TAMPA, FLORIDA | By his own admission, Art Sellinger beat the hell out of himself.
The deterioration started as a top junior from Las Vegas who played college golf at UNLV and then moved to Houston with his brother, Saul, a club professional. After missing out on qualifying for the World Long Drive Championship in 1983, ’84 and ’85, Sellinger made it through the regional stage in 1986 and then won it all in the national competition, hitting a drive 311 yards — measly with today’s technology but monstrous at the time.
His ability to crush a golf ball into orbit sent him all over the world.
During the next three decades, Sellinger conducted more than 2,100 clinics, full of long drives and trick shots, in more than 30 different countries. He won a second long-drive title in 1991 and then bought the championship itself from Golf Digest in 1994, setting off on a 20-year run where he transformed the competition into a true spectacle. Before Sellinger, the long drive championship was usually an afterthought attached to PGA Championship week or buried at a location near sea level where drives were no more impressive than what a typical PGA Tour pro could accomplish. And several PGA tour pros did win the event in the 70’s and 80’s, from John McCommish to Lon Hinkle to Dennis Paulson.
Under Sellinger’s leadership, the entire dynamic changed. He moved the event under the lights to the visually stunning Mesquite, Nevada, and upped the production quality to where the long drivers, known as hitters, took on larger-than-life personas.
There were characters like Golfzilla (Jason Zuback) and The Beast (Sean Fister). Hitters like Jamie Sadlowski and Joe Miller became not just long drivers but marketable athletes who were setting world records for ball speed in front of raucous galleries encouraged to do everything you aren’t supposed to do when watching golf.
The fireworks, literal and figurative, made people stop and watch. Even non-golfers, surfing channels at home, couldn’t turn away from the furious pace, the screams after impact and the outward displays of raw emotion a PGA Tour player would never show.
It was golf’s response to WWE in its theatrics and storytelling. Sellinger, wanting to develop the sport into something recognizable and understood, sacrificed his body as a competitor and a master promoter to make it all possible.
“I always thought the spectacle of hitting a ball as far as humanly possible would be something people would be interested in,” Sellinger said. “I got out in 2015 because I took it as far as any individual could take it. It’s like Dana White took UFC to where he did. But without the Fertitta Brothers, he wouldn’t have what he has. And I didn’t have those guys.”
Sellinger sold the championship to Golf Channel but stayed involved as a lead color commentator on the broadcast. Long driving continued to gain notoriety over the following five years, going from one televised event to six. Entering 2020, the long drive circuit was coming off its two most-viewed seasons. Its last full year of competition in 2019 saw more than 130 million people tune in to watch nearly 120 hours of television coverage. There were 96 men and 20 women who competed in the last world championship, gaining entry from dozens of qualifiers all over the world.
Never has the sport been more popular. However, its future is now shrouded in mystery.
As part of Golf Channel’s cost-cutting measures with the move from Orlando to Connecticut, the long drive championship met the same fate as Feherty and several other programs. Last year, a Golf Channel spokesperson said, “Golf Channel believes in the property and is looking to remain the future media/broadcast partner of the World Long Drive.”
When Golf Channel canceled the 2020 season, hitters got together and hosted a series of their own events, finishing with a national championship in Memphis last November. The newly formed Professional Long Drive Association has a series of eight events scheduled this season, including a World Long Drive Championship in September.
Still, without Golf Channel, the sport is on uncertain footing. That doesn’t include another scary situation for the future of the sport: the game’s biggest star at the moment, Kyle Berkshire, is giving professional golf a try. Sadlowski has done the same, and other long drive stars could make the transition.
“If you asked me where the sport is right now, you know as much as I do. I have no idea.” – Art Sellinger
“It’s Golf Channel’s business model but I thought it fit perfectly,” Sellinger said. “People were watching it. They had the horsepower, the assets, the air and incredible, brilliant minds for production. I thought it was going to be there for a long, long time. Obviously, their priority now is with live golf.
“If you asked me where the sport is right now, you know as much as I do. I have no idea.”
