For most of Tuesday, Rory McIlroy’s name stood boldly apart from the rest of the competitors on the leaderboard for the PGA Long Drive Championship next to the first tee. McIlroy wasn’t just leading the field all morning after striping his drive 345 yards on the opening hole at Baltusrol’s Lower Course — he was dominating it, with Sergio Garcia lagging behind at 319 yards (yep, 26 yards back).
Naturally, as the day went on, conditions became firmer (though they were still quite soft compared to a day earlier after heavy rains came through Monday evening) and the wind picked up — helping on the first hole — and more names started threatening McIlroy’s massive lead.
Keegan Bradley notched 325 yards. Robert Streb striped his 328 yards. The big-hitting Belgian Nicolas Colsaerts almost surpassed McIlroy at 341 yards. But not long before McIlroy’s scheduled mid-afternoon pre-tournament presser, Byeong Hun An managed to roll his two yards past the two-time PGA Champion’s to secure this year’s title
During McIlroy’s presser, he was unaware that An had overtaken his effort and said he would be disappointed if he lost the contest.
“I think it’s a great concept,” said McIlroy, who won the PGA Championship in 2012 and 2014. “Obviously the PGA of America have had this long drive competition for a long time. I know Jack Nicklaus still carries his money clip from 1963 when I won it wherever it was. It’s a nice little accolade to have.
“I hit one out there pretty good this morning. Not going to lie to you, I’ve been checking the board since to see if anyone’s got up close to me. I saw Gary Woodland on the putting green just as he was going out, and I said, that’s one of the guys I’m worried about. I thought he could maybe get it out there by me. But thankfully he missed the fairway. I don’t know if I’m still on top but I hope so by the end of the day. We’ll see.
“But it’s fun. Maybe they could have put it a little further, maybe on like the fifth hole or something or the sixth hole. But first tee shot of the day, you’re sort of — you don’t really want to go after it. But it’s a cool concept. It’s a lot of fun and I think the guys enjoy it.”
McIlroy was then informed by a PGA official that 345 yards was the longest recorded drive since the contest was revived in 2014 at Valhalla. (Well, until An outdid it.) He smiled modestly, but he was certainly in good spirits (and had a bounce in his step on the course during his practice round).
“I hit that one good,” he said when asked. “I pulled it a little bit, so I was a little concerned it might just miss the fairway left, but it just hung on.”
As McIlroy was walking off the stage following his presser, several media members gave him the bad news that his effort had been surpassed by a mere two yards by An.
He looked a bit disappointed, but didn’t stop smiling as he half-jokingly quipped, “Oh, man, there wasn’t any wind this morning!” (Which, again, was helping a bit in the afternoon. Plus, it was probably firmer after the monsoon that swept through the area on Monday evening!)
All credit to An, though. His tee shot was the longest drive in this competition since Andy Franks’ 346-yard drive in 1982, at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (This is the part where someone from that generation brings up the equipment factor…)
Following in the tradition of the Championship, the top three finishers will receive a gold, silver and bronze money clip, respectively, inspired by the one that Nicklaus received when winning the first of his two consecutive PGA Championship Driving Contest titles, in 1963. That year, Nicklaus, “using a persimmon driver and wound golf ball,” hit a winning drive of 341 yards.
Now, here are some fun scenes from my SnapChat of the Long Drive contest (pardon the poor quality). Spoiler: It opens with Andrew “Beef” Johnston calling out to the gallery, “Let’s get some noise up in here!” He then encouraged them to cheer even louder. (FWIW: I caught up with Beef on the range before he teed off via Periscope.)
Rich Beem was next to hit and jokingly (but in a serious tone) hollered to the crowd, “Quiet, please!” After he hit a great drive, he shouted, “276 yards!” The official announcing the “official” distance of eligible tee shots (have to hit the fairway) declared, “291 yards!” Beem looked thrilled, saying he “smoked” it.
Unfortunately, I didn’t catch Rory hit his tee shot, but I walked with him for three holes and watched him put on a stripe show, which you can see above (again, apologies for the crappy quality! — way better just to watch via SnapChat app). In other words, don’t be surprised if he has a really, really good week (i.e. adds a third Wanamaker to his collection).
Just for kicks and giggles: #TBT 2014 PGA Long Drive: