Can Kyle Berkshire, the world’s top long driver, make it on the PGA Tour? We’re about to find out.
During a rare moment on the eve of the 2020 Masters in which the conversation shifted from Bryson DeChambeau, Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee turned his attention to another big hitter. “Imagine Kyle Berkshire,” Chamblee said with Augusta National Golf Club as a backdrop. “Imagine him out here if he could chip and putt.”
At that point, few people had considered the possibility of a World Long Drive champ trading in his title belt for a green jacket. Even fewer knew Berkshire had already begun making the radical transformation from pro hitter to tour pro. With the ability to swing a golf club more than 150 miles per hour and produce ball speeds faster than 230, Berkshire doesn’t just hit golf balls, he hurts them. The same could be said for the 100 driver heads he’s estimated cracking in the past three years. Those staggering numbers led him to a convincing win at the 2019 World Long Drive Championship. And at 22, Berkshire looked to have a long and lucrative long drive career ahead of him. He still might, but recently Berkshire has turned his attention to a new pursuit. Well, an old pursuit.
The former junior and college golfer is about to embark on a journey that has rarely been attempted, but if ever there was a time to try, it’s now. After all, we’re coming off a season in which a former physics major pulled off his own groundbreaking experiment that proved just how important distance is in today’s game.
Bryson’s breakthrough year came after he decided to bulk up and become more like, well, a long-drive champ. He put on 20 kilograms, ratcheted up his swing speed, and became, at least statistically, the longest hitter on tour. Along the way, he won the US Open in dominating fashion.
In a sense Berkshire is looking for similar results while travelling from the opposite direction. So can Kyle chip and putt on the level necessary to score with the game’s best? Can the longest hitter on the planet make it onto the PGA Tour? We’re about to find out.
“I think at the very least, it’s going to be something people are going to really enjoy following,” says Berkshire, who proudly posted Chamblee’s “Live From The Masters” clip to Instagram the next day. “And it could really turn into an unbelievable story. If I’m three, four years from now walking up the final fairway with a two-shot lead and the tournament in my pocket, it could be one of the coolest stories in the history of golf.”
At 6-foot-3, 97 kilograms, and with long flowing locks that would make Samson jealous, Kyle Berkshire is an imposing figure. But it wasn’t always that way. Golf Digest Top 50 instructor Bernie Najar, currently the director of instruction at Caves Valley Golf Club in Maryland, remembers beginning to work with Berkshire when he was just a scrawny 12-year-old.
“He was a kid who came out to work on his game,” Najar said. “He was a special character. Not someone out of the gates you’d look at and go, Wow, this is going to be the longest player in the world, but certainly you look at the player and you knew they had very good hand-eye co-ordination and for a smaller kid his age, he could hit the ball pretty hard.”
Even then Berkshire hated being out-driven by older, bigger kids. By the time he was in high school, that was no longer a problem.
“You can’t coach speed, just like in basketball you can’t coach 7-foot, you can’t coach somebody swinging 135,” said Brad Stracke, who recruited Berkshire from Crofton to play at the University of North Texas after seeing him play in a junior event. “I mean, they’ve got to have that in their genes.”
At that point Berkshire was far from the best player in the field, but he was certainly the longest. And in college, he only got longer. Somewhere between his freshman and sophomore years, Berkshire was strong enough to break the screen on a team’s simulator, and was starting to pay closer attention to his swing-speed numbers.
“I think working with the Trackman and seeing the numbers and seeing them jumping up pretty quickly, I think he kind of got addicted to it, the swing speed and seeing his ball come off the face like that,” says Stracke, who has coached two future PGA Tour winners in Sebastian Munoz and Carlos Ortiz during his time at UNT. “I think that’s what triggered it, I really do.”
