliced one. In 1957 during the Kentucky Derby Open, he became so frustrated that he took out a seven-iron and simply chipped the ball one-handed down the middle of the fairway, finishing with a 17 on the hole. For his transgression, Bayer was given a 30-day suspension, which was later reduced to a $200 fine and 90 days' probation. Bayer, for his part, denied the charge of disorderly conduct. "Both my hands were on the club," he protested.
With his ability to draw a paying audience and not having to worry about the score, Williams has no such hangups. He laughs off his occasional mishits and simply tees up another ball. Last year he visited nine countries and countless backyards, scattering people and lawn furniture. At a recent exhibition at Champions Golf Club in Houston, former PGA champion Dave Marr watched Williams blast one past the driving-range boundaries and into a homeowner's garden. "Most people don't go that far on a vacation," said Marr.
"Any questions on the two-iron?" Williams asked his gallery of business executives.
"We don't ever use a two-iron," said one of the men.
"Normally I don't either," said Williams.