Virtually every sport has its Hall of Fame, and long driving is no exception.
We should distinguish between golf and long driving, because they remain as different as balata and Surlyn. Whereas golf can be called a finesse sport, long driving is a muscle sport.
In 2015, the World Long Drive Championship, along with the Long Drivers of America tour, was sold by founder Art Sellinger to the NBC/Golf Channel sports family. The WLDC appears to be in good hands, as demonstrated in early October, 2016, when Englishman Joe Miller won his second Open Division world title.
But what has happened to the Hall of Fame for long drivers? Sadly it’s inactive. Those 400-yard drives (Miller won with a 423-yard blast) can be exhausting for everyone.
Four two-time champions — Miller, Tim Burke, Carl Wolter and Jamie Sadlowski — are knocking loudly on the Hall of Fame door. Nobody is answering.
Another former winner, 1984 champ Larry (Wedgy) Winchester, was watching the 2016 event with interest. If anybody deserves to join the 14 long knockers currently in the Hall, it is the 72-year-old Winchester.
Why? Because he invented the overlength driver that became standard operating equipment in the World Championship. Because he was one of golf’s earliest and best showmen, staging clinics and exhibitions around the world.
Back in 1984, stock length for a driver was 43 inches. Winchester went 17 inches over standard with a Ping Eye2 wooden-headed driver that was 60 inches long.
Looking back at his dramatic victory with a five-foot driver, Winchester admits that, yes, he probably had a lot to do with an eruption in driver length.
Standard length for Ping drivers today is 45.75 inches, almost three inches longer than stock drivers in 1984. Many Ping drivers, including the current G30 and G models, are one-quarter-inch shy of 46 inches. And Ping isn’t the only major manufacturer to go this long.
This length expansion was made possible by lightweight graphite shafts, and Winchester’s success more than 30 years ago was fostered by precisely the same thing.
If golf didn’t realize the potential of graphite before Wedgy Winchester, it certainly did once he took centerstage. Because graphite shafts and longer drives go together like Crosby and Hope, golf was about to turn the distance corner. The game would never again be the same, as golfers began to routinely overpower existing courses.
Winchester’s 60-inch graphite shaft was given to him by Kim Carpenter, senior vice president for shaftmaker Aldila. It wasn’t a golf shaft at all, because five-foot golf shafts didn’t exist. Rather it was designed as a ski pole and thus quickly gained a nickname — the Ski Pole shaft.
“He beat me in the regional championship that year,” recalled Sellinger. “Only the winner advanced to the final, and I hit it 330 yards with my 43-inch, steel-shafted driver. I beat the rest of the field very handily, except for Wedgy.
Winchester grew up in Ogden, Utah, attended Weber College (now Weber State University) on a golf scholarship, and turned pro in 1971. He was given the nickname Wedgy by fellow pros Babe Hiskey and Kermit Zarley because of his self-proclaimed “really awful” wedge game.
A natural showman, Winchester became one of golf’s first trick-shot artists. “He was the best ever,” Sellinger said. “He was good with crowds, and they loved him.”
Taking his trick-shot show to Australia, Winchester met his future wife, Alison, in Perth. He later worked for Ping for 17 years. For more than 15 years, the Winchesters have owned the Custerhouse bed and breakfast in Seaside, Ore.
It was his trick-shot mentality that led Winchester to the five-foot shaft. Other golfers tried to copy him, but nobody could handle all that length as well as Wedgy.
“His hand-eye coordination was phenomenal,” Sellinger said. “It is so difficult to hit a driver that long. Even most of the pros could never do it.”
Winchester carried half a dozen five-foot drivers with him. He even had a nine-foot driver. He would let just about anyone try them. “They would break the heads all the time,” he said. “They would catch the ball in the neck.”
It is a little known fact that Ping founder Karsten Solheim wanted to win the long drive championship so badly that he sponsored Winchester in his long-drive career. In the 1984 championship, held at wet and humid Shoal Creek Golf Club near Birmingham, Ala., Ping even supplied the official golf balls for all the competitors.
“Karsten was very excited that I won,” Winchester recalled. “It was ironic that Ping’s wooden heads were considered to be too big by many golfers. Compared to today’s drivers, they look tiny.”
Winchester’s winning drive of 320 yards in 1984 wasn’t that much longer than Terry Forcum’s winning drive of 307 the year before. However, he was setting the stage for golf’s graphite-shafted distance explosion.
Furthermore, his legacy is secure. There will be no more 60-inch drivers, because the USGA has limited club length to 48 inches and long drive competitors are restricted by a formula that caps club length at about 49 inches.
These days, Winchester plays at storied Gearhart Golf Links on the northern Oregon coast. Several golf historians, including Jim Healey of St. Louis, believe Gearhart (1892) is the oldest continual course west of the Mississippi River.
Gearhart is an extraordinary public course that hosted the 2016 Oregon Super Senior Championship. Those who look carefully might spot an extraordinary golfer, too — Wedgy Winchester, playing with a standard length Ping G metal driver.
—Jim Achenbach, Senior Golf Insider