Chapter One from “Perfect Swing, Imperfect Lies”

                                                                   

                                             1—The Shot

It’s not as if nothing else happened that year. South African surgeon Christiaan Barnard performed the first human-to-human heart transplant; the Soviet Union expelled Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn; the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped 19-year-old heiress Patty Hearst; Doubleday & Company published Peter Benchley’s best-seller, “Jaws”; Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record; “The Sting” won the Oscar for Best Picture; and U.S. president Richard M. Nixon resigned rather than face impeachment.

Even in Las Vegas, where it happened on Wednesday, September 25, 1974, the shot went virtually unnoticed.

It occurred during the eighteenth annual U.S. National Senior Open, an enormous tournament which required three courses to accommodate 300 amateur and 131 professional golfers over the age of 50. Six years later, the tournament would become the U.S. Senior Open, and the U.S. Golf Association would hold local and sectional qualifiers around the country rather than contend with a field like the one in Las Vegas.

Among the better-known entrants that week were Doug Ford, nineteen times a winner on the PGA Tour and 1957 Player of the Year; “Terrible” Tommy Bolt, the tempestuous 15-time Tour winner and 1958 U.S. Open champion; Charlie Sifford, the first African-American to play on the Tour and twice a winner; and Manuel de la Torre, one of golf’s pre-eminent teaching pros.

But the headliner was a jaunty, 5-foot-5, 162-pound club pro from Costa Mesa, California, named Willie Barber. Barber was known—to the extent that he was known at all—as the older brother of PGA Tour luminary Jerry Barber. Golf World magazine described the 60-year-old Barber as “by far the loosest player” in the tournament as he laughed and joked with the gallery, dispensed advice and generally acted as if golf were a game to be played rather than a prolonged act of self-mortification.

An incident during the third round at Las Vegas Country Club epitomized his approach. Barber was one shot behind tournament leader Jack Laxson at the start of the day and was paired with Bolt, who was three shots off the lead. At the twelfth hole, Barber landed his approach safely on the green, but Bolt’s shot sailed over the green and finally rolled to a stop next to a cart path.

Bolt asked a tournament official for permission to move his ball, and when it was denied he began to fume. A fuming Bolt was no small matter. His habit of breaking or throwing clubs—or breaking and throwing them—led the Tour to pass a rule expressly prohibiting such behavior.

But Barber saw the occasion as a call to duty. One of nine children raised on an Illinois farm, Barber did what older brothers invariably do: he offered Bolt some advice.

“Just take your normal stance,” he said.

Whether Bolt took his normal stance is not clear from GolfWorld’s account. What is clear is that he muffed the shot, bogeyed the hole and, according to the report, spent the rest of the day “stamping around the course.” By the end of the day, Bolt had fallen two strokes further behind.

Barber, on the other hand, rolled in a sweeping, 40-foot putt on the twelfth hole for a birdie and shot a 69 that tied him with Sifford for the third-round lead at 204. He shot a 74 the next day and won the tournament by three strokes. Bolt finished sixth, six strokes back.

“Life is here to enjoy,” said Barber as he accepted the $7,500 winner’s check, “and that’s just what I do.”

 

On the second day of the tournament, Mike Austin, a flamboyant teaching pro from Woodland Hills, California, with a Scottish accent, played the Winterwood Golf Course with Joe Brown, Chandler Harper and first-round leader Pete Fleming.

Fleming, who was from Hot Springs, Arkansas, was a former winner of the Senior Open. Brown, who lived in Des Moines, Iowa, had competed at the national level going back to the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship in 1929.  Harper, a native of Portsmouth, Virginia, was a seven-time winner on the PGA Tour, winner of the 1950 PGA Championship and a member of the 1955 Ryder Cup team. He was also the mentor to a promising young golfer named Curtis Strange.

Austin was playing well that day, having reached the 527-yard second hole and the 532-yard fourth—both par-5s—with a driver and 7-iron. As Austin teed up his ball at No. 5, Harper said he’d never seen anyone hit the ball so far and added, “Let’s see what happens if you really let one go.”

