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Behind the scenes with a long-drive competitor

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WESTBURY, NY - AUGUST 24: Dustin Johnson of the United States plays his shot from the 17th tee during round one of The Northern Trust at Glen Oaks Club on August 24, 2017 in Westbury, New York. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)  - 

Mike Zeigler starts his range sessions the way most people do,  a few easy wedges, casually working his way through the bag … 9-iron, 6-iron, hybrid …

He ends his sessions the way few others can, by launching a few 400-yard drivers, the practice balls often startling people on the other side of the range.

In case you hadn’t guessed, Zeigler, or “Ziggy” as his friends call him, is a long-drive competitor, and I recently had a chance to spend some time with him at Orlando’s ChampionsGate. I wanted to know how a 6-foot-2, 190-pound 41-year-old can hit a golf ball so freakishly far. And how does one make a living simply mashing drives?

The answers have as many moving parts as Ziggy’s 145-mph swing.

Zeigler walked me through an abbreviated version of his routine, long drives, trick shots - you name it, he can probably do it.

It ended up being the most enjoyable practice session of my life, and I never even hit a shot.

That’s because Zeigler has honed his craft as an entertainer just as much as his long driving, and after a few minutes around the guy, you just know he couldn’t turn it off if he tried.

Halfway through his session, most of the other golfers on the range had stopped their own practice to watch in awe. After one of his monster drives, the guy next to us asked Ziggy how long his shaft was. He smiled. “Whoa! I don’t know you that well, buddy.”

You could tell he might have heard that question a time or two before.

“I love entertaining. I really enjoy making people happy and kind of teaching them there’s more to golf than just shooting 66 every day, and just getting away from the serious side of golf for a minute,” Zeigler said.

Zeigler, who lives in Canton, Ohio, and calls Glenmore Country Club his home course, has turned the long-drive competitions into almost a secondary gig. He does 60-70 clinics for kids and charities across the country a year – more than 600 in all – engaging crowds with his incredible combination of power and finesse.

And he’s got the stories to prove it.

At Frank Nobilo’s charity event last year at Lake Nona, Zeigler’s best-ball foursome three-putted the par-5 15th hole for eagle. Ziggy hit putter off the tee, then another putter to about 8 feet, and someone else in his group sank the putt.

“So we legitimately three-putted for eagle,” he said. “How cool it that?”

He proved it was possible to me on the range, hitting back-to-back putters – one a 250-yard bomb, the next a 70-yard lob shot. (He'll prove it to you too, in the video below.)

So with that kind of talent, why isn’t Zeigler on the PGA Tour? The answer comes from his four years spent on mini-tours, where “I’m sure I led in driving distance, eagles, birdies, bogeys, double bogeys and hit condos,” he said.

He is a fan of the pro game, however, and counts several prominent Tour pros as friends, including Fred Funk, Jim Furyk, Vijay Singh, Graeme McDowell, Erik Compton and Ernie Els … not to mention Christopher McDonald (aka Shooter McGavin).

“They really respect what we do. Those guys are the best in the world. Just to be on the same turf as them is an honor,” Zeigler said.

So what is a typical day in the life of a long-drive competitor? For one thing, it sounds like a lot of them are spent in airports.

But, at least for Zeigler, when he’s not traveling or participating in events, he’s training. His practice regimen consists of 300-500 balls, three to five days a week, and he also mixes in speed training, plyometrics, fast-twitch exercises and even some martial arts.

“If I’m not doing something I’m always practicing, I’m always preparing. I have to keep my body in good shape because I’m out here all day long,” he said of the events that sometimes keep him on the range for eight or nine hours.

“I like to make sure everyone has a good time. The events are really not about me, it’s about making the event a better day for the host.”

Zeigler was so busy with clinics and other obligations last year that he didn’t have time to qualify for the World Long Drive Championship. But the six-time world finalist does plan on returning this year.

“I’ve always been right there,” he said of the competitions. “Sometimes you fall a little bit short.”

So this September, when you tune in to the Golf Channel as the best long drivers in the world convene at the ReMax World Long Drive Championship in Las Vegas, just remember with these guys, there is plenty more than meets the eye. Even if what meets the eye is a drive hit so far that you have trouble seeing it.