Jim Rice, the Boston Red Sox slugger, stood poised on a rubber golf mat with a 633-yard ribbon of asphalt airstrip stretched in front of him.
"O.K., two-and-oh count, get ready for a nice high fastball...." The voice was that of Jim Palmer, erstwhile Baltimore Oriole ace.
"Keep talking," said Rice, waggling his driver with relish.
"The best part is," continued Palmer, whose bane, even as he won 268 games, was the gopher ball, "I'm pitching."
"Perfect," said Rice, and he swung with the kind of power that makes even golf professionals gasp. But Rice carries a 10 handicap, and this blast ballooned to deep right, missing the edge of the 50-yard-wide airstrip by 30 yards and landing less than 250 yards down range.
"Whoops!" said Palmer. "Score that one F-9."
Likewise, score as a shutout the first and possibly last Spalding Long Ball Runway Competition, held last Friday on Runway 6-24 at Monterey Peninsula Airport. The sponsor's idea was that one of the participants would send one of its golf balls on the longest trip ever over unfrozen flat land. But once it became apparent that Monterey's runway was a slow one and that Rice was hitting more balls foul than fair, everyone got that hollow feeling often brought on by events like long-driving contests and refrigerator-carrying races.
Out of approximately 30 balls, Rice sliced a bunch of shots to rightfield and pulled a few others that would have punctured Fenway Park's Green Monster, but he never quite caught one flush that followed the straight path of the asphalt. His longest measured wallop of 497 yards did surpass the best of the other five contestants—PGA Tour pros Craig Stadler, Johnny Miller and Al Geiberger, Palmer and Chicago White Sox pitcher Tom Seaver—all of whom are paid to endorse Spalding products. But Rice's shot fell disappointingly short of the record 632-yard drive struck by an Irish golf pro named Liam Higgins at the Casement Aerodrome in Baldonnel, Ireland last September in a production also sponsored by Spalding.
The sporting goods company played down the fact that airstrip drives are not recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records. The 1984 edition cites a shot of 392 yards by Tommie Campbell at the Dun Laoghaire golf course in Dublin in July 1964 as the longest official drive, while mentioning other shots over 500 yards. The longest drive recorded off a golf course traveled 1.5 miles across ice at Mawson Base, Antarctica after being struck in 1962 by Australian meteorologist Nils Lied.
Neither Miller nor Stadler, both longer off the tee than the average touring pro, would disagree that the 6'2", 205-pound Rice had the best chance at the record. Palmer is also a long hitter, but the smooth Geiberger and the chunky Seaver, who feigned surprise that the teeing area in Monterey was not equipped with a phone to receive a call from the White House, were figuratively off the board.