The golf course was filled with all the usual suspects.
The hackers. The duffers. The hookers and the slicers. But among the crowd were a cast of swing outliers who weren’t your run-of-the-mill clientele.
The weapons at their disposal looked like normal drivers, yet were anything but. Lengthened to 48 inches, they were strapped with gobs of tape for extra weighting and adjusted down to four degrees of loft to generate extra distance.
These athletes had arrived at the Golfclub Hofgut Praforst for the opening event of the 2022 European Long Drive Games (ELDG) season.
As a sport, Long Drive has only existed in some iteration since the mid-1970s, and although not as recognised as the “normal” game of golf, its popularity has sky-rocketed in the past two years – thanks mainly to the emergence of big-hitting PGA Tour golfer Bryson DeChambeau.
“DeChambeau is 100% part of the reason the sport has grown so dramatically.”Bry Roberts
Yet despite its undeniable success, the sport finds itself on a knife edge following the Covid-19 pandemic.
Events were firstly suspended, before the Golf Channel – who were the majority stakeholders of the American tour – put it up for sale, resulting in sponsors scattering and leagues quickly folding.
The sport has now emerged from this pandemic-induced hiatus, but those within the game fear that without adequate help the future of long drive could be brought into question.
When assessing Google analytics data, online searches for ‘Long Drive’ have increased steadily over the last decade.
Searches for ‘Long Drive’ decreased dramatically at the start of global pandemic in April 2020 but peaked in July 2021 when US Open Champion DeChambeau announced plans to enter the Long Drive World Championship.
European long drive number one Bry Roberts believes that individuals such as DeChambeau will play an imperative role in the future of the sport.
He said: “The likes of Bryson and Kyle Berkshire in America bring so much attention to long drive because they are simply the biggest hitters on the planet, and that’s what people want to see.
“Bryson is even part invested in the Players Long Drive Association (PLDA), so he’s committed to the sport and his involvement will only help us go from strength to strength.”
Data released by the PLDA also revealed that the 2021 Long Drive World Championship – where DeChambeau reached the last eight – was the most popular long drive competition of all time.
The Bryson-effect was clearly in full-flow, with the PLDA’s live YouTube stream reaching 45,000 views, as well as a further 500k visits to its website throughout the four-day competition.
While DeChambeau can continue to scoop lucrative purses through his participation on the PGA Tour, it is no secret to those within the game that long drive is a small-money sport.
With pickings relatively slim, few long drivers across the world can afford to pursue it full-time, with most holding down other jobs to pay their bills.
Even Kyle Berkshire – who is to long drive what Jordan and Magic were to the NBA – earned almost $1 million less than the average PGA Tour professional in 2021, highlighting the economic insecurities the sport finds itself in.
These financial shackles have forced many newcomers to turn a blind eye to long drive, and when asked whether first timers could afford these expenses, Bry admitted that the mounting costs of travel and accommodation make competing unsustainable – unless consistently reaching tournament finals.
He said: “A lot of people don’t understand the cost of going away for an event.
Kyle Berkshire with a nearly 410-yard drive to win the 2019 World Long Drive Championship. 😱pic.twitter.com/dSJKJDwD8H— Golf Digest (@GolfDigest) September 5, 2019
“On average I budget £1,000 for every weekend I compete in. I finished in fourth place at my most recent event and I lost money. I didn’t lose a little bit of money. I lost quite a bit of money.
“If you want to make profit you will need to finish in the top two to break even – this is in European events at least – so it’s not the sport for any Tom, Dick and Harry who thinks they can hit the ball quite a long way. You go there to win.
“When people ask me about how to get a long drive, I just say I hope you’ve got a lot of money.”
But what is the solution? With a lack of sponsors, funding and prize pots, the sport finds itself with several areas that need to be rectified if it is to continue on its upwards trend.
“It’s all about the money,” Bry said. “The more money that gets invested, the more the sport grows.
“In my opinion, money is what drives every sport.”
Although long drive felt the full force of the Covid-19 pandemic, the sport has been boosted by the return of the European Long Drive Games in 2022.
The competition – which was founded in January 2019 – is one of the newest tours on the long drive calendar and will host five events this summer, ending at the aptly named ‘Big Bang’ finale in Munich.
On its return, co-shareholder of the ELDG Timo Petrasch said: “Honestly, we are so excited to be back after two years of disruptions, delays, and difficulties.
“It’s brilliant that we have been able to host tournaments in a number of countries in 2022, and after a really difficult time for the sport, it’s great to see the players and fans back at the party.”
Even though the sport is still in its infancy, standards of driving have quickly improved, with swing speeds above 150 miles per hour and drives north of 380 yards no longer a rarity.
So much so, that alongside the one automatic spot rewarded to the ELDG champion, those competing have invested a further £250 at every event this season in order to claim five more Long Drive World Championship places.
Bry said: “Most of us have competed with the American guys before, and although there isn’t enough money for it to be my full-time profession, I do treat it as such in terms of the hours of practice I put in.
“Usually if you are number one at the end of the season, you get a ticket to the world’s, but there are plenty more avenues into it as well, however it costs £2500 for just one person to compete.”
But before such positions are merited, the ELDG are set to travel to Alder Root Golf Club in Warrington for the first British Championships since 2019.
Head professional Paul Woodcock, who is also a founding member of the European Long Drive Association, hopes the event can act as an appetizer for the next generation of hitters.
He said: “The event will be free for spectators all weekend with various other activities including junior golf taster sessions, food, and drink concessions as well as a live DJ going on, so we hope as many people come down as possible.
“It’s a chance to witness feats of superhuman driving from the Pro’s division and if you want you can stay for the players afterparty and stand shoulder to shoulder with Europe’s best.”
Timo added: “Being able to return to England – the number one golf nation in Europe and the home of golf – will aid the sports exposure and help it flourish in the future.
“The long-term aim would be to host a World Championship event in Europe at some point – maybe even England – so we could witness the best players in the world compete on home soil.”