The sport is gaining fans among the public and professional golfers, many of whom have adopted its techniques for their own games.
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In August 2021, long drive was on the brink of collapse. The niche sport — in which competitors drive golf balls as far as humanly possible, often more than 400 yards — had endured a difficult year, disrupted by the pandemic, and registrations for the world long drive championship were dismal.
That’s when Bryson DeChambeau, the winner of the 2020 U.S. Open and a member of the 2018 and 2021 U.S. Ryder Cup teams, entered the competition, sparking a surge in interest and dozens of new entries.
“He saved us, that’s for sure,” Kyle Berkshire, a two-time world long drive champion, said.
DeChambeau’s participation was not a total shock: In recent years, more and more established pros, increasingly obsessed with driving distance, have become unabashed fans of long drive, with PGA Tour winners like Justin Thomas, Tony Finau and Cameron Champ expressing support. Berkshire has become a go-to training partner and sounding board for many of these pros, sharing tips on swing technique, stretching, fitness routine and more.
“Back when I was in college, everyone thought the long drive guys were the clowns of the golf world,” Berkshire said. “That whole perception is changing.”
DeChambeau has played a major role in that, and after finishing seventh in the 2021 competition, he’ll be back for this year’s world championship, which begins Tuesday.
DeChambeau made headlines in 2020 by bulking up and drastically changing his swing, increasing his average driving distance by nearly 20 yards to lead the PGA Tour. He ultimately won that year’s U.S. Open, and he has not been shy about crediting long drive — particularly its emphasis on swing speed — with much of his success.
“I actually watched the 2019 world long drive championship, and that’s what inspired me and got me thinking,” DeChambeau said in a recent phone interview. “These guys were swinging the golf club 40 or 50 miles faster than me, so I thought, what if I could add just 15 percent to my swing speed and use that on tour? That’s how it started, and then I got addicted to hitting it farther and farther.”
A new series. The debut of the new Saudi-financed LIV Golf series has resurfaced longstanding questions about athletes’ moral obligations and their desire to compete and earn money. Here’s what to know:
What is LIV Golf? The series is an upstart professional golf circuit bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. Its organizers hope to position it as a player-power-focused alternative to the PGA Tour, which has been the highest level of pro golf for nearly a century.
Why is the new series controversial? The event has created sparks within golf for upending the traditions and strictures of how the game is played. It has also become a lightning rod for human rights campaigners who accuse Saudi Arabia of using sports to launder its reputation.
Who is playing it? Many of the biggest names in golf, such as Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, have stayed away from LIV Golf. But several top players and former major champions, including Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson and Cameron Smith, have joined.
What is attracting the players? The LIV Golf events are the richest tournaments in golf history. The first tournament’s total purse was $25 million, and the winner’s share was $4 million. The last-place finisher at each event was guaranteed $120,000. That is on top of the appearance fees and nine-figure signing-on payouts some players have accepted.
How has the PGA Tour responded? The PGA Tour suspended several members among the LIV Golf players after it denied them releases to participate in other events. The Justice Department later announced that it was investigating the PGA Tour for anticompetitive behavior. Meanwhile, the rival tours have engaged in a winding legal battle.
With the help of Berkshire and other long drivers, DeChambeau adopted a common long drive practice method: overspeed training, in which competitors swing the driver as hard as possible, with no regard for accuracy, in the hopes that it will also improve the speed of their more typical, controlled swings.
The method worked incredibly well for DeChambeau — so much so that now, he and Berkshire said, it has become a standard training routine for many professional golfers.
“It’s sort of a new revolution,” Berkshire said. “At this point, it’s almost required for professional golfers, since everyone is doing it.”
According to Mark Broadie, a Columbia University professor and golf researcher who helped coach DeChambeau in 2020, the embrace of long drive within the golf world is a logical next step. Years ago, Broadie invented the “strokes gained” metric, which analyzes the impact of every shot throughout a round of golf in relation to the rest of the field. His analysis ultimately found that even marginal gains in driving distance could have a major effect on scores.
“It’s true for all players: If you drive it 20 yards longer, even with a little less accuracy, you can gain a stroke per round,” Broadie said. “So it feels like a natural evolution for long drive to be more accepted. If you want to drive the ball as far as possible, then you clearly want to talk to the long drivers, the guys who have optimized that throughout their careers.”
Long drive has existed, in some form or another, since 1949, when a driving competition was held in conjunction with that year’s P.G.A. Championship. A more formal long drive world championship would form in 1976, and various professional leagues have taken shape since the 1990s.
One of the most recent iterations of a long drive league — the World Long Drive Association, sponsored by Golf Channel — essentially disbanded in 2020 after canceling its season because of the pandemic. In its wake came a spiritual successor, the Professional Long Drivers Association, which has hosted a number of tournaments, including the 2021 world long drive championship.
While the association’s administrators are happy to be gaining acclaim in golf circles, they are also hopeful it will translate into mainstream acceptance.
“This year, we’re getting a really big response from players wanting to compete, and more fans are coming out to watch our events,” said Bobby Peterson, the association’s managing partner and majority owner. A former long drive competitor, Peterson has been a part of the sport since 1992, and he said there had never been as much enthusiasm surrounding it as there is this year, including interest from possible corporate partners.
“This isn’t just hyperbole,” Berkshire said. “Based on the talks I’ve been involved in, this sport is in the best position it’s ever been in.”
Long drive’s recent ascent comes at a time when golf is reckoning with a major disruption in the form of the LIV Golf Series, whose major shareholder is the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia. In its first season, LIV Golf poached some high-profile golfers from the PGA Tour, including DeChambeau, and implemented innovations aimed at enhancing the fan experience and changing how viewers watch golf, including shorter tournament structures and a team format.
David Carter, a sports business professor at the University of Southern California, said long drive could ultimately be an intriguing acquisition or partner with either the PGA Tour or LIV Golf, as both look to add content in the years to come.
“It’s all about this next generation of consumer: younger people who want short-form, digestible content,” Carter said. “Something like long drive could be curated in a lot of different ways, whether online, through social media, or in conjunction with tournaments.”
As long drivers prepared for this year’s world championship, Berkshire was grateful for DeChambeau’s continued support. He said he nearly had to pinch himself when he thought of how far long drive had come in such a short time.
“Just a year ago, I had never seen a sport in such a bad position,” Berkshire said. “Now, I’ve never seen one poised for such a bright future. It’s just an exciting time all around.”