On the course, there was one shot from a team practice Stracke will never forget Berkshire hitting. “I remember at Gleneagles we were on a hole you have to hit iron off the tee,” Stacke said. “It’s really tight and there were some guys down there 275 [yards] and I lasered them and I was like, ‘Kyle, you can hit.’ And he said, ‘No, coach, I can’t hit.’” I said, ‘What are you going to hit?’ And he said ‘3-iron’. And I said, ‘Well, they’re 275.’ And he said ‘No, no, no.’ And then they left and he flew the ball and it would have hit right on top of their cart. I’m like, Holy cow. I knew you were long, but I had no idea you were that long.”
That led to a life-changing conversation between the coach and a player who had yet to crack the university team’s line-up.
“I pulled him into my office and I basically said, ‘You could be No.1 in the world in long drive,” Stracke said. “Are you going to be No.1 on the PGA Tour? Probably not. But how many guys are No.1 in their craft in the world? And I said, ‘You can be that guy.’”
But even Stracke was surprised by how quickly his vision came to fruition. Berkshire walked away from college golf to pursue long drive full time in 2017. Originally, he was hoping it would help him gain confidence that could benefit his golf game, but by the time what would have been his senior season rolled around, he was already ranked No.1 in the sport. He punctuated that status with a win at the 2019 World Long Drive Championship, the Super Bowl of the long-drive circuit. By that point, Berkshire had stopped playing golf completely to put all his energy into training and practising for long drive.
According to his long-drive coach, Bobby Peterson, it’s Berkshire’s work ethic that sets him apart.
“There’s a lot of guys that have the talent to do this sport, but the one thing I’d say Kyle has beyond anyone I’ve worked with in 30 years is focus,” Peterson says. “When he sets his mind to a task, he’ll do it.”
Peterson owns and operates the One Stop Power Shop in Newton Grove, North Carolina, where he works with a stable of long-drive competitors not just on technique, but with their equipment and fitness. He’s been officially with Berkshire since the beginning of 2019.
“We were practising really late one night and it was hot and I have those little bags you put air in them and I blew up a pillow and said ‘I’m going to take a little power nap while you get loose.’” Peterson says. “Well, two hours later he’s standing over me and he says, ‘What did you think of that?’ And I went, ‘It’s good.’ I fell asleep and he was warming up and hitting. And he just kept hitting and hitting for two hours. And his hands were bleeding and he had a rash on his arm over here where he was really releasing. I said, ‘Why didn’t you wake me up?’ and he said, ‘Well, honestly, you had your sunglasses on and I thought you were just watching and if you saw something wrong you would say something.’ So for two hours he just ripped shot after shot and it was one of the best practice sessions ever.”
Peterson conservatively estimates that Berkshire hit 50,000 drives full out in practice last year, a number bound to go down as he works on other parts of his game. But so far, fewer reps hasn’t hurt Berkshire’s long-drive results. What finally slowed him down was something no one saw coming.
As with virtually all other professional sports, the World Long Drive Association has struggled through the Covid-19 pandemic, to the extent that its owner Golf Channel wound up cancelling the 2020 season. And with no plans to resume in 2021, long drivers came together to host a series of their own events, highlighted by a national championship in Memphis in November. We’ll give you one guess who won that.
To fill the void left by the World Long Drive Association being put up for sale, the Professional Long Drive Association has been formed, and a series of eight events has been scheduled for 2021, including a World Championship in September. But the sport is still not on the same footing as it was, which is part of why Berkshire acknowledges the time is right to try out pro golf. And since he’s still making good money from competition, sponsors, and a popular YouTube channel, he says he can afford to chase a dream that never went away.
“It’s great to be a long drive champ and it’s a huge deal to me, but I don’t want to be that guy who avoids potential failure,” Berkshire says. “I’m not going to be this untouchable guy who’s unbelievable at what he does. I want to push myself and I have an opportunity to do something great and I’m in a position in my life to really pursue it and I’m kind of putting it on the line here.”
There’s a history of the PGA Tour and long drive crossing paths. In its early years, the World Long Drive Championship was held in conjunction with the PGA Championship. And several PGA Tour pros won the event, from John McCommish to Lon Hinkle to Dennis Paulson. But those guys were accomplished golfers first before stumbling into long-drive success. Berkshire would be the first to truly go the other way and make it on the highest level.
