In the early days of the fledgling PGA Tour organizers would try to put on various showcases of the star players in order to attract attention and gain interested paying spectators. Exhibitions and clinics were routine ways for fans to get a more up close and personal connection.
The most popular element routinely included was the staging of a long drive contest prior to the actual event. Most golfers are always searching for added distance and getting the opportunity to observe the game’s finest players going all out in attempting to hit the longest drive proved to be a great lure in building fan interest.
Long driver competitions were also held at The Masters before drawing to a close when the par-3 course was established in the late 1950’s and eventually used for a 9-hole contest held the day prior to the start of that event.
The PGA Championship held its first long drive competition at the 1952 event and ran it until 1964 before being discontinued until 1974 when held again. In 1963 and 1964 the winner was Jack Nicklaus—the 5-time PGA Champion and 18-time major winner. Nicklaus still carries the money clip he won at the ’63 event with a drive totaling 343 yards. Amazingly, the Golden Bear hit his winning blast using an 11-degree Persimmon-head driver—far smaller than today’s titanic drivers—and with a wound balata ball, not the enhanced aerodynamic two and three-piece balls used today.
“I thought it was exciting—I thought it was fun to do,” said Nicklaus. “You would go out, warm-up, you played your last practice round. It was a great gallery favorite.”
The long drive competition came back one additional time after 1974 in 1984 at Shoal Creek before ending—until this year.
Players competing in the PGA Championship will have the option in attempting only one drive at the par-5 10th hole at Vahalla—the distance they hit will only count if the ball comes to rest in the fairway.
Bubba Watson, one of the longest hitters on the PGA Tour and winner of his second green jacket this past April at Augusta, has already stated he will not be competing. During the third round of the Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone, Watson drove his ball 424 yards on the downhill par-5 16th.
The top three longest hitters will receive a money clip akin to the one Nicklaus earned when he won. The Golden Bear continues to use the money clip to this day.
The top three will receive a donation to be split between their designated charities, as well as the Nicklaus-designed American Lake Veterans Golf Course.
“We’re reviving a PGA Championship tradition that will add fun for both spectators and players during a practice round, said PGA of American President Ted Bishop.
The long drive returns to Louisville where it was first staged in 1952—at a Jack Nicklaus designed layout at Vahalla which hosts its third PGA Championship starting Thursday.
Adding pre-events to the main show is nothing new in sports. The NBA and Major League Baseball both added various exhibitions prior to the playing of their respective All-Star games. In the NBA, the dunk contest and three-point shooting are two just two outreaches made to spike interest for fans and engender more interest in the professional game. The same holds true with MLB and its creation of a Home Run Derby as a lead-up to the game between the finest players of both leagues.
What will be most interesting to see at Valhalla today is what players will venture forth and attempt to win bragging rights as the tour’s longest hitter. The risks to ego may keep some players in the shadows from coming forward but those who do come forward will find a Louisville crowd eager to lend their vocal support.
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.