Mullins: The drive for distance, change and success

By Nick MentaMay 24, 2017, 8:15 pm

Troy Mullins is an athlete.

Scratch that – she’s a heptathlete.

While an undergraduate at Cornell, Mullins performed in the 200-meter, 800-meter, 100-meter hurdle, high jump, long jump, shot put and the javelin throw.

She took to athletics at an early age, participating in volleyball, tennis and swimming.

“I kind of just played everything,” she recalls.

Except, of course, for golf – which isn’t really surprising.

The game is expensive, and it’s pockmarked by a history of exclusion.

That’s where Mullins comes in.

“When I show up at a country club, I’m usually the only woman that I see … unless it’s a Tuesday. And I’m usually the only person of color. And I’m definitely the only black woman on the course, if that makes sense,” she says while laughing, all at once acknowledging, bemoaning, embracing, and finding humor in that reality.

“I’ve narrowed it down. It’s like 20 percent to 10 percent to one. It’s … it’s tough.” 

She’s not far off. Despite some inclusionary progress and public efforts to – wait for it – “Grow the Game,” the National Golf Foundation found that of the 23.8 million people age six or older who played at least one round golf in 2016, only 1 million, or four percent, were African-American. The numbers for African-American women are considerably lower.

But Mullins – an Ivy League graduate who works as an academic tutor, speaks four languages (English, Spanish, Mandarin and Sign) and enters Long Drive tee boxes to the sound of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” – is living proof that it only takes one well-struck ball to fall in love with golf, no matter who you are or where you’re from.

On June 6, she will compete at the “Clash in the Canyon” in Mesquite, Nev., a World Long Drive event televised on Golf Channel which is a pre-cursor to the World Long Drive Championship in September. The road she’s taken to get there is as unique as her place in the game.


Full coverage: World Long Drive Championship


Mullins decided to move on from the heptathlon midway through her collegiate career when she suffered a hamstring injury and grew tired of running with shin splints.

Though she had just one prior experience playing golf, a summer-camp clinic in which she was the only girl, she had been introduced to the game as a teenager in a different way. Through a family connection, Mullins and her mom used to attend the L.A. Open’s annual pro-am, back when a young Tiger Woods regularly played Riviera.

Years later, out of a desire to stay active after moving on from track and field and in an effort to try something new, Mullins, in 2008, started going by herself to the driving range.

“I would do it just to work out and relieve stress. I would actually break a sweat,” she says, still with surprise. “I would beat balls until my hands would bleed.

“There’s something about that first time you compress the ball, and that sound. I was just addicted to hitting the ball.”

That addiction followed her halfway around the world. A China and Asia-Pacific Studies major, Mullins sought out a local driving range while in Beijing during a study-abroad program.

As far as she knew at the time, she wasn’t doing anything remarkable. She was just swinging as hard as she could and hitting the ball all over the map.

She would only come to learn otherwise once she was back in Los Angeles, out of college and working at Brookside Golf Club to keep up her new golf habit. It was at Brookside that someone she now calls a friend, 2017 Ladies European Tour rookie Jenny Lee, opened her eyes to what she was really doing.

“She was like, ‘You hit it really far,’” Mullins said, recalling their conversation. “And I was like, ‘No, I don’t. … I don’t hit it far.’

“And she was like, ‘Dude, girls don’t hit it that far.’”

To be clear, Mullins, at 5-foot-8, surpasses 300 yards even when she fails to clear her hips and ends up pushing it right. When she does square up, she’s one of the longest women in the world.

That became obvious when she worked her way into the 2012 Women’s World Long Drive Championship as a substitute following a withdrawal.

It was Mullins’ first official Long Drive event, a testament to the division’s fledgling status. A do-it-herself-er learning on the fly, she arrived with two items – her Pomeranian (named after singer Etta James) and a standard-length, off-the-rack Ping Anser driver.

“I didn’t have a team or a sponsor or any of that, but I was told I shouldn’t go myself,” she says, explaining Etta’s presence.

As for the club: “It’s the best driver Ping ever made,” she maintains, five years later. “I wish they would bring it back.”

Mullins’ praise is understood. In her first event, the World Long Drive Championship, with a club she picked up at a Roger Dunn Golf Shop, she busted a ball 321 yards and took home second prize.

She had done it all on her own in just four short years – but it would take her four more to make it back.



After years spent working by herself, Mullins was looking to hone her skills, and not just as a long driver.

A four handicap, Mullins had qualified for the 2012 U.S. Mid-Amateur even before the Long Drive. Now she was setting her sights on the pro game, with an eye on the Symetra Tour and the LPGA.

With the help of a potential sponsor and the recommendation of a pro at a prestigious L.A. club, Mullins hooked up with an instructor in 2014 who unfortunately did more harm than good.

“He totally destroyed my swing,” she says. “Destroyed my swing, destroyed my back. Every day I was at acupuncture … it was horrible.

“I had the hooks. I hooked, even, wedges. I hooked the whole bag. … It ruined the game for me. I quit for a while. I was really upset about it. So all of 2014, I didn’t play. I didn’t do anything.”

After a year break allowed her back to heal, Mullins found herself right back where she started – by herself, at the range. Except unlike before, she wasn’t enjoying herself. She was there instead out of determination, out of an unwillingness to quit, even after her game had largely left her.

“I was so … hurt by the fact that I trusted someone and it just ruined my swing,” she said. “So I actually didn’t own a driver for two years. I only hit irons. That’s how ashamed I was that my swing had fallen apart.”

Still beating range balls morning after morning, Mullins was noticed by an ex-teaching pro, Don Huffaker, who was impressed more than anything else by her commitment. Huffaker offered his help, but after her last experience with an instructor, Mullins was naturally skeptical.

“He asked, ‘Can I help you?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t want to trust someone again.’ So I told him, ‘Maybe I’ll just come practice with you,’” she says. “He wasn’t going to change that much. We talked about it. And he just helped me get back, back to where I can do my own swing, do my own thing.”

Little by little, Mullins swing and confidence started to come back.

After a lot of work and a little help from Huffaker, she is now a one handicap.

And after four years away, she returned to the World Long Drive Championship last year, where she made it to the quarterfinals, and destroyed this camera.



As if losing your game and having to rebuild your swing isn’t hard enough, certain environments can still prove unwelcoming for a young black woman just trying to play some golf.

“I always get flagged for what I’m wearing. It could be … it’s mostly skirts,” Mullins says. “Every time I go to a country club, I get dinged for my skirts. They say it’s too short, they say it’s too tight, they say it’s too colorful.”

Those experiences have, over time, turned her off to private golf. While a member at a club outside Los Angeles from 2011-13, Mullins was told that another member had complained Mullins’ skirt was attracting too much attention. At issue for Mullins was the fact that she had bought the skirt from the pro shop, and that another woman on the range was hitting balls in a tank top and yoga pants. A similar situation unfolded when she played as a guest at a separate L.A. club, and the head pro took exception, once again, to her skirt. This time, when she went into the golf shop, the girl working behind the counter was wearing the exact same outfit.

“It’s still a very … men-dominated sport, and it’s an older men’s sport,” she says, reflecting on those experiences. “So now that we have a lot of young women, especially women that are dressing, you know, a little bit more provocatively – I don’t but you see it on Instagram – the sport is changing. And I don’t like feeling uncomfortable when I go to a country club.

“It’s really hard to grow the game when, as a woman, you feel intimidated, and you’re not really welcomed into the game,” Mullins adds, name-dropping “Women with Drive” network as a great way for female golfers to connect.

“Even something as simple as going to a golf shop, it took me a really long time to find clubs because no fitter wanted to put me in men’s clubs. They would say, ‘Oh you need to get regular or women’s flex,’ just because I’m a woman. They don’t expect women to have any power, so that’s really disappointing.”

For the record, both of her drivers, a 45-inch Callaway and a 48-inch Ping LS Tec are men’s X-Stiffs.



It’s important to note that Mullins is far from bitter about any of this. Each of those situations irked her at the time, but she never let those experiences linger too long. Even if they got her down, they never kept her down.

“I’m not some wounded bird,” she says, evidencing that while obstacles are part of her story, they are not the whole of her story.

Because if they were, she wouldn’t be waking up at 5 a.m. to focus on her game before she goes to work. She wouldn’t be self-funding her fledging career as an adult, when the women’s game is dominated by the latest, youngest wunderkind. She certainly wouldn’t be encouraging her students to take up the game themselves – some of whom already have.

If anything, Mullins wants to serve as an example.

“Golf isn’t just a boring old-man sport,” she tells the young men and women she tutors. “It can be feminine, or it can be younger.”

But right now, it’s not any cheaper. Sure, race and gender play important roles in the “Grow the Game” effort, but there are few things more challenging for young, aspiring golfers than the sport’s cost.

“It’s expensive,” Mullins answers right away when asked about youth participation. “Most of the time when people get into golf, they have access to a club. They have a parent that plays. Otherwise, most people don’t gravitate to the sport without familial introduction unless they’re older and retired.

“Because golf is an expensive game. It’s expensive to get into. It’s $10 every time you want to go hit balls, not to mention equipment, greens fees are expensive, clothes, for sure.”

The next chapter in Mullins’ own golf journey will unfold this summer as she tries to mix some mini-tour starts with her Long Drive commitments and her job, her real life. For now, there’s little time for anything but work and golf, but Mullins isn’t shrinking from the challenge.

“I’ve had to work so hard,” she says. “I have to work almost seven days a week to afford golf. I love golf, but it’s not paying the bills at this point. Until I’m on tour, until I’m sponsored, it’s a lot of sacrifice.

“My girlfriends don’t understand,” she adds, laughing again. “They tell me, ‘You don’t hangout, you don’t do anything.’

“Girl, I get up at 5. I’m in bed at 9 now. I get up so early. I’m just totally focused. I don’t have time. I’ll have time later.”


Watch Mullins compete in the "Clash in the Canyon" on Golf Channel June 6 at 8PM ET.

Open Qualifying Series kicks off with Aussie Open

By Golf Channel DigitalNovember 21, 2017, 4:24 pm

The 147th Open is nearly eight months away, but there are still major championship berths on the line this week in Australia.

The Open Qualifying Series kicks off this week, a global stretch of 15 event across 10 different countries that will be responsible for filling 46 spots in next year's field at Carnoustie. The Emirates Australian Open is the first event in the series, and the top three players among the top 10 who are not otherwise exempt will punch their tickets to Scotland.

In addition to tournament qualifying opportunities, the R&A will also conduct four final qualifying events across Great Britain and Ireland on July 3, where three spots will be available at each site.

Here's a look at the full roster of tournaments where Open berths will be awarded:

Emirates Australian Open (Nov. 23-26): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties

Joburg Open (Dec. 7-10): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties

SMBC Singapore Open (Jan. 18-21): Top four players (not otherwise exempt) among top 12 and ties

Mizuno Open (May 24-27): Top four players (not otherwise exempt) among top 12 and ties

HNA Open de France (June 28-July 1): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties

The National (June 28-July 1): Top four players (not otherwise exempt) among top 12 and ties

Dubai Duty Free Irish Open (July 5-8): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties

The Greenbrier Classic (July 5-8): Top four players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties

Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open (July 12-15): Top three players (not otherwise exempt) among top 10 and ties

John Deere Classic (July 12-15): Top player (not otherwise exempt) among top five and ties

Stock Watch: Lexi, Justin rose or fall this week?

By Ryan LavnerNovember 21, 2017, 2:36 pm

Each week on GolfChannel.com, we’ll examine which players’ stocks and trends are rising and falling in the world of golf.

RISING

Jon Rahm (+9%): Just imagine how good he’ll be in the next few years, when he isn’t playing all of these courses for the first time. With no weaknesses in his game, he’s poised for an even bigger 2018.

