By STEVE WILLIAMS
In long-drive competition, they round off the blasts to the closest yard. Who needs the inches when the balls are rolling out to well in excess of 400 yards?
But in the Re/Max World Long Drive Championship on a windy night in Las Vegas in early November, officials had to get out the tape measure and count off the inches. And Jeff Flagg of Pelham, Ala., ended up 13 inches better than Jeff Crittenden of Greensboro after both had launched 365-yard drives into a crosswind. It was the closest margin of victory in the history of the event. Flagg won $250,000 and Crittenden $0 in the winner-take-all contest.
The field of eight had earned their place in the final eight through qualifiers held about five weeks earlier. Crittenden, AKA “The Critter,” earned his spot in a regional event at Mesquite, Nev., working his way through several rounds and topping out with a career-best 440-yard drive.
At Las Vegas, where the wind and cool temperatures were not conducive to the 400-yard plus wallops, Crittenten – at 43 the oldest competitor in the field – advanced with a couple of narrow decisions. He won his first-round match 369 yards to 368 and his semifinal match against tournament favorite Joe Miller 357-356. Miller, of England, is a former World Long Drive champion.
“I beat the number one seed and I beat number one in the world,” Crittenden said. “I don’t think they were upsets but every other person thought they were upsets.”
In the finals each contestant had six drives, three balls per set. Crittenden hit first and found the grid with his second ball for a 365-yard lead.
Flagg followed and hit his first ball 356 and his second 365 to force the tie.
Neither player found the grid during the second three-ball set.
That’s when the LDA officials walked on to the grid with their tape measure: Flagg checked in at 365 yards, 20 inches, and Crittenden 365 yards, 7 inches.
“I had no idea how it was going to come out,” Crittenden said. “But when they measured mine first, I knew I had lost because they always go to the shorter one first. At that point, I was hoping I was within six inches.”
If the difference is six inches or less, there is a three-ball playoff.
Flagg, 28, is a former baseball player who toiled five years in the minors (2008-12) as a first baseman and outfielder.
“I thought I had him,” Flagg said after the competition, “but if there’s anything I learned from baseball is that you can’t get too high or too low until it’s a done deal.”
Although Crittenden came home with no prize money, he did have all his expenses paid for the trip to Las Vegas. And he figures to benefit from the exposure of the contest being on live TV and with other Golf Channel features. He has already appeared on School of Golf with famed instructor Martin Hall.
Now an instructor with North Carolina Golf Academy, Crittenden expects his name recognition will pay off in more calls for lessons and shows he does for charity tournaments.
Crittenden, who played college baseball and was good enough to get some professional tryouts, actually began his teaching career in short game.
“That’s what I did when I worked with ESPN Golf School – putting and short game,” he said.
He admitted that most people are looking for distance when they call him for lessons.
“You can fit someone with a driver and I can add some distance for people,” he said. “But they’re more impressed with short game. But, yeah, most people do call me for driver.”
Crittenden only began competing in long drive about eight years ago.
“I’m faster now than when I started this sport at 35 or 34,” he said, referring to swing speed and ball speed.
“Apparently, I’m in my prime,” he said with a laugh.
He attributed his success to work ethic.
“A lot of gym, a lot of working on my swing, throwing medicine balls and working on muscles,” he said.
He plans a full year of competition in 2015.
“I’ve picked up a couple sponsors that will allow me to pretty much compete all over the United States, maybe Europe and other spots,” he said.
“I’m excited. This year I did a reduced schedule because of opening the golf school. Next year I’m going to make it work.”
Note: Crittenden can be reached for lessons or charity tournament appearances at 863-242-2226. His website is critterpowergolf.com.