In the late 1980s, an era that featured far smaller purses than today, long-drive competitions held at many PGA Tour stops were a decent way for golfers to supplement their incomes. But money wasn’t the only difference between then and now. Another was how back then extreme power on tour was almost discouraged. The PGA Tour only started keeping driving distance as an official stat in 1980. And for a long time after that, the widely held belief was that accuracy was much more closely correlated to tournament success. In a 1989 Daily Press story titled “A Long Drive to Nowhere”, McCommish claimed “leading in driving distance is the kiss of death”. And two-time reigning US Open champ Curtis Strange said of “Big John” and the day’s longest players, “They’re hitting 9-iron out of the rough. I’m hitting 6-iron out of the fairway. I’d rather hit 6-iron out of the fairway.”
Three decades later, thanks to golf statisticians from Mark Broadie to Scott Fawcett to Lou Stagner, that thinking has been turned on its head. And younger players from Bryson to Berkshire are believers in newer numbers, most notably Broadie’s strokes-gained metric, which better quantifies how much each shot is worth during a tournament. Broadie has mathematically proven how valuable long tee shots are – even if they don’t find the fairway. The list of Major champs over the past three decades makes an equally compelling case. Beginning with John Daly in 1991, a Grip-It-And-Rip-It Era was ushered in. Since then, Daly, Davis Love III, Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, and Bryson DeChambeau have all captured at least one Major while leading the tour in driving distance at least once.
Tiger Woods could have easily been another, but even though he had the length, Woods often purposely laid back off the tee more than his peers. So, yeah, not exactly the kiss of death. Being conservative is not an option in Long Drive. Hitters get six to eight attempts to crank a golf ball as far as possible. But while traditionally viewed as novelty performers, the reality is that most are actually very good players. And the line between a hitter and a tour pro has narrowed in recent years, especially with Long Drive equipment now having to conform to R&A and USGA standards. With more televised competitions, the sport had become more mainstream – perhaps influencing the PGA Championship to bring back its own long drive competition in 2014 after a 30-year hiatus.
In 2018, that contest was won by DeChambeau, who later went on to claim the biggest victory of his career by bombing his way around Winged Foot at the 2020 US Open. Although plenty of other players had pushed the game in that direction, it’s DeChambeau who has underscored the direct correlation between driving distance and tournament success. In gaining 20 yards to increase his average to 322 yards, he also became the PGA Tour’s leader in strokes-gained: driving. And Berkshire was paying close attention.
“Watching Bryson win the US Open at Winged Foot was the moment I think, if I ever make it on tour, that’s the moment I’m going to go back to that started it all for me in terms of this drive,” Berkshire said. “He made every pundit and critic look like a complete jackass. And that appeals to me. That appeals to me very greatly. That’s something I really want to do is prove everyone wrong and prove everyone who believes in me right.”
One pundit who hasn’t been surprised by DeChambeau’s distance experiment succeeding is Chamblee. And the Golf Channel analyst uses a baseball analogy to explain why he won’t be shocked if Berkshire or another long driver finds his way to the PGA Tour.
“Imagine there were 40 guys who got together for kicks and they all threw it 120, 118 miles per hour, faster than the fastest in professional baseball. Well, that’s what’s been going on in the world of professional golf,” Chamblee says.
“If we look at the longest drivers in professional golf, meanwhile there’s 50 or 100 or 200 guys that drive it miles longer. I mean, miles longer. They’re swinging 150 miles per hour, the best on the PGA Tour is 125 miles per hour. It would have been ludicrous to think that those pitchers wouldn’t have made their way into Major League Baseball or the moves they have wouldn’t have made their way. The fastest pitchers were in the majors. They were in the bigs. The fastest swingers are not playing at the highest level in golf. It’s crazy to think those moves won’t make their way into professional golf.”