Austin Cook (+7%): From Monday qualifiers to Q-School to close calls on the Web.com, it hasn’t been an easy road to the big leagues. Well, he would have fooled us, because it looked awfully easy as the rookie cruised to a win in just his 14th Tour start.

Ariya (+6%): Her physical tools are as impressive as any on the LPGA, and if she can shore up her mental game – she crumbled upon reaching world No. 1 – then she’ll become the world-beater we always believed she could be.  

Tommy Fleetwood (+4%): He ran out of gas in Dubai, but no one played better on the European Tour this year than Fleetwood, Europe’s new No. 1, who has risen from 99th to 18th in the world.   

Lexi (+1%): She has one million reasons to be pleased with her performance this year … but golf fans are more likely to remember the six runners-up and two careless mistakes (sloppy marking at the ANA and then a yippy 2-footer in the season finale) that cost her a truly spectacular season.


FALLING

J-Rose (-1%): Another high finish in Dubai, but his back-nine 38, after surging into the lead, was shocking. It cost him not just the tournament title, but also the season-long race.  

Hideki (-2%): After getting blown out at the Dunlop Phoenix, he made headlines by saying there’s a “huge gap” between he and winner Brooks Koepka. Maybe something was lost in translation, but Matsuyama being too hard on himself has been a familiar storyline the second half of the year. For his sake, here’s hoping he loosens up.

Golf-ball showdown (-3%): Recent comments by big-name stars and Mike Davis’ latest salvo about the need for a reduced-flight ball could set up a nasty battle between golf’s governing bodies and manufacturers.

DL3 (-4%): Boy, the 53-year-old is getting a little too good at rehab – in recent years, he has overcome a neck fusion, foot injury, broken collarbone and displaced thumb. Up next is hip-replacement surgery.

LPGA Player of the Year (-5%): Sung Hyun Park and So Yeon Ryu tied for the LPGA’s biggest prize, with 162 points. How is there not a tiebreaker in place, whether it’s scoring average or best major performance? Talk about a buzzkill.

Titleist's Uihlein fires back at Davis over distance

By Golf Channel DigitalNovember 21, 2017, 12:59 am

Consider Titleist CEO Wally Uihlein unmoved by Mike Davis' comments about the evolution of the golf ball – and unhappy.

In a letter to the Wall Street Journal, the outlet which first published Davis' comments on Sunday, Uihlein took aim at the idea that golf ball distance gains are hurting the sport by providing an additional financial burden to courses.

"Is there any evidence to support this canard … the trickle-down cost argument?” he wrote (via Golf.com). “Where is the evidence to support the argument that golf course operating costs nationwide are being escalated due to advances in equipment technology?"

Pointing the blame elsewhere, Uihlein criticized the choices and motivations of modern of architects.

"The only people that seem to be grappling with advances in technology and physical fitness are the short-sighted golf course developers and the supporting golf course architectural community who built too many golf courses where the notion of a 'championship golf course' was brought on line primarily to sell real estate," he wrote.

The Titleist CEO even went as far as to suggest that Tiger Woods' recent comments that "we need to do something about the golf ball" were motivated by the business interersts of Woods' ball sponsor, Bridgestone.

"Given Bridgestone’s very small worldwide market share and paltry presence in professional golf, it would seem logical they would have a commercial motive making the case for a reduced distance golf ball," he added.

Acushnet Holdings, Titleist's parent company, announced in September that Uihlein would be stepping down as the company's CEO at the end of this year but that he will remain on the company's board of directors.

Class of 2011: The groups before The Group

By Mercer BaggsNovember 20, 2017, 9:00 pm

We’ve been grouping things since the beginning, as in The Beginning, when God said this is heaven and this is earth, and you’re fish and you’re fowl.

God probably wasn’t concerned with marketing strategies at the time and how #beastsoftheearth would look with a hashtag, but humans have evolved into such thinking (or not evolved, depending on your thinking).

