Raymond grad finalist in long-drive contest

On a normal round of golf, Raymond High School alum Jerry Swanson usually blasts his drives between 300 and 320 yards.

That’s without reaching his full power.

The 49-year-old Swanson will be looking to add some 50 yards to his standard tee shot when he competes in the Senior Division of the Remax World Long Drive Championship Oct. 15-22 in Mesquite, Nev. (located about 80 northeast of Las Vegas). Televised by ESPN, the Remax offers a $50,000 top prize in the senior division.

Currently a resident of Gresham, Ore., Swanson will be one of the favorites in Nevada. His qualifying drive of 374 yards ranks second nationally in his age group. And in winning a regional competition earlier this month in Billings, Mont., he beat the man who possesses the longest drive in the classification, Lou Freter of Utah.

Despite hitting against a 20 mph wind, Swanson drove between 338 and 360 yards in surviving a series of elimination contests at regionals.

Although touring pros once competed in events such as the Remax, those contests have now become the near-exclusive province of long-drive specialists who possess limited all-around golfing skills.

In several respects, Swanson seems out of place in that world.

Although well-built at 6-foot-2 and 206 pounds, the former Raymond High School football and basketball player still gives away more than 50 pounds to many of his rivals.

“I’m a golfer that hits it a long way,” Swanson said. “A lot of the guys I’m up against are huge.”

He’s also skilled enough with the remainder of his clubs to have played at Lower Columbia College and maintained a single-digit handicap that has fluctuated between 1 and 8.

“He probably shot in the mid-70s,” recalled Grays Harbor Country Club pro Jay Gurrad, Swanson’s teammate at LCC and now one of his swing coaches. “He wasn’t exceptionally long or anything. When I learned that he was competing in the long drive championship after (not seeing him for) 30 years, I was a little surprised.”

A real estate investor and contractor in the Portland-Vancouver area, Swanson said he began adding distance some 20 years ago due to an extensive conditioning routine. He said he lifts weights four to five times per week.

“When I worked out in the 1990s, I got in good shape and started hitting the ball longer, when I got bigger and stronger,” he said.

“He’s fit and flexible. He’s more flexible than most of your 20-year-olds,” Gurrad noted. “The younger-division players were watching him compete, with their chins dropped, thinking this guy was impressive.”

Swanson, who learned the game at age 6 from the late Willapa Harbor Golf Course pro Hank Runge, said he gave little thought to long-drive contests until he was in his 40s.

On a whim, he entered an open-division contest six years ago in Seattle. He lost to a better-known ex-football player, former University of Washington quarterback Billy Joe Hobert.

While preparing to enter senior competition two years ago (the Remax senior division encompasses players in the 45-52 age group), Swanson injured both his wrist and thumb on one swing.

“This year, I was playing pretty well, so I figured I’d give it another shot,” he said.

For long-drive contests, Swanson makes several adjustments to his customary swing and equipment.

He uses a 49 1/2-inch driver —some four inches longer than the standard length — with an extra-stiff shaft and large clubhead.

“I really have to go after it to get around and get extra snap on the shaft,” Swanson explained. “I transfer the weight to my right side more than I usually would on my backswing and my swing arc is much longer and the swing is longer. I go past parallel (on the backswing).

“My normal drive swing is 80 percent of my power,” he added. “In (driving contests), I normally go 90 to 100 percent.”

Swanson refined his technique following a chance reunion with Gurrad.

While playing an informal round at Grays Harbor Country Club with a Willapa Harbor friend, Todd Mergens, Swanson was surprised to learn that his former Lower Columbia teammate was the head pro there. Gurrad was happy to provide some instruction.

“We just cleaned things up,” Gurrad said. “He had a little bit of lag at the top of the backswing. He was losing control and power and hitting a fade (a left-to-right shot that generally doesn’t fly or roll as far as a hook). We tightened him up, got him in better position at the top of his backswing and moved the ball back in his stance, so he could draw the ball and get more power and control.

“The credit goes to Jerry,” the GHCC pro added. “He has good technique, is fit and has good clubhead speed. That’s what’s required.”

Unlike some long-drive contests, the Remax is conducted in a semi-match play format.

The field is divided into groups of five, with each player allotted six consecutive drives. To count, a drive must land within a grid that is usually 50 yards wide.

The longest driver in each group advances to the next round. Wild-card berths are available, however, to minimize the impact of a tough draw.

After capturing the regional senior tournament in Billings, Swanson attempted an unprecedented double by entering the open division the following day. He led that division after two rounds, but was eventually overtaken.

“I got tired,” he acknowledged. “It’s very strenuous to warm up. I’ve got to hit 40-50 drives to loosen up to hit that sort of shot.”

Undaunted, Swanson is considering trying to enter both the senior and open divisions of the world tournament via a last-chance open-division qualifier at the site.

After focusing on increasing his flexibility at regionals, Swanson will be hitting the weights harder prior to the world event.

“This time, I’m putting some bulk on,” he said. “I’ll try to put on five pounds of muscle. I’ll try to stay flexible, but I’m going to get stronger.”

Swanson has already made one significant change in his golf career. He has turned professional to be eligible for the Remax prize money.

If things work out in Nevada, he may expand his participation in long-drive contests. He hasn’t even ruled out the possibility of attempting to qualify for the PGA Champions Tour when he turns 50, although he acknowledges he would need extensive improvement to his overall game.

“I don’t know where it will lead, but I’m going down there because I think I can win,” Swanson summed up.

Rick Anderson is The Daily World sports editor. He can be reached at (360) 537-3924 or via email at randerson@thedailyworld.com.