COLUMBIA — This summer and fall, Nate Brown has been spending his nights at Perche Creek Golf Club smashing golf balls so far into the night sky you cannot see where they land.
Before Brown steps to the tee, it isn't evident how far he is about to drive the ball. The 5-foot-10, 23-year-old doesn't look like he can hit it much farther than an average golf pro.
Brown pulls out his left-handed driver, tugs the white glove on his right hand to make sure it is on tight, then does the same with the black one on his left hand. He sets his club head down behind the ball, pulls it back toward himself and resets his stance, just like any other golfer.
There's no hint of what he is about to do.
Brown takes a deep breath, then suddenly cocks the driver back behind his head and unleashes a stunningly mighty swing upon the poor, tiny sphere.
About a second and a half later, it is out of sight.
Brown can hit a golf ball 400 yards when he really cranks one. Professional golfers typically drive a ball 280 to 300 yards off the tee.
The driving range at Perche Creek is only 300 yards long. If Brown hit in normal fashion, he would probably lose most of the balls. To prevent that, the employees at Perche Creek usually ask him to go to one corner of the range and hit diagonally.
Brown says his swing speed has been recorded at 146 mph, while the average swing speed for a professional is around 115 mph. The swing of 14-time major tournament champion Tiger Woods has been recorded at 130 mph.
Brown hits the ball so hard, sometimes he destroys clubs. His last driver met its demise out on the course on a so-called “routine” swing.
"I had about probably 250 to 300 swings in it. I was at the golf course, and I hit one pretty good and just heard a pop,” Brown said.
The club head had split upon impact, straight across the top, above the club face. This is apparently a common occurrence for Brown, however.
“When you swing upwards of 130, 140 … you smash a lot of clubs,” Brown said.
Brown is hoping all the club heads he has been breaking will help him become a long-drive champion, and his goal is to be part of next year's RE/MAX World Long Drive Championship that takes place every October in Mesquite, Nev.
At long-drive competitions, golfers attempt to hit the ball as far as possible on a range that is 60 yards wide. Each participant is given six balls and two minutes and 45 seconds to hit them as far as possible within the 60 yards. The longest ball is the shot that is recorded.
Long-driving has also been therapeutic for Brown, who admits his real passion is baseball.
Brown’s grandfather taught him how to play golf when he was 4 years old, but he also steered Brown towards baseball, and Brown eventually earned a baseball scholarship to Western Oklahoma State College in Altus, Okla. The team qualified for the NJCAA Division II World Series during Brown's sophomore year in 2008. Afterward he played for the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where he developed a penchant for hitting long home runs.
“I swung hard. That was my thing. I hit bombs,” Brown said.
Recently, though, Brown was offered a management position with Fletcher Auto Group in Columbia, and he chose to give up baseball.
But Brown's desire to play baseball hasn’t gone away. After giving it up, he said it took him about a year to be able to watch a game.
“Ninety-five percent of me is happy with my decision," Brown said. "The 5 percent is competitiveness sitting in the back of my head going, ‘Baseball. Baseball.’”
Without baseball, Brown now spends his free time smashing golf balls. Participating in this type of competition requires special equipment.
A driver like Brown’s can't be found at a pro shop. Drivers produced specifically for long distance are created with enhancements that regular golfers would never use.
The first difference is the length of the shaft. If the club head has to travel a farther distance from the top of the back swing to the ball, more torque is generated, thereby increasing the amount of force put into the golf ball.
However, with a higher velocity, the shaft will also bend more as the weight of the club head lags behind the flexibility of the shaft. Therefore, long-distance drivers are made with extra tough steel shafts.
A long-distance driver also differs from a regular driver in the loft of the club head. The drivers found at a pro shop or at Dick’s Sporting Goods are generally manufactured with lofts ranging from 8.5 to 11.5 degrees. Brown’s driver head has a loft of 5 degrees.
The lower loft decreases ball trajectory, meaning it will fly closer to the ground. This is favorable to longer distances because with higher lofts, a golf ball flies increasingly upward until its force runs out, after which it proceeds to drop pretty much straight down.
It’s like the ball is a skateboarder going up a half-pipe. The skateboarder goes up the ramp with decreasing speed, and after he hangs in the air for a bit, he has lost momentum and falls straight back to the ramp.
With a lower ball flight, the golf ball’s loss of momentum is more gradual. But hitting the ball too low is to be avoided as well because a ball rolling along the ground encounters more resistance than if it were traveling through air.
Before putting one of these specialized clubs in his bag, Brown must have them assembled. His drivers are put together by Dustin Lane, who works at the pro shop at Perche Creek Golf Club.
The driver head and shaft can be purchased online. The head is a Krank Rage Black, and the shaft is a Jamie Sadlowski Ultralight XXX. That triple “x” stands for the flexibility of the shaft being extra, extra, extra stiff. Lane said that putting together Brown’s drivers is not too complex, but being precise has an effect on the life of the club.
“A lot of the smaller details are going to be important as well because of the force put on them,” Lane said. “Making sure everything’s done right is important; otherwise the head’s liable to come off or something like that. Even still, with the extreme force he puts on a club, it happens.
“When he hits a golf ball, it has a distinctly different sound than the average person.”
Brown usually practices five times per week, spending about two hours on the driving range after work. He hasn't entered an event yet, but he says he can't wait to start competing.
He said he might have an edge because contestants' nerves have been known to get to them in front of the crowds who come to the events.
“I’ve heard stories of guys that have done the competitions, and they can’t even put their ball on their tee, and they just don’t swing,” Brown said.
But he said he is not worried. At Arkansas-Little Rock, he stepped to the plate in front of 6,000 to 9,000 baseball fans.
“In baseball, your first at bat, yeah your heart’s beating,” Brown said. “But you just slow yourself down. You’ve been there a million times.”
He said it should work the same with driving a golf ball. It’s just the same thing he has practiced over and over again. Brown said he will visualize the shot, remind himself of what he’s done many times and hit the ball the same as always.
“It’s just you and the ball, you know, and it sounds kind of dumb, but you just talk to the ball. ‘It’s just me and you. Let’s see how far we can hit it,’” Brown said.