Meet the top four women vying for the Volvik World Long Drive Championship
The Volvik World Long Drive Championship gets underway on Tuesday in Thackerville, Oklahoma, and the star power couldn't be brighter in the women's division. With world records being shattered and the competition fiercer than ever, it has been the sport's most exciting season yet, and four women have battled for the top spot all year long.
Twenty-one women will compete on Tuesday and