THACKERVILLE, Okla. — Mount Airy’s Justin Young finished tied for fifth place in the 2015 World Long Drive Championship.
The former North Surry and Surry Community College golfer showed off his brute strength, regularly surpassing 350 yards with a top distance of 386 yards.
This year’s event had a completely different feel from Young’s previous berth in the top 16 as a 19-year-old rookie in 2012.
ReMax pulled out as the top corporate sponsor, then the event moved from Nevada to Oklahoma. Rather than waiting for scores to post on a website, the Golf Channel aired the competition live.
And the event itself changed with a new format.
Rather than just having everyone hit some golf balls and tracking the best distances, the championship uses a head-to-head competition. Justin didn’t have to beat every athlete there; he just had to outdistance the guy next to him in each round.
The new wrinkle this year was a clock. Rather than getting six balls to do their best, the hitters had 2:45 in which to smash as many balls as they could. However, many discovered the hard way that rushing only led to more missed shots outside the landing area.
Rather than hit the ball as far as they wanted in any direction, Young and the others had a 60-yard-wide landing zone. Sixty yards sounds like a lot, but at the distance these players were hitting, a slight miss quickly curved well out of play.
The final 16 players had a one-round playoff on Tuesday night. Then three rounds were held on Wednesday: quarterfinal, semifinal and final.
Young was seeded seventh, while his friend Jeremy Easterly was seeded 10th.
Justin met Jeremy at his first-ever long drive event in Tennessee in 2012, said dad Joe Young. Jeremy was a nice guy and didn’t look down his nose at a rookie. The two of them hit it off and have remained friends even though Jeremy lives in Florida.
This week in Oklahoma, the two buds shared a hotel room.
Young was the biggest competitor in the event at 275 lbs, quite a bit heavier than his rookie debut.
Justin is still a young man (a month shy of 23) and has been enjoying himself a little bit more this year, said his father. He has been riding his four-wheeler and going hunting and fishing.
After a long, tough week of competition, Justin admitted to Joe that he needs to shed some weight for next year.
The remarkable thing about long drive competition is that many of these guys don’t even play golf, Justin said in 2012. They lift weights and work with a swing coach only as far as swinging off the tee. Hitting an iron shot off the fairway or lofting a ball with a wedge is completely beyond their ability.
Justin has managed to reach the top eight twice without any specialty training, Joe said. The only coaching he has received is from his golf team’s coach.
One area where his dad can see room for improvement is adjusting to the conditions.
Jeff Crittenden is 44 years old and knows how to play in the elements, Joe said. When the wind was blowing into their faces on Wednesday, “Critter” started hitting balls with a lower trajector to reduce the wind resistance.
Justin hit the highest balls in the competition, and if the wind had been behind them, then he might have won it all, said Joe. Instead, the wind slowed him up a little.
On Tuesday, Young went head-to-head with Justin Moose. His best drive went 373, the shortest of the seven players who had gone at that point. Moose hit a drive that looked like it might equal the distance, but stopped about a foot and a half shy.
Moose, at 27, was the next youngest competitor after Young.
Moose said he didn’t catch a single ball flush, Young noted. Neither did the Mount Airy native, saying he was hitting the ball too high on the club face. After the round he realized he was using a slightly longer tee (4 inches) compared to what he was accustomed to. The ball was sitting up higher than he likes.
Unfortunately, the win moved Young up the brackets to face a former champion in Tim Burke, the same man who knocked him out of the elite eight in 2012.
The top seed in the upper half of the brackets had been sloppy all week, missing left and right. However, he managed to keep a long one in play on Tuesday to beat Maurice Allen 396 to 382.
Against Burke, despite a head wind on Wednesday, Young hit one ball the same 373 yards as Tuesday. Then he bested that with a drive of 386.
Burke again missed shot after shot left and right. Then with only 10 seconds left on the clock, he blasted one down the middle for 401 yards.
With the event’s format, it didn’t matter how badly Burke was doing up to that ball. The last one sent Young packing.
His buddy Easterly won in the quarterfinals, beating Jeff Gavin 377 to 353.
In the semifinals, Easterly took on the top seed in the bottom half of the bracket. He posted a distance of 380, and Jamie Sadlowski missed every single swing.
Burke, who won the 2013 title, had a similar experience in 2014, missing the grid with each ball to lose his crown.
This time, Burke managed to keep enough shots in play to beat Will Hogue in the semifinals, then edge Easterly in the final 394 to 386.
While missing the semifinals was disappointing for the Youngs, Justin advanced from a field of 128 to the final eight and showed he has a future in this sport.