He has no plans to re-enter that arena again, feeling like he gave it everything he could. Long drive and Sellinger will be forever linked, but it’s not his only presence in golf. He owns Sellinger’s Power Golf, a respected club-fitting, branding and events business in the Dallas area that has 17 employees. It’s not a behemoth in the club-fitting world like Cool Clubs, Club Champion and TrueSpec, but Sellinger touts it as a personal experience where a fitter rides along with the golfer through the entire process.
His first customer was a 16-year-old Jordan Spieth and former PGA Champion Mark Brooks is a regular who doesn’t need to ask to go behind the counter.
“I like that we fit it, we build it, they play with it, they come back, and we might have to tweak it,” Sellinger said. “Your builder has seen you hit the golf ball. I will not scale and have 30-something locations. There’s no way.”
Sellinger also is the agent for Sadlowski, the Canadian who won back-to-back World Long Drive Championships and gave upwards of 800 clinics. Sadlowski is now trying to make it as a regular golf professional on the Mackenzie Tour and Sellinger has caddied for him on many occasions.
Always one to recognize great talent, Sellinger was impressed by Sadlowski winning back-to-back World Long Drive Junior Championships in 2005-06. Still a hockey player in Alberta at the time, Sadlowski received a random phone call to his billet family’s house one night.
“My billet mom came and said, ‘This guy from Texas wants to talk to you,’ ” Sadlowski said. “Being the businessman he was, he wanted to know what my future looked like. I was 18 years old. I had no idea. But he told me to come down to Texas and I’ll never forget, we sat down at a restaurant and he basically laid everything out in front of me, telling me I could go around the country doing outings and make a nice living.”
If you ask around in the golf industry, that story is a perfect representation of Sellinger. He knows entertainment.
But through all of Sellinger’s activities in golf, he has rarely competed in run-of-the-mill tournaments with a pencil and scorecard. At age 53, he applied for amateur reinstatement in the hopes of being able to play senior amateur golf when he became eligible at 55. He received notice of his amateur status last July.
Sellinger, now 56, wrote to the folks who run the Gasparilla Invitational, a premier mid-amateur and senior amateur event at Palma Ceia Country Club in Tampa and received an invitation to play this weekend. He competed in a couple of small events last year, including a third-place finish in the Dixie Amateur’s senior division, but this is one of his first meaningful tries at big-time amateur golf since he was in college.
His clubhead speed is still around 117-120 mph, above PGA Tour average, but he is coming off of knee surgery this past December — one of many surgeries he has endured in his life. Accuracy is more of a consideration at the Gasparilla, held on a short but narrow Donald Ross layout with undulating greens.
To call him excited would be an understatement. Sellinger escaped the frigid, power outage-inducing weather in Texas more than a week early so he could practice in the Tampa area.
“I’m fortunate with my business to where I can do this once a month,” said Sellinger, who will also compete in the Carlton Woods Invitational. “I used to take golf so seriously, but I’m having a lot of fun now. I forgot what it felt like to be under the gun in competition.”
“A lot of people think the long drive guys can only do one thing, but his game is well-rounded.” – Joey Wuertemberger
Over the past five years, Sellinger has worked with instructor Joey Wuertemberger at The Crown Golf Academy at the Texas Rangers Golf Club. It’s an interesting dynamic in that Wuertemberger is teaching someone who can be considered a teacher himself, as the internet is full of videos where Sellinger offers advice on how to gain distance off the tee.
“We do a good job of bouncing ideas off of one another,” Wuertemberger said. “We try to utilize his strength of being a good driver of the ball, making it a priority to get the ball in play, whether that’s with a driver, 3-wood, 5-wood or even a driving iron. The game is a power game, so I would say Art has a leg up. Not too many senior guys can swing that fast. He’s just as fast as all the young guys.
“He’s also a really good chipper, he has great touch. A lot of people think the long drive guys can only do one thing, but his game is well-rounded.”
Before the pandemic, Wuertemberger and Sellinger went down to play golf in Mexico. They were warming up on the range when Sellinger told him he used to do a clinic at the course, setting up on the back part of the tee and flying balls over the range.
“Man, it would be so much fun to watch him do that again,” Wuertemberger said.
Sellinger’s long drive days may be over, but amateur golf is a nice second option.
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