Which is not to say Chamblee thinks Berkshire will have it easy. If anything, he can point to his own competitive career as an example of just how hard it is to make it on tour. While Berkshire never even cracked the starting line-up in college, Chamblee was an All-American at the University of Texas. And yet it still took him years to succeed at the highest level before ending his playing career with one PGA Tour win.
“This not just about who can lift the most weight in the gym,” Chamblee says. “This is about who can lift the most weight in the gym and who can play the best chess. Those are two different animals, but that’s what golf is. It’s not just power. It’s nuance and strategy. And patience.”
Patience is one thing Berkshire seems to have. He says he’s “ahead of schedule” and has received encouragement to start playing from many, including DeChambeau. The two have become friends and the mutual admiration for each other was apparent during a recent meeting. Berkshire was impressed by DeChambeau’s gym routine while Bryson was blown away by Kyle’s distance, including a 276-metre 8-iron that went viral.
Although he doesn’t have a specific timetable on when he will start entering tournaments, he plans to start small with Florida mini-tour events even though he could likely use his long-drive stardom to get a few starts on the PGA Tour. Again, the goal isn’t just to play against the best, but to eventually be one of the best.
“If I e-mailed every event I could asking for an exemption, it’s very probable I wouldn’t have to write too many before I would get one,” Berkshire says. “But I want to make sure I make this entrance the right way. I don’t want to shoot 80-80 and get blown away. I want to go out, I want to make a statement… I’ll know when I’m ready.”
With what he calls a potential “miraculous” path through familiar qualifying sites, Berkshire has made qualifying for the 2021 US Open at his favourite course a first – and lofty – goal.
“I can tell you right now, the first hole at Torrey Pines is a driver hole,” Berkshire says. “There’s nothing more I’d love to do than hit a 360-yard opening salvo that carries that bunker and leaves me 80 yards left. That’s what I’d love to do and that’s what I’m trying to make happen.”
Jamie Sadlowski thought he was ready when he decided to pursue his own tour pro dreams in 2016. The Canadian nicknamed “Super Freak” had won a 2016 US Open local qualifier and even made some cuts on the Korn Ferry Tour. In many ways, he is the closest comparison to what Berkshire is attempting. But there are also several important differences.
Although both won World Long Drive titles at young ages, Sadlowski eventually put in more than a decade competing and doing as many as 80 corporate events a year. Unlike Berkshire who has only been doing long drive for three full years, he was burned out and decided to completely walk away from the sport. Also unlike Berkshire, the 2008 and 2009 World Long Drive champ thought shifting to tournament play required him to re-tool his golf swing.
“Things have changed, Bryson has changed so much now just in the last year,” Sadlowski says. “We were always of the opinion that you can’t do both, it’s impossible. But now the more you read, the more you see what these guys are doing, you see Tony [Finau], you see Bryson, you see Rory, DJ, all these guys what they’re doing. I had that, I owned that, and I changed it.”
In hindsight, Sadlowski says his struggle to make it on tour can be traced to him going from being “a doer to a thinker”. But it’s also a reflection of the difference in pacing between a long-drive competition and a golf tournament. One requires you to peak for three minutes at a time, the other stresses focus over four long rounds. After making just $US11,000 across three seasons on Canada’s Mackenzie Tour and failing to make the weekend in both of his PGA Tour starts, he’s hoping a return to his athletic instincts will help.
“It’s a different transition when you’re programmed to do something,” Sadlowski says. “It’s like teaching a sprinter to be a long-distance runner. They’re the same, but they’re different. You have a different mentality about them.”
A final key difference between Sadlowski and Berkshire is that Sadlowski never had much of a foundation as a tournament golfer. Like the movie character Happy Gilmore, Sadlowski was always focused on his first love: ice hockey. That’s where Berkshire may have an edge, even if all his tournament experience came on the junior level.
Sadlowski and Berkshire just missed overlapping on the long-drive circuit so they don’t know each other, but both are very familiar with each other’s careers. And in seeing some of the playing videos Berkshire posts to social media, 32-year-old Sadlowski is particularly impressed – and also perhaps a bit envious – that Berkshire brings the same swing that made him a long drive champ to the golf course.