We now have all manner of items lumped into the cute, the catchy and the kitschy. Anything that will capture our attention before the next thing quickly wrests said attention away.

Modern focus, in a group sense in the golf world, is on the Class of 2011. This isn’t an arbitrary assembly of players based on world ranking or current form. It’s not a Big Pick A Number.

There’s an actual tie that binds as it takes a specific distinction to be part of the club. It’s a group of 20-somethings who graduated from high school in the aforementioned year, many who have a PGA Tour card, a handful of who have PGA Tour wins, and a couple of who have major titles.

It’s a deep and talented collective, one for which our knowledge should continue to expand as resumes grow.

Do any “classes” in golf history compare? Well, it’s not like we’ve long been lumping successful players together based on when they completed their primary education. But there are other notable groups of players, based primarily on birthdate, relative competition and accomplishment.

Here’s a few on both the men’s and women’s side:

BORN IN 1912

Birthdate Player PGA Tour wins Major wins
Feb. 4, 1912 Byron Nelson 52 5
May 27, 1912 Sam Snead 82 7
Aug. 13, 1912 Ben Hogan 64 9

Born six months within one another. Only a threesome, but a Hall of Fame trio that combined for 198 PGA Tour wins and 21 majors.


BORN IN 1949

Birthdate Player PGA Tour wins Major wins
Sept. 4, 1949 Tom Watson 39 8
Dec. 5, 1949 Lanny Wadkins 21 1
Dec. 9, 1949 Tom Kite 19 1

Only 96 days separate these three Hall of Fame players. Extend the reach into March of 1950 and you'll get two-time U.S. Open winner Andy North.


BORN IN 1955

Birthdate Player PGA Tour wins Major wins
Jan. 30, 1955 Curtis Strange 17 2
Jan. 30, 1955 Payne Stewart 11 3
Feb. 10, 1955 Greg Norman 20 2

Another trio of Hall of Fame players. Strange and Stewart were born on the same day with Norman 11 days later. Fellow PGA Tour winners born in 1955: Scott Simpson, Scott Hoch and Loren Roberts.


WITHIN A CALENDAR YEAR, 1956-57

Birthdate Player LPGA wins Major wins
Feb. 22, 1956 Amy Alcott 29 5
Oct. 14, 1956 Beth Daniel 33 1
Oct. 27, 1956 Patty Sheehan 35 6
Jan. 6, 1957 Nancy Lopez 48 3

A little arbitrary here, but go with it. Four Hall of Famers on the women's side, all born within one year of each other. That's an average (!) career of 36 tour wins and nearly four majors.


EUROPE'S BIG 5

Birthdate Player Euro (PGA Tour) wins Major wins
April 9, 1957 Seve Ballesteros 50 (9) 5
July 18, 1957 Nick Faldo 30 (9) 6
Aug. 27, 1957 Bernhard Langer 42 (3) 2
Feb. 9, 1958 Sandy Lyle 18 (6) 2
March 2, 1958 Ian Woosnam 29 (2) 1

The best 'class' of players Europe has to offer. Five born within a year of one another. Five Hall of Fame members. Five who transformed and globalized European golf.


WITHIN A CALENDAR YEAR, 1969-70

Birthdate Player PGA Tour wins Major wins
Sept. 12, 1969 Angel Cabrera 3 2
Oct. 17, 1969 Ernie Els 19 4
May 12, 1970 Jim Furyk 17 1
May 12, 1970 Mike Weir 8 1
June 16, 1970 Phil Mickelson 42 5

Not a tight-knit group, but a little more global bonding in accordance to the PGA Tour's increased international reach. Add in worldwide wins – in excess of 200 combined – and this group is even more impressive.


BORN IN 1980

Birthdate Player PGA Tour wins Major wins
Jan. 9, 1980 Sergio Garcia 10 1
July 16, 1980 Adam Scott 13 1
July 30, 1980 Justin Rose 8 1

Could be three future Hall of Fame members here.

Editor's note: Golf Channel's editorial research unit contributed.