THACKERVILLE, Okla. - The World Long Drive Championship took a page out of the Major League Baseball Home Run Derby’s playbook this year, and the result was, if not a four-bagger, at least a double off the wall.
With the change to a shot clock instead of a set number of balls, players had as many attempts as they could squeeze into two minutes and 45 seconds, plus an extra try if they were still behind, and it resulted in everything from fist-pumping drives blasted nearly 400 yards to soul-crushing losses that came down to inches.
It didn’t take long for the drama to commence, with one of the perennial favorites, Englishman Joe Miller, going down to unheralded Jason Eslinger in the first matchup of the night. The 29-year-old 4 seed playing in his home state poked an early drive 398 yards out, and it held up as Miller, the 2010 champion and No. 1 seed, fell four yards short of that mark.
“I’m just on cloud nine, just kind of a dream come true. Just to get the first win under the lights under my belt. It’s just awesome,” Eslinger said after the match. And although he said he likes the new format, he noted that the tension doesn't just affect the crowd. “On [Miller’s] last shot [my heart] went about 180 beats per minute. I was rushing with adrenaline. I knew I may have to get up there and hit another ball.”
That wasn’t the only match that went the distance. No. 2 seed Will Hogue smashed ball after ball out of play before finding the middle of the grid with a 396-yard moon shot on his final drive to beat Adam Smith and stay in the competition, while fan favorite and two-time champion Jamie Sadlowski ran the clock way down before securing his match with a 391-yard bomb.
“I like it, it adds a lot of excitement. I knew if [my last ball] didn’t do it, it wasn’t going to happen,” said Hogue, a 29-year-old from Tennessee.
Another big name and No. 1 seed, Tim Burke, took out Maurice Allen, and while the result wasn’t exactly a shock, the big surprise was the NBA legend sitting in the front row.
Allen has grown close with former Philadelphia 76er Julius Erving over the last few years, and Dr. J was in the house on Tuesday to watch his “nephew” come up just short to the 2013 champ.
“That’s a legend that’s pretty awesome,” Burke said after the win.
Also moving on is Jeff Gavin, who took out defending champion Jeff Flagg in the previous round, Jeremy Easterly and last year’s runner-up, 44-year-old Jeff Crittenden.
Both Gavin and Crittenden won their matches by a single yard.
The quarterfinals set up as follows:
No. 4 Jason Eslinger vs. No. 2 Will Hogue
No. 1 Tim Burke vs. No. 7 Justin Young
No. 8 Jeff Gavin vs. No. 10 Jeremy Easterly
No. 1 Jamie Sadlowski vs. No. 2 Jeff Crittenden
Even with the new format, Wednesday sets up as more of a marathon to today’s sprint, with the winner of the $150,000 first-place prize looking at a march through the quarterfinals, semis and finals.
The set-up would seem to favor someone who has been through the grind before, especially as the pressure mounts with precious seconds ticking away. But after a tense Tuesday, don’t try telling that to those who have been there before.
“It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve been here before, there’s always pressure,” Sadlowski said.