“I would tell him don’t change anything,” Sadlowski says. “You know, putt, chip your butt off, and learn how to flight some wedges, flatten shots out. And why not? If there’s any time to be inspired, it would be now from how much the game has changed in just the past six to eight months. And I sit here in Canada, shaking my head I’m like, ‘What has happened?’ You know, before it was: we’re going to shorten the backswing up and get it in play a little more. Yeah, that’s important stuff, but it’s also important to hit it 400 yards.”
That last point seems so obvious, but again, prioritising distance over accuracy goes against long-held conventional wisdom. As someone well versed in the game’s modern metrics, though, Berkshire knows the importance of distance as well as anyone.
“I don’t have to have everything firing on all cylinders, I don’t have to be making more 20-footers than everybody else, I don’t have to be avoiding trouble off the tee every time to stay with people,” Berkshire says. “I can hit a loose shot off the tee here or there, I could three-putt maybe once or twice more than most guys could, I can miss the green with a wedge in my hand here or there and still be OK because again, the statistical advantage of me being 50 yards ahead of someone off every hole or even being able to hit an iron off the tee when they’re hitting driver the same distance, that accuracy advantage of an iron has over a driver, that’s very significant, so I have a wider path to walk.”
So how good an actual golfer is Berkshire? He says he’s back to his peak form of being a plus-4 handicapper, but the goal is to get to at least plus-6 before truly testing his game in a pro event. Obviously, a lot of that improvement will have to come in the short game, which is why Kyle has spent approximately 80 percent of his practice time within 150 metres in recent months. Even the worst chippers and putters on the PGA Tour have elite touch.
His swing coach Najar estimates Berkshire is a plus-2 handicap as a putter on a good day and that’s not good enough. Yet. As for his full swing, Berkshire doesn’t need an overhaul, but in an effort to tighten his dispersion, he has been working with Najar on honing what he calls a “pull cut”. The shot will make him shorter, but it’s a move that would help eliminate a two-way miss. That’s also why he’ll probably use a 45-inch driver instead of the 48-inch one typically used in long-drive competitions.
“I think his biggest challenge is controlling his club speed,” Najar says. “Let’s just say he’s swinging at 140. To take a swing at 60 miles per hour is pretty extreme as far as going the other way. Being able to be soft with your grip, being able to just lightly clip the ball off the ground when you have adrenaline. So I think controlling his adrenaline, I think learning to vary his speeds, those are the big challenges.”
Berkshire says he’s working on putting more backspin on the ball to make it go straighter. He’s also been collaborating with Callaway on a 2-iron that he can hit farther than most PGA Tour pros hit their drivers. Even taking something off his fastball, Berkshire has been comfortably swinging at about 140 miles per hour in practice rounds. By comparison, DeChambeau leads the PGA Tour at 133 miles per hour, 20 miles faster than the tour average. And while Berkshire knows distance will be his biggest physical advantage, he’s also hoping it will give him a mental edge.
“I know PGA Tour players are some of the most mentally strong players in the world, that’s why they get there,” Berkshire said. “But I can’t help to think it’s got to affect some of them if I’m 60, 70 yards past them.”
Berkshire’s speed could cause some huge misses, especially if there’s a sudden shift in wind. But when it comes to talent and potential, well… “There are times, where I’m telling you,” Najar says, “this guy, he has shots that I’ve never seen anyone else hit.”
The old axiom, “You drive for show and putt for dough” has long been disproven. Just look at last season’s PGA Tour moneylist, which is filled with big hitters from Bryson to DJ to Rory. By contrast, only one of the tour’s top 10 putters, according to strokes gained, finished in the top 22 in the money. That player? Bryson DeChambeau.
