THACKERVILLE, Okla. -- The culture of the Long Drive Championships is a curious diversion from what we're used to in the game. It's an event and culture, however, that knows exactly what it is and embraces its identity. But how does someone decide that they're going to dedicate a large part of their lives to training to hit a ball into the stratosphere? And how do women get into this sport?
Standing on the range while women warmed up at the World Long Drive championship, it sounded like I was in the middle of an action movie scene: Pow! Pow! Pow!
The women's World Long Drive competition is still relatively young. Since its inception in 2000, there have been participatory ebbs and flows. One year they had 32 competitors. This year they had 16. Part of the reason for its slow growth is that many women don't realize it's not about the overall skill of playing golf: it's about power and hitting bombs.
Lisa Vlooswyk, 41, a seven-time long drive champion in Canada, who finished second in the WLD in 2009 and 2011, is one of the veteran competitors and also one of the sport's greatest ambassadors. Like many people who compete in long drive, golf was not her first sport. She was a competitive gymnast and a varsity track-and-field athlete at the University of Calgary. It was an old boyfriend who introduced her to golf in her early twenties and she discovered that, despite her unconventional swing, she could hit the hell out of the ball.
A schoolteacher at the time, Vlooswyk volunteered at an LPGA event in Calgary. "I was so inspired watching the best female golfers in the world and decided that I wanted to compete in golf," she said.
At that point in her golfing life, she could not break 100. "Luckily there's competitions for people that can't break 100," she laughed. Still, she realized she hit it past everyone, often as much as 80 to 100 yards. Shortly thereafter, she saw an ad for a long drive competition and decided to enter with her clubs from Costco. She won with a 312-yard bomb. She would go on to become the first woman to hit it 350 yards.
Now a Nike sponsored athlete, "Lisa Longball," as she's more famously known, has competed in WLD competitions since 2001. She uses her experience as an elite world driver to get more women into golf, hosting women's golf schools and teaching them how to generate distance off the tee. She readily admits that other parts of her game, such as irons and short game shots, fall to the wayside. So she brings in a certified golf instructor to teach the other basic tenets of the full game. "Anything 40 yards and in, I'm suspect," she laughed.
Erin Hess, 20, a rookie to Long Drive competitions, has played golf since she was four years old. Marcus Sadler, a family member, said when Hess' grandfather, who taught her golf, passed away she wanted to do something to honor him. "She's here to make him proud of her," he said.
Hess also happens to live in Thackerville, Okla., where the the WLD took place this year. She played two years of college golf at Cameron University, and left school to become a teaching professional. In the meantime, she thought, why not give this whole long drive thing a shot?
"I started training for this about two months ago," Hess said. "Right now, I'm focusing on filling the grid up, [the landing area for drives] and I'll build up from there."
Since Hess no longer competes in college, the WLD gave her an opportunity to remain competitive in golf, albeit in a different way. She was excited to have the nerves and adrenaline again. "I started to get nervous and excited when I saw them setting up the competition area," she said.
When Erin Hess gets nervous in between drives, she snaps a rubber band on her wrist. Better than snapping a driver @WorldLongDrive pic.twitter.com/oCdAOs1obK— Anya Alvarez (@AnyaSarai) October 11, 2016
Troy Mullins, 25, has taken a less conventional route into the world of golf. She did not start playing until she was 21. However, her athletic background as a biathlete at Cornell University came in full swing when a friend took her to a driving range in her hometown of Los Angeles. Soon after her introduction to golf, she attended a study abroad program in China, and biked to a range near her residence. There, the head teaching instructor saw her natural talent and took her under his wing.
No more than a year later, Mullins competed in a long drive competition and finished second with a 321-yard drive, using a driver from a Roger Dunn Golf Shop.
Despite her natural talent to blast it, Mullins is aiming to qualify for the LPGA tour. "I enjoy hitting it hard, but my dream is the LPGA, so I'll be competing in Monday qualifiers next year and hopefully Qualifying School."
Troy Mullins just busted the camera in front of her with this swing @WorldLongDrive pic.twitter.com/8hG0QyRDd7— Anya Alvarez (@AnyaSarai) October 11, 2016
While other competitors like Sandra Carlsborg, a four-time WLD champion and former Ladies Euro Tour pro, played professionally, the diversity of sporting backgrounds is what gives this sport the potential for growth.
Vlooswyk believes it's important for this sport to reach out to women who play other sports. Similar to the men's division, where many are former baseball players, Vlooswyk made the argument that the WLD should promote this sport to softball players. Trying to reach other female athletes isn't a bad idea. Pro volleyball player Gabrielle Reece, who made a brief attempt at becoming a professional golfer, competed in a WLD in 2005.
The sport also has the potential for international reach. This year's group was quite diverse for a field of only 16 competitors. The nations represented included South Africa, Sweden, Canada, United States, Japan, and this year's winner, Phillis Meti, was from New Zealand.
Colin Turner, the tournament director for the WLD, says the organization's mission is to continue to grow the sport for women and get women more coverage. "We've increased the prize payout regardless of the number of competitors we have," he said. "We've promoted it on the developmental tour on the LPGA and all the mini-tours. We're excited to push this forward, knowing that the women deserve the grand-stage to compete on."
Turner believes that women who compete in the WLD can only benefit from this. "It's another opportunity to get your face out there and perhaps get sponsorships dollars if you play professionally."
He also thinks this competition is important for those who still hold the notion that women don't have power in their swings. "I wouldn't want to be on the box with any of these ladies," he emphasized. "The athleticism and the strength you need in order to be able swing like they do, it really is a violent action."
Women from all different sporting backgrounds need to be able to see the value they can add to the sport. When eventual champ Meti hit it 310 in the final round of competition into a 15 mph headwind, the point was made: women have the potential to add another exciting element to the WLD.