MESQUITE, Nev. — On an artificial-turf soccer field on a cold, November night, the future of the sport of long drive was at a crossroads.
About 20 people had gathered at the Mesquite Sports & Event Complex. Overhead lamps powered by generators provided most of the light, while some car headlights supplemented.
Standing on probably the only true athletic stage in the world featuring faux grass, Art Sellinger was giving what was probably his 10,000th long-driving demo. Sellinger made this sport what it is. He is the founder of the Long Drivers of America, the organization behind the RE/MAX World Long Driving Championships. In fact, Sellinger is a two-time champion himself, making the transition from the visible face of a niche sport to the invisible hand guiding it, he hopes, to never-before-seen heights.
Sellinger pulls out the typical bag of tricks in the demo — hitting golf balls off of 3-foot-long club shafts, through cardboard boxes, off of other golf balls, lefty, righty, you name it. It’s all very standard stuff. All the while, however, Sellinger is boasting about the complex the city of Mesquite built to host this very event…whose marquee day is now moving down desolate Interstate 15 to Sin City and the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Mesquite has hosted the Long Drivers of America since 1997, when Jason Zuback won the second of four consecutive titles with a winning drive of 412 yards. Six years ago, the city made a commitment to the Long Drivers of America to build a complex fitting of a championship growing in stature and sporting relevance. It built the Mesquite Sports & Event Complex, which opened in 2008, to provide the turf drag strip the sport needed to showcase its star, under the stars in the Nevada desert.
The complex is tucked away in a residential community in this small, sleepy town. For the overwhelming majority of the year, the property serves as athletic fields for soccer, football and baseball. Several artificial-turf fields sit along grass athletic fields, blending the two together to form the 450-yard-deep and 70-yard-wide grid on which the beasts of long drive unleash raw power.
That raw power, however, had been buried on ESPN2 for seemingly an eternity. The Worldwide Leader typically aired the RE/MAX World Long Driving Championship in the interlude between Christmas and the new year when people might have turned on the taped show by accident, looking for anything to watch that might get them out of another few hours with visiting family.
Looking to take the Long Drivers of America to the next level, Sellinger negotiated a new broadcast deal with Golf Channel and the NBC Sports Group. Announced just a month prior to the desert demo, the deal dubbed October as “Long Driving Month,” during which Golf Channel would air eight hours of long-drive programming. The first six hours would document the history of the sport and package four hours of footage from the Open Division — the elite of the sport — quest to qualify for the finals in Vegas.
Using the World Series of Poker — which airs on ESPN — as a guide, the finals would be a resumption of the competition in a new venue after a delay made to look somewhat seamless on TV. Poker has its November 9, making up the final table that competes for obscene(ly awesome) riches live on ESPN some four months after thousands are whittled down to less than 10 in the Main Event played in the Rio casino’s Amazon room.
The finalists in the RE/MAX World Long Driving Championship would wait much less time, about a month, to decide the winner. The October 8, as they’ve been dubbed, were decided on Sept. 27. On Oct. 30, the finalists gather under the lights on the infield of a race track to identify a winner. Golf Channel will air that live, bringing out their stars, like Holly Sonders, to offer some gravitas to the winning moment that the sport has never really seen. The relationship with Golf Channel has brought in a Callaway as the Long Drivers of America’s official equipment partner, helping the recovering equipment giant market to traditional golfers who might turn to its X-Hot line of clubs for some needed extra Y-Ds off the tee.
It all sounds great, right? Long drive finally has a home on a network dedicated to the sport from which it shot off. It’s hard to beat Vegas as a venue for an exhibition of a freakish skill set. Mainstream golf companies see the value of long drive in appealing to the raw power desire of 26 million American golfers.
Yet, it’s not all perfect.
Mesquite has been great to the sport of long drive. The two had formed what appeared to be a symbiotic relationship. Long drive could be a big fish in the small, evaporated desert pond of a town, while Mesquite could use long drive to attract tourists that not only wanted to see guys drive golf balls over four football fields, but to play the 10 or so courses in the area that really are a delight to play.
The truth is, however, now that relationship has skewed in favor of the Long Drivers of America.
Long drive is growing, in part thanks to a crop of young long drivers that are trying to create more crossover appeal with traditional golf fans. Ryan Winther, the world champion from a year ago, is a young, engaging kid who just so happens to put a 220 mph charge into a golf ball, breaking the world record in January at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando. How about 17-year-old William Hinson, who is probably the sport’s first true teenage prodigy? There’s the veteran Jamie Sadlowski, who was clickbait this year when his force broke — yes, broke — Golf Channel’s in-studio simulator, not once, but twice.
Mesquite, meanwhile, is not growing. It’s shrinking. The city was once a magnet to thousands, especially retirees with pensions that wanted easy-to-maintain property in the mostly warm desert. It’s location was perfect for folks with an aversion to Las Vegas, its lights and temptations, situated some 90 minutes from the Strip with hardly anything or anyone between the two. Then the economy crumbled — inconveniently in the year the Mesquite Sports & Event Complex opened — and, with it, the real estate industry. Tourism dropped, too, as wallets tightened.
The handful of casinos in town cannot compete with Las Vegas, offering small stakes and small thrills to the gambling golfer. It’s hard to find a liquor store open in town, and buddy trips are rarely BYOB material — particularly in the middle of nowhere.
The golf infrastructure is great, with the likes of Coral Canyon G.C., Conestoga G.C and the 36-hole Oasis G.C. offer top-notch desert golf within town. Sand Hollow, just over the border in St. George, Utah, is an incredible golf experience with some of the most breathtaking vistas in the world. But that’s not enough to keep the town bustling with guests. And it’s not enough for the Long Drivers of America as the sport grows.
And then Sellinger has to try to achieve two goals in deep conflict.
In November, Sellinger was debating how the Open Division purse of $250,000 would be paid out to the October 8. Should everyone get something for making it that far, or would it be a winner-take-all affair? Golf Channel certainly wanted the added teaser of one winner in every sense of the word, and it appealed to Sellinger, too.
But, as a former long driver himself, Sellinger knew the out-of-pocket cost so many long drivers put into the sport to make ends meet and keep their dreams alive. Traveling into Nevada twice in the span of two months to walk away empty-handed is a cruel proposition for seven of the eight finalists. Then there’s the 184 other players that qualified for the Worlds, as they’re called, in Mesquite, and they got nada, too.
Long drivers can make money performing demos at driving ranges and golf conventions, but there are even fewer of those opportunities than there are players. The PGA Merchandise Show in January is one of the few stages broad enough for the long-drive community to infiltrate its parent sport and make a few waves. Perhaps moving the PGA Fall Expo, held each year in Las Vegas, to correspond with the finals would make a good tandem for a show struggling to find its identity and a sport that still is working on recruiting golfers as fans.
Sellinger ultimately chose the winner-take-all purse. On Oct. 30, one of eight players will take home a life-changing $250,000. The other seven will be proud of the accomplishment, but lament the opportunity lost.
And Sellinger couldn’t turn down the opportunity Golf Channel offered. Ultimately, it’s probably a win for the sport, but there were some painful decisions to make along the way, including breaking the hearts of a still-grateful town and the players who, for a few weeks each year, fire golf-ball sized grenades into the Nevada desert’s clear skies.