“I’d say the world of golf has been working on their doctorate,” Chamblee said. “It started with Tiger, then came the money, then came the interest, then came the athletes, and now has come the knowledge. And you know, their dissertation is Bryson DeChambeau because he’s put together added length with an understanding of how to use that length on a golf course and plot his way around. But then the caveat, that Brodie has always offered, ‘all things being equal.’ All things aren’t equal with Bryson because he became a much improved putter. And that’s the name of the game so he’s done it. It’s been this 23-24-25-year education in the world of golf. And it’s not done at all.”
Perhaps it’s Berkshire who will author the next defining chapter in the game, but despite his seemingly superhuman length, he’s got a long way to go – especially after taking such an extended break while contemporaries like Collin Morikawa, Matthew Wolff and even DeChambeau have become established PGA Tour stars.
No one on the PGA Tour can hit it anywhere near as far as Kyle can, but they’re miles ahead when it comes to mastering all the shots you need to compete at the highest level. If Berkshire never makes it there, though, Najar notes it won’t be due to a lack of effort.
“Everybody out there’s working hard, but I would say he obsesses over golf 24/7,” Najar said. “With anything and everything he can do whether it’s what he can do in the gym, what he’s eating, how to visualise, equipment optimisation, so he’s really committed. And he’s got a genius mind for thinking of combinations.”
Speaking of that mind, Berkshire is also reuniting with famed sport psychologist Dr Bob Rotella, whom he worked with during his junior golf days. It’s all part of helping Kyle adjust from one type of competition to another. Not that Berkshire hasn’t faced pressure in long drive. On his way to winning the 2019 World Long Drive Championship, Berkshire was down to his final ball in the round of 16 after missing the grid with his first seven attempts. He responded by pumping a draw 390 metres, 384 of that in the air, to advance.
But as his long-drive coach Bobby Peterson says, tour golf brings with it a different dynamic. Remember even world No.1 Dustin Johnson shot a pair of 80s at the Memorial just a few months before winning the Masters.
“And I think that’s another learning lesson that’s waiting for Kyle is the ups and downs of that,” Peterson said. “Because right now he’s one of the top guys or the top guy in long drive and where’s he going to be at in golf? So how he handles that as a person hopefully will help him grow just in general as a person because adversity seems to lead us or destroy us and I think it will lead him because he’s that motivated to get better at things.”
And while he’s got the time and money to pursue a second career right now, being a tour pro is expensive. As Chamblee says, you only have so much time until the wolf is at the door. But Kyle claims the experience going to be worth it – no matter the results.
“My hope is that it gets big enough and positively impacts a lot of people one way or the other,” Berkshire said. “If people like laughing at me for shooting an 80, I mean, then that’s good. If people love watching me because I shot a 67 and lit the course on fire, then that’s good. I think a lot of positives will come from it regardless. I think that’s definitely the best part about it. It’s kind of a win-win for everybody, quite frankly.”
If you’ve watched any of Berkshire’s videos, you’d probably agree. Kyle’s patented pre-shot rocking motion disappears when he’s hitting shots on the course vs the grid, but the jaw-dropping power is still there. The guy can hit a putter more than 275 metres, hit stingers that would make Tiger Woods drool, and he routinely takes apart long holes with ease.
In one video, Berkshire comfortably reaches Firestone Country Club’s famed 610-metre par-5 16th hole, known as “The Monster”, with a driver and a 3-iron to set up an easy two-putt birdie. As entertaining as those videos are, though, Berkshire wants to be much more than a sideshow in professional golf. In hearing him discuss his goals of making it on tour, it’s clear the risk of not going for it is greater than trying and coming up short.
“I mean business,” Berkshire said. “I’m not doing this to have fun. I’m not doing this to just goof around. I mean every bit of this. If I’m pursuing this, it’s because I want to be in the final group on Sunday. It might happen, I don’t know if I can get good enough, but I sure as hell am not going to say that I can, because I think I can. And I’m going to do the things that I need to do to the best of my ability with the team around me that I have, which I’m very confident in. I think it can lead to some pretty crazy stuff and the only way we can know is if I try.”