THACKERVILLE, Okla. – The primetime lights have not yet been turned on, with players instead toiling under the beaming heat of a summer sun. But the primal screams and eye-popping yardages emanating from “the grid” indicate that the Volvik World Long Drive Championship is already in full swing.
The Winstar World Casino and Resort will take center stage over the next two evenings, but when a world championship is at stake the sport of long drive becomes more of a marathon than a sprint. For the most prolific drivers who have all gathered at this Oklahoma outpost, one good shot won’t do the trick.
Instead they were asked to navigate a meandering, double-elimination bracket that has already whittled the field from 96 entrants to 16. Along the way there have been plenty of surprises, with more likely in store once the cameras are turned on and the music gets pumping Tuesday before a national television audience.
For the uninitiated, there remains a simple question: How did we get to this point?
Seventy men qualified through past world championship performance, regional qualifiers or results in one of the other nine long-drive events contested this year. The final 26 spots were decided during a “last chance” qualifier conducted last week.
Pool play started Saturday, with players split into 16-man qualifying groups while vying for a handful of spots in the next round. Over the course of two days, the top 32 drivers were identified and re-bracketed based on world ranking.
Monday’s head-to-head matches included a 3-minute time clock during which players stood side-by-side while hitting eight balls apiece. The player with the longest single drive won the “set,” with each match a best-of-3 affair. Players could afford to drop a single match, but were eliminated after their second loss.
It’s a change from last year’s format which saw the top 64 square off in a single-elimination, match-play bracket. A larger sample size should benefit the top players, but there were still upsets aplenty as three of the top five ranked players in the world lost their initial match Monday morning.
That group included world No. 1 Maurice Allen, who made headlines earlier this year with his Ric Flair-inspired monologue at the Mile High Showdown. But after twice losing to unheralded Wes Patterson, the lowest-ranked player in the field, Allen’s title run came to an abrupt halt.
“Today just wasn’t my day,” Allen said. “I think 2017 is the hardest field in world championships history. You’re looking at a lot of big names going home. Like I’ve said many, many times, this sport is growing. The guys are getting better and the competition is getting stiffer, so that’s why when you get a win you truly try to relish it. You don’t know when a win will be your last win.”
While Allen will be relegated to a spectator when a champion is crowned Wednesday night, there are still plenty of notable contenders standing. Two-time winner Tim Burke rallied to make the Round of 16 after losing his opening match, while defending champ Joe Miller breezed through after uncorking four different drives of at least 375 yards.
“I’m sure there’s a target on my back, but I try not to think about it too much. Let the talking be done on the tee box,” Miller said. “Once we get under the lights, just concentrate on game, go out there and hit your ball.”
With the top 16 now identified, players will be re-seeded based on ranking and put into a single-elimination bracket. When the competition resumes Tuesday night, they’ll each face an opponent equipped with eight balls, a driver that utilizes every last spec afforded by USGA regulations and a swing speed that would make any Trackman machine blush.
The winners move on to Wednesday’s high-octane finale, where the final eight players will vie for the coveted championship belt. The loser of each Round of 16 match heads home.
And the men aren’t the only show this week in Thackerville. The women’s division gets underway Tuesday, with the four longest drivers facing off during Wednesday’s primetime competition.
With three days of competition in the books, there are still a few unexpected names on the men’s leaderboard. Patterson is a former pitcher who was considering Web.com Tour Q-School as recently as last month, while Kyle Berkshire was playing collegiate golf at nearby University of North Texas last fall.
But after launching a couple 400-plus yard drives during tournament practice rounds, his teammates encouraged him to try the long-drive circuit and his coach at UNT gave him a one-semester redshirt to give it a shot.
Berkshire hit a 474-yard shot during his first qualifier, turned pro and hasn’t looked back.
“That’s when I knew this was something that I was one of the best at,” Berkshire said. “It’s just something that I really want to reach my potential in.”
That chase toward potential will now include a spot under the lights, where the 20-year-old will stand toe-to-toe against the world’s best with a world championship up for grabs.
“Anything less than a win for me is a disappointment, because I know how good I am,” Berkshire said while sporting the UNT logo on his shoes. “It’s not about being cocky or being conceited. It’s about keeping your head down, hitting your shots and letting your clubs do the talking.”
The work under the sun is in the books. Now the focus shifts to primetime, where the only certainty is that there will be plenty of high-energy fireworks as the longest drivers in the game continue their chase deep into the night sky, with the biggest title of the year at stake.