TheGolfChannel.com is focusing on distance this week. I cant think of a better way to shine a spotlight on distance than to celebrate Michael Hoke Austin. Do you know of him?
Mike Austin holds the record for the longest drive hit on a standard golf course in sanctioned tournament competition. The total distance of the drive measured 515 yards. He accomplished this Herculean feat at the 1974 U.S. National Seniors Open Championship in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Before we get too involved in the record setting drive itself let me tell you a little about Mike Austin. I had the pleasure of meeting Mike many times during a period of my life when I lived in Los Angeles, California. I was hooked on golf. Actually, thats the understatement of the last two decades. I was addicted to golf. On an almost daily basis I would make the drive over the hill from Santa Monica to the valley and the Studio City Golf and Tennis driving range. Back in those days ' Im going back 18 years or so ' it was commonplace to see people like Sylvester Stallone, Andy Garcia, Jack Nicholson, Smokey Robinson and many other celebrities hitting golf balls off the mats at Whitsett. We called it Whitsett because it is located on Whitsett Avenue.
Truth be told, these entertainment luminaries played second fiddle to the main attraction ' Mike Austin ' who gave lessons at Whitsett daily. When they made Mike Austin they broke the mold. He was truly a one-of-a-kind character. If I had known then what I know now about Mike I would have spent every nickel I could lay my hands taking lessons from him. And for just $35 a half-hour. Man, I could just kick myself.
Many people sought out Mike Austin for his unique approach to the game. Along the way, they learned of his seemingly fantastic accomplishments on and off the course. One such man is the author, Philip Reed. Phil was a golfer looking for the key to breaking 80 as well as a man just trying to hit his driver more than 200 yards. He tracked down Austin for a lesson and some advice. A great deal of time spent with Mike Austin, Phil not only broke the 300 yard barrier off the tee he wrote about it in a book titled In Search of the Greatest Golf Swing. Folks, Im not in the business of endorsing books, but, Ive got to tell you, this is a good read.
I phoned Phil yesterday and talked to him about his extraordinary experience with Mike Austin. We became very good friends...much closer than I ever anticipated, Phil told me. Mike was kind of a scary and very stern man and yet he had this side to him that was completely unexpected. He was incredibly devoted to his close friends and he was inclined to help people he didnt even know; people he felt genuinely needed help. This went well beyond golf and it is just one of the many things that made Mike Austin such a special and unique person. I went to Mike Austins funeral and I met a lot of people there who told me on the worst day of their lives when everything seemed lost, Mike Austin came mysteriously in to their life and helped steer them towards a renewed faith in themselves.
Heres a little background on Mike Austin. He was born on the British island of Guernsey off the coast of northern France. He was first introduced to golf at the age of six by a local pro. Austin claimed late in life that it was during his first lesson when he learned the secret of a powerful golf swing; the release. The pro instructed Austin to take his mashie niblick, head over to a mud bank, and bury the head of the club in the dirt repeatedly. According to Mike Austin, This let the club head freely pass ahead of my hands at the moment of impact. It is a swing characteristic he carried with him for the rest of his life.
The Austin family moved from Guernsey to Scotland then later to Boston, Massachusetts. A foreigner, Austin was teased horribly by the local boys. His father, catching wind of this, sent Mike to a boxing gym where he learned to defend himself. He also became incredibly strong for his age. Not long after, the Austin family moved again, this time to Atlanta, Georgia. Their home was not far from East Lake Country Club. Young Mike used to sneak on to East Lake and hit balls. He was caught one day by Eastlakes golf professional, Stewart Maiden. But instead of banning Mike from the course, Maiden, impressed with Mikes swing, gave him permission to practice; as long as it wasnt on weekends.
Eastlake was home at that same time to a young Bobby Jones. As the story goes, one day Jones saw Mike Austin driving the ball across a lake that required a 300 yard carry. He asked Austin, How do you do that? Mike replied, Im not a pro. I really dont know. Ask Mr. Maiden. Hell tell you.
That was but the first of many brushes with greatness that would fall upon Mike Austin. In the late 1930s Austin moved to Los Angeles to become a pro at the Wilshire Country Club. The job fell through so he worked at other golf courses in Los Angeles, teaching and competing. His roommate was film legend Errol Flynn and they frequented local nightclubs in search of women. Austin also auditioned for roles in movies and eventually appeared in a number of motion pictures.
After serving in the R.A.F. during WWII (he was shot down in combat and suffered a tropical fever which led to partial paralysis) Austin returned to Los Angeles where he earned a PhD in kinesiology. He became a highly sought after golf instructor whose number one pupil at the time was none other than Howard Hughes.
