SAN MARTIN, Calif. - The passion for Aaron Mansfield became a pain for some Pennsylvania farmers.
Mansfield, one of the eight finalists for the World Long Drive Championship, found the perfect spot to practicing launching tee shots. The range went 250 yards down a slope, then up a hill for about 50 yards until it reached a row of tall trees. A drive would have to travel 340 yards in the air to leave the property.
That was no problem for Mansfield — but it was for the farmers.
"They had to go through the fields to pick up golf balls so they didn't get in the bales of hay," Mansfield said.
The next stage will have a little more glitter.
Mansfield and seven others will compete on a makeshift grid at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. They each get six drives, and the longest shot that stays within the 50-yard wide grid claims the winner-take-all prize of $250,000.
Golf Channel is televising the final round live on Oct. 31, and then NBC Sports will have a 60-minute special in December. It will be the first time the World Long Drive Championship is seen on network television. Indeed, it has come a long way.
For competitors like Mansfield, the stage could lead to even great opportunities.
To watch these guys hit 400-yard drives — a swing speed of 150 mph with 48-inch drivers — is a spectacle. Whatever they earn in long drive competitions is nowhere near what they can get in corporate outings and clinics.
Jamie Sadlowski, perhaps the most famous of this current crop of bashers, does some 40 outings a year. Golf Channel has been highlighting the Long Drivers of America in October, and it invited Sadlowski and Mansfield to the Frys.com Open to play the pro-am with Peter Jacobsen.
Jacobsen caught one drive flush on the par-5 12th hole and admired his shot when he reached it in the fairway — a few feet beyond where Sadlowski hit it.
"A big moment in my career," Jacobsen said. "My driver got past his 4-iron."
Sadlowski and Mansfield had to hit 4-iron off the tee because of a creek that crossed the fairway. Mansfield looked at the yardage book and saw the creek was 380 yards away from the tee. "The puke zone," he called it, because that's how far they typically fly the ball, and they had to decide whether they had enough distance to cover the water.
One of Sadlowski's outings was in 2011 at Kapalua, when a tee was set up in the fairway of the 630-yard closing hole on the Plantation Course. He competed against Bubba Watson to hit tee shots toward the 18th green more than 400 yards away.
Sadlowski, a junior hockey player from Canada, won with a tee shot 410 yards into the wind.
"I beat him by about 60 yards," Sadlowski said. "Bubba didn't like the outcome."
Even the longest hitters in golf — Watson, Gary Woodland, Alvaro Quiros, Nicolas Colsaerts — don't stand a chance against these guys. Then again, their only purpose is to get as much torque, as much lag, as much speed in the swing, and launch a golf ball as far as human physics allow.
"I would compare it with 18 holes of medal play against him," Sadlowski said of his competition with Watson. "It's not going to go so well for me. And when they go against us, it's not going to go so well with them. It's the difference of what they practice and what we practice."
Sadlowski was 14 when he first got hooked. A neighbour was trying to qualify in the open division and Sadlowski went only to watch.
"A guy running that local qualifier played hockey with my dad and told me to go ahead and hit," he said. "I always hit it far as a kid. I hit it 360 yards on a soccer field."
Before long, he was beating the best kids in his age division, and he really got serious about it one year when he abandoned hockey. He used to go to long drive competitions banged up from playing hockey, and one year had two broken fingers. Finally, he skipped hockey camp so he could be healthy for the long drive contest, and he hasn't looked back.
Sadlowski, 25, is a two-time Junior Long Drive Champion and a two-time World Long Drive Champion. This is his sixth straight appearance in the finals.
What makes him different from other long-drive specialists is he can play a little golf. Sadlowski made the cut in Boise on the Web.com Tour, and he had a chance to play more Web.com Tour events and some on the Canadian Tour. He turned it down because it hurt what he does best.
He hits down on the ball to play golf. Long drivers are all about hitting up. It's about the launch.
During the Frys.com pro-am at CordeValle, Mansfield launched one so far that it was pin-high in the rough just left of the green on the 418-yard 18th hole, which got the attention of Camilo Villegas, who was on the green. He still only made par. No surprise there. Just because they hit it miles and never have more than a wedge to the green doesn't mean they can chip and putt.
"What people don't understand is we're not these guys," Sadlowski said. "We're not on the putting green at dark. That's not what drives us. What drives us is hitting it as far as humanly possible. We're not bad golfers. When a hacker comes along and says, 'How's the game after the drive?' It's better than you think. You still have to be athletic to square up and make solid contact."
Sadlowski made solid contact when he broke Golf Channel's golf simulator with a shot struck with such power than it pierced the projection screen and the protective net — first with a driver, later with a 7-iron. He also tried to break a hip — just not his own.
"Ever since I broke that simulator at Golf Channel, I had a hip joint company building an indestructible joint for hip replacements," he said. "They wanted to use me to show how unbreakable this stuff was. So I was hitting the hip joint. I would hit it and there would be a 20-inch dent in the club."
Mansfield, at 22 the youngest of the finalists in Las Vegas, said he made about $55,000 from long drive competitions last year. He graduated from college this year with a degree in finance and accounting, and expected to get a job.
Instead, he wanted to see how far he could go with Long Drivers of America. He hopes it will be much like his drives — a long way.
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