The fifth hole at Winterwood was a flat, 450-yard par-4 with a slight dogleg to the right and a cluster of low trees along the right side of the fairway. The day was bright and clear, visibility was 33 miles and the temperature peaked at 97 degrees. National Climatic Data Center records indicate that the maximum sustained wind speed that day was slightly over 10 miles an hour.

Despite Harper’s encouragement, however, Austin said later that he didn’t try to hit the ball particularly hard. “I took my usual swing at it, but all along keeping the green as my target,” he told Phil Reed in In Search of the Greatest Golf Swing. “I didn’t swing any harder. Hell, I just felt I was swinging at cruising speed.”

Harper agreed. “He didn’t look like he was hitting it too hard,” he told Reed. “Mike took his time taking the club back and then came through real smooth.”

While researching the book, Reed spoke with Andy Thuney, a broadcaster and former head pro at the Hacienda Country Club in La Habra Heights, California. Thuney had seen Austin play often and he told Reed that although Austin’s swing looked effortless, “the ball exploded off the club face.”

Nobody in the foursome at Winterwood said anything about the ball exploding off Austin’s driver, but Austin did tell Reed his shot did something unusual. Rather than rising in the long arc customary on well-struck shots, it climbed only to 20 or 25 feet in the air, flattened out and bored through the desert air like a laser beam. It landed at the edge of the green, bounced once and began rolling.

“I’d never seen anything like it,” he said. “It just held its line, staying up in the air.”

Seasoned golfers would argue that a shot that low couldn’t possibly carry 400 yards unless it was powered by something more explosive than a human being. It is also unlikely, if not impossible, that Austin could see a ball land more than 400 yards away. But after innumerable tellings and decades of repetition, Austin’s account could be excused as the rosy distortions of old age.

Harper’s recollection was more plausible. He told Reed that Austin’s ball “went a mile high in the air” and that he and the others lost sight of it. When they reached their balls in the fairway, they couldn’t find Austin’s ball. Only when Harper spotted a ball on the sixth tee box did it occur to anyone that Austin’s shot might have rolled that far.

The ball they found was a Titleist 100, the same kind that Austin had played, and when they paced the distance back to the fifth hole it measured 65 yards. Which meant that Austin’s drive traveled 515 yards, farther than any shot had ever traveled in a regulation tournament.

 

Even by his own prodigious standards—and Austin claimed to have hit a number of drives over 400 yards during his career—this was a shot of otherworldly proportions. And for once Austin, a relentless self-promoter, admitted that he was as astonished as anyone.

“It was like God hit it,” he told sicnn.com in 2000. “Who can hit a ball that far? No one. I feel like I got some assistance from God.”

Harper was equally amazed. “I had never seen a ball hit anywhere near that far,” he told Travel & Leisure Golf in 2005. “I played fifty times with Sam Snead and Ben Hogan, but nothing compared to this.”

Reed told Harper that during his research he found that many people flatly refused to believe that anyone could hit a ball 515 yards. Did Harper have any doubts or second thoughts about what happened that day?

“No, I don’t have any doubt about it at all,” Harper said. “We could have been off by a yard or two, but we stepped it off and took big steps back to the green.”

John Anselmo, a club pro at Avondale Country Club in Palm Desert who would later become Tiger Woods’ coach, was in Las Vegas the week of the National Senior Open but was unable to compete because he had a broken arm. Anselmo saw Austin after his round and said that he was “bragging about the shot.” But Anselmo had known Austin since the 1940s and was accustomted to his blustering ways.

“He was very outward and loud, but it didn’t bother me,” Anselmo said. “We played together a lot, and I had a lot of fun with him. There was nothing gonna change that man. He was gonna be the way he was.”

Austin was a big, powerful man—an alpha male—and perhaps because he made so much of the shot, no one at the time seemed particularly impressed. It wasn’t mentioned in the media, and the only member of the foursome who was mentioned in Golf World’s report about the tournament was Harper, whose 289 earned him a tie for tenth place and $800.

But not long after the tournament, Harper received a phone call from the Guinness Book of World Records (now called Guinness World Records) in London asking him to confirm that he was with Austin when he hit the shot and to verify the details. The next edition of the book—and those for many years thereafter—listed Austin as the holder of the world record.