It was Mike Austins prodigious length off the tee, however, that garnered him the most attention. He traveled across the country giving exhibitions with other long hitters, members of the 350 Club. Austin was famous for betting large amounts of money that he could out drive any challenger. No one can remember him losing a bet.
But it was one drive in 1974 that secured Mike Austins name in history. While playing in the U.S. National Seniors Tournament, at the Winterwood Golf Course (now the Desert Rose) Austin played in a foursome that included the 1950 PGA Champion, Chandler Harper. After Austin had unleashed several 400-yard drives, Chandler said, 'Mike, let's see you really let one go.' On the next tee Austin hit his drive on the par 4, 450-yard 5th hole. It carried to the edge of the green, bounced over and rolled past the pin and continued off the back of the green. In a 2003 interview, Harper Chandler said he found a ball on the next tee box and called to Austin, 'This is impossible, but there is a ball over here.' They identified the ball as Austin's and stepped off the distance back to the center of the green. It had traveled 65 yards over the green. The drive was confirmed at 515 yards.
Although there was a tailwind estimated at 27-35 mph, several factors make this record feat especially amazing. The drive was hit on level ground using a persimmon wood driver (10 degrees) with a 43.5' extra-stiff steel shaft. The ball was balataand Mike Austin was 64 years old.
FYI, in 1978 at the age of 68 Mike Austin won the U.S. National Seniors Tournament.
In continuing my conversation with Phil Reed yesterday, I asked him about his own personal lesson experience with Mike Austin. I felt like I was back in elementary school up at the blackboard with a sadistic teacher, ready to pounce on anything that I did incorrectly, Phil said. The thing with Mike, Phil continued, was that he was so focused on doing things the right way and he had such a clear vision of what was the right way that there was no compromise with him. And he was well aware of how frightening he was and he said if he didnt teach that way then people wouldnt remember. I think that there may be something to that. I actually only took one hands-on lesson with him but we talked golf for countless hours during the writing of the book and whenever you talked golf with Mike he would pick up a club and you were immediately in the middle of a lesson. I sometimes found it hard to digest what he was saying, but, even now, things will come back to me that Mike said that I didnt fully understand at the time because sometimes it is difficult to understand things until you get the base knowledge under controland then you begin to understand the fine points. But I can honestly say that I think about the things Mike Austin told me about every time I play golf.
I asked Phil about his own personal journey to hit a 300-yard drive. Dont forgetthis is a guy who was averaging 200 yards off the tee. The journey to break the 300-yard barrier for me was unexpected, Phil told me. And, Phil says, It felt effortless which I think is common for people who hit the ball prodigious distances off the tee. As I learned from Mike Austin distance comes from everything working together in the right sequence. He used to tell me that when he hit the ball the farthest he felt like he was just swinging at cruising speed. When I broke 300-yards for the first time I was playing with my brother in Colorado. I had been hitting the ball pretty far all day and I got on the 18th tee and uncorked one and it went up on this beautiful trajectory and caught a little bit of a tailwind. It carried over 300 yards and rolled out to 336 yards. I kept measuring it ' back and forth, back and forth I walked ' because I just couldnt believe that it really happened.
Having spent so much time with Mike Austin (enough to write a book) I thought it appropriate to get some final thoughts from Phil Reed. He was the stuff of legends, Phil says. He was larger than life which is a clichespecially for a writer, Phil apologized, But sometimes a clich says it best. It was absolutely true in his case. I was very proud to know Mike Austin and to get close to him, too. The man had a major impact on my life. I only wish that I had met him earlier because I think that there were many things that Mike knew that he never fully talked about or revealed to other people. I think there are some secrets that he took with him to the grave. You know we hear all the time about Ben Hogans secretswhat he told us and what he kept to himself. Other great players as well; what they made public and what they held back. I think Mike took some secrets about the golf swing with him that we will never know about. But thankfully, in my case, the information he did share with me rubbed off and it has made a huge difference in my golf game and my life. I was a guy who struggled to hit the ball 200 yardsmaybe 220 yards off the tee. And I now regularly hit the ball between 255 yards and 275 yards off the tee and in the fairway with just a nice, smooth swing. And I have hit many drives over 300 yards off the tee. And this is due to the information Mike Austin shared with me. So, for many different reasons, I feel very grateful that I met him.
Mike Austin talked about setting the world record and revealed his secrets for hitting it long and straight in his video 'Golf is Mental Imagery and Austinology.' The videos were produced by Mike Austin himself. Clips of Mike and his swing can be seen at www.mikeaustin.com.
So Bubba, Tiger, Phil and Ernieeat your hearts out. In this column focusing on distance, history recalls a man named Mike Austin.