By STEVE WILLIAMS
You wouldn’t think that the sport of long driving and a game of chess would have any common ground. Grip-it and rip-it doesn’t equate with checkmate. A driving range grid and a chessboard seem hundreds of yards apart.
But in both competitions one move can dictate the next. It was that process that helped Jeff Crittenden to the championship of the Los Cabos Long Drive Classic in late May.
“It’s like a chess match,” said Bobby Bradley, the vice president of The International Competitions of Long Driving and one of the top competitors. “It makes guys think. You get behind early and it’s tough to come back. Critter (Crittenden) applied a lot of pressure to the guys early by putting the ball in the grid with some big numbers. The other guys ended up getting out of their game plan.”
In the final round of the match play bracket, Crittenden crushed the ball 417, 420 and finally 425.
“He put up a 417 with that first ball. It’s tough to hit a 417 when you know you’ve got to hit a 417. The grid gets a little bit tighter.”
For Crittenden, the director of golf schools and head instructor for Precision Golf School in Greensboro, it was his biggest day in his four-year career in long drive competition. A $20,000 check provided the proof.
“If I go back and add it up, it would probably be about $16,000 I’ve won the last two years in long drive (tournaments),” he said. “This is the only one I’ve ever won. I have a ton of seconds, thirds, fourths and fifths but I had never won one.”
The event in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, drew the top names in Long Drive.
“We had five guys that have won something like 11 world titles,” Crittenden said.
The RE/MAX Long Drive Championship, held annually in Mesquite, Nevada, is the sport’s headline event, thanks in part to its annual presence on ESPN. Crittenden has been there three times.
But ICOLD (International Competitions of Long Driving) is growing in stature.
“This was being considered as the second biggest long drive event,” Crittenden said.
Bradley said a tournament series is in the works and a major event is in the planning stages for later this year in Orlando.
Bradley noted that Crittenden was due for a breakthrough.
“He’s been on the scene for a while,” he said. “He’s a great guy and a great competitor. He’s always been a guy who gets really deep in tournaments. But this was his first big win.”
When he’s not launching golf balls into orbit and instructing for Precision Golf, Crittenden has a trick shot show that he does for various fund-raising events.
“It’s an entertaining half-hour or about 45-minute show,” Crittenden said. “I hit golf shots off three-foot tees; standing on a ball … I hit balls in motion. Each year I add a couple of new shots. It’s a lot of work and you only have one or two times to pull off a shot. You can’t keep trying in a show.”
Crittenden, a native of Westchester, Pa., was a baseball player in his younger days and played collegiately at Millersville University outside Philadelphia.
“I thought I was going to do something big in baseball, but obviously the scouts didn’t think so,” he said.
He got involved in golf during a baseballs off-season and became good at it quickly.
He gravitated to the mini-tour scene in Florida for a while and worked at Wyncote Golf Club in Oxford, Pa. Robert Passerilli, the head pro at Wyncote, pointed Crittenden to the sport of long driving.
Now, at age 39, he’s dedicated to improving his standing.
“I’m 6-2 and 210 pounds so I’m one of the small guys out there,” he said. “But I’m in the gym one or two times a day doing golf-specific exercises trying to get more distance.”
He had plenty at Los Cabos as he emerged at the top of the 57-player field. On the second day of match play, he advanced with wins over Jon Limanti, Mike Carlson and Jeff Gavin to set up a semifinal showdown with No. 1 qualifier Jason Zuback, aka “Golfzilla.”
Crittenden’s 409-yard blast advanced as Zuback failed to keep one inside the 50-yard-wide grid with any of his three drives.
Then, in the finals, his 425-yarder turned back Kevin Bullard, who also failed to find the grid.
“He was on fire,” Bradley said. “He had the perfect ball flight and applied the pressure right away in the head-to-head matches by putting up huge numbers. He was impossible to beat.”
And that made Critter the king in this chess match.