The text read as follows: The greatest recorded drive on a standard golf course is one of 515 yards by Michael Hoke Austin of Los Angeles, CA, in the U.S. National Seniors [sic] Open Championship at Las Vegas, NV, on September 25, 1974. Austin drove the ball to within a yard of the green on the par-4, 450-yard fifth hole of the Winterwood Course and it rolled 65 yards past the flagstick.

 

What the citation omitted is almost as remarkable as what it included.

For one thing, Austin used a 43 1/2-inch Wilson driver with an extra-stiff steel shaft and a small persimmon head, a severe technical limitation compared to the super-light graphite and titanium clubs with oversized heads common today. And rather than the modern golf ball with its tough plastic or urethane covering, Austin’s ball had a soft balata covering that was less durable and didn’t carry as far.

Even more remarkable, Austin was seven months and eight days past his sixty-fourth birthday, a fact that Reed found particularly astonishing. But when he asked Austin about it, Austin bristled and gave him such an odd look that Reed dropped the subject and never brought it up again.

Another question Austin was invariably asked was whether his ball might have hit a rock, a sprinkler head, a cart path, anything that would explain the phenomenal distance. And his response, as it was in an interview with Travel + Leisure Golf, was “That damned ball hit nothing but my club and the ground it landed on!”

But that ground merits a closer look.

According to Matt Grobe, for many years the pro at DragonRidge Country Club in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson, the ground in Las Vegas is extremely hard.

“It’s a desert,” Grobe said. “It’s dry. You try to water the grass to keep it healthy, but the grass is rye and it’s never going to be lush and tangly the way bermuda is in the East, and it doesn’t offer the resistance. So when a shot lands it rarely makes a dent in the earth. It’s not like concrete, but it’s not soft at all and the ball bounces and rolls. That’s why they have long-drive competitions in Mesquite, Nevada, which is about an hour and a half from Las Vegas. The ball rolls.”

Wind is also a consideration.

Las Vegas is notorious for winds that delay flights, shred awnings and umbrellas, litter yards with debris and turn patio grill covers into flying saucers. In April 2012, high winds flipped a Cessna 172 on the runway at McCarran International Airport and closed it for two hours.

Travel + Leisure Golf reported that on the day Austin hit his shot the National Weather Service reported wind gusts of 27 miles an hour. On the following day, September 26, 1974, the weather station at the airport recorded maximum sustained winds of 17.90 miles an hour with gusts up to 32 miles an hour.

Conventional wisdom among golfers is that a strong wind can add between thirty and fifty yards to a shot, and Harper told Reed that the foursome was buffeted by gusts so strong on the fifth hole that “We joked that the wind had come down off the mountain” to help Austin.

The mountain is Frenchman Mountain, a cape of stark, brown rock that rises 1,972 feet above the desert floor less than three miles away and east-northeast of the golf course. Since the fifth hole ran almost due west, it is, indeed, possible that gusts from Frenchman Mountain could have provided what Austin called “assistance from God.”

In other words, while it’s possible that Austin’s shot hit nothing out of the ordinary, it does appear to have benefitted from conditions that turned the efforts of an unusually powerful golfer into a once-in-a-lifetime shot: hot, thin air a half-mile above sea level; dry and exceedingly hard ground; and a towering shot that got exceptional carry from strong, gusting winds.

 

There was another occurrence that day that may be nothing more than coincidence, and yet the enormity of Austin’s shot and his own incredulity encourages speculation that the conditions were anything but ordinary.

Just after 7 a.m. that same day, a nuclear explosion was detonated 60 miles away at Yucca Flats in the Nevada Test Site (now called the Nevada National Security Site). The explosion was part of a series of weapons-related tests conducted by the U.S. government in 1974 and 1975 known as Operation Bedrock. The explosion, code named Pratt, measured less than 20 kilotons, which was relatively small as such tests go.

But it registered on U.S. Geological Survey seismometers as an earthquake of 4.4 magnitude.

That it might have affected Austin’s shot is encouraged by a comment in an October 1989 report issued by Congress’ Office of Technology Assessment. In a paper titled “The Containment of Underground Nuclear Explosions,” researchers wrote that underground explosions at the test site “could result in perceptible ground motion in Las Vegas.”

While no one at Winterwood reported any “perceptible ground motion,” an explosion of that magnitude nearby raises the question as to whether it could have influenced Austin’s shot. Could an earthquake that measures 4.4 create a temporary deformation in the terrain, a lingering shock wave or vibration that tightened the earth’s skin and gave it the surface tension of a billiard table?

Paul Caruso, a geophysicist at the USGS in Golden, Colorado, didn’t think so.

“Maybe as he hit it there was what we call an S-wave, or sheer wave,” Caruso said, “but with an earthquake that size 60 miles away, people would barely feel it. With a magnitude of 3.5 to 4, people might see a chandelier swing or waves in a glass of wine, and you might see some slight damage from sidewalks cracking or door frames being skewed, but you don’t see any damage until about 5.5.”

Diane de Polo, a network seismologist at the Nevada Seismology Lab at the University of Nevada in Reno, agreed. “Sixty miles is an awfully long way for shocks from a 4.4 earthquake to travel,” she said.

The timing is also problematic. Austin’s foursome had played four holes before he hit that shot. They would have had to start their round at about 6 a.m. and played very briskly indeed to reach the fifth tee by 7 a.m. Tournament records and tee times were not available when this was written, but even given the size of the tournament, it is unlikely that they teed off early enough and played fast enough to be at the fifth tee when the explosion occurred.

“I’m a scientist and a skeptic,” said Caruso, who also admitted to being a golfer. “There are a lot of things about this story you can’t really prove, like his clubhead speed and the speed of the wind. Maybe the ball hit a particularly hard spot when it landed. . . .”

Perhaps the test and earthquake were a coincidence and nothing more, but something happened that day at Winterwood that exceeds the sum of the circumstances—the altitude, the heat, the gusting wind, the unyielding ground, the steel-and-wood driver and a ball so soft that Austin regularly knocked them out of round and replaced them every four holes.

While it is far-fetched to suppose that the Almighty took particular interest in Mike Austin’s shotmaking that day, the improbability of the shot invites speculation.

 

Whatever the explanation, there was no disputing that the shot took place, that it was attested to by credible witnesses and that it was validated by its inclusion in the Guinness Book of World Records. Or so it seemed until 1998, when the new edition was published and Mike Austin’s record was not included.

Austin wrote Guinness a letter asking why, and the head of research wrote back assuring him that it was simply a matter of rotating fresh material into the book and that his record still stood.

But Austin’s record was never returned to the book. Instead, it now lists two longest drives: one under 1,000 meters in altitude (408 yards by Karl Woodward of the United Kingdom at Golf del Sur on Tenerife in the Canary Islands in 1999) and the other over 1,000 meters (458 yards by Jack Hamm of the United States at Highlands Ranch, Colorado, in 1993).

When asked for an explanation, a Guinness World Records public relations and marketing assistant in New York named Sara Wilcox wrote in an email: “In 1974, the measurement of Austin’s ball was vague–when researching I found that they weren’t actually sure where Austin’s ball landed. Instead, they saw a ball nearby and recognized it as his. Guinness World Records decided this wasn’t a thorough enough measurement to consider keeping it as a record.”

That the decision of a PR and marketing assistant thirty years later supersedes the testimony of three credible witnesses who actually saw the shot raises questions about the book’s credibility. But this is a publication that was created to settle arguments in Irish pubs and treats worm charmers, pea shooters and the world’s longest nougat as serious business.

Austin got a measure of redemption when Travel + Leisure Golf asked a golf-performance company in Sunnyvale, California, called Focaltron to confirm whether a 515-yard drive was mathematically possible. The magazine summarized Focaltron’s conclusion this way:

“At an altitude of 2,030 feet and a temperature of eighty-eight degrees, Austin would have needed the day’s maximum wind gust of 27 m.p.h. behind him, an astonishingly low launch angle and spin rate and a swing speed of 150 m.p.h. to carry the ball 445 yards before it started rolling. (Indeed, Austin’s swing was once measured at 155 m.p.h.; by comparison, Tiger Woods swings the club about 120 m.p.h.) A few lucky bounces might—just might—have yielded another sixty or so yards. Plus, by cutting off the slight dogleg, Austin shaved ten or more yards off the hole. If all these variables came together, the 515-yard drive could have occurred.”

Whatever engineers, physicists, golfers and interested bystanders may think, something happened that day in Las Vegas that stretches the limits of credulity and the wonder is that Mike Austin didn’t become known in the same way that Bob Beamon was for his startling long jump at the 1968 Olympics.

In a sport where world records advance an inch at a time, Beamon‘s jump of 29 feet 2 1/2 inches (8.90 meters) in Mexico City’s thin air broke the world record by nearly two feet. Beamon’s feat, which stood as the world record for 23 years and is still the second-longest jump in history, moved defending long jump champion Lynn Davies of Great Britain to tell him, “You have destroyed this event.”

The current record for the longest drive in a PGA Tour event is 476 yards by Davis Love III in 2004 at the Kapalua Resort’s Plantation Course on Maui. Love, who was 39 at the time, not only had the advantage of comparative youth and superior technology, but also of playing on Kapalua’s mammoth 663-yard eighteenth hole, where the fairway plunges steeply from the tee and is raked by Hawaii’s exuberant trade winds. Nevertheless, his drive was 39 yards shorter than Austin’s.

Yet no one ever told Austin that he had rendered every tournament drive since as insignificant.

 

Reed’s book was published in 2004 and celebrated Austin as a polymath with doctorates in physics, engineering and kinesiology; a showman who barnstormed through the 1930s in a stylish Cord roadster; an occasional participant on the PGA Tour; a war hero, professional boxer and bon vivant who spoke five languages.

Austin died November 23, 2005 and since he seldom attended church, his memorial service was held in the second-floor banquet room of an Italian restaurant. It attracted not only his students and friends, but also a number of people who had crossed paths with him in everyday life.

One them was a businessman who said he had lost a fortune in real estate and was sitting on a park bench when Austin happened upon him. “Mike came along and said, ‘Come on, it can’t be as bad as all that,’” he said. “On the worst day of my life, Mike Austin helped me.”

Toward the end of the service, someone sang “Danny Boy,” an Austin favorite.

“It was really beautiful and very emotional, and Mike Dunaway was a basket case,” Reed said. “Mike turned Dunaway from a wild-ass kid into a world champion long driver and helped him get a $100,000-a-year contract with Callaway. Dunaway was sobbing and crying and laughing through his tears.”

There was, however, something unsatisfying about Austin’s passing. He died without seeing his name restored to the record book and without knowing that the Focaltron study had affirmed his world record. Although a self-proclaimed authority on all things, at the end of his life Austin had run out of answers. He was neither peaceful nor accepting, and he died a bitter, angry man. Worst of all, he died without finding the one thing that mattered most to him, the thing he had spent his lifetime seeking.

One thought on “Chapter One from “Perfect Swing, Imperfect Lies”

  1. Dick Fox

    As a teen, I knew Mike Austin, as a friend of my father’s, Charlie Fox, a fellow PGA pro. I caddied for my father in tournaments, and they played often. For several years I saw him fairly often, he called me by name. I followed him in a 36 hole finals match against Bud Holscher at Recreation Park in Long Beach, for the 1960 So. CAlif. PGA Championship. MIke lost 2 down. My father was 5 years younger, and had attempted ‘the tour’ on and off all his life, the last time as a rabbit in 1972. He ran into Mike then in Howell, Michigan, where Mike was the Pro at Chemung Hills, where 20 years earlier my father had been assistant to the Scottish Pro Duncan Gunn. My father held down the shop so Mike could get out and play in tournaments the remainder of the summer.
    I did get to hear Mike break into song on a par 3 while waiting for the group ahead to putt out in a Pro-Pro. Everyone, the group ahead, the group on the previous green as well as the two groups waiting on the tee, were held in complete suspension until he finished. Everyone was clapping and laughing. I never found him anything more then very self confident. I did like his brogue, and for a kid in his early teens, he was swashbuckling to me. He often wore ‘knickers’ which added to the whole Mike Austin mystique.
    Growing up in Southern California, the son of a PGA Professional, at Heaperia Country Club, the site of a yearly PGA tour stop, put me into the paths of some really great characters of the game of golf, almost all now gone. Truly, Mike Austin was a one of a kind, and my life was richer for knowing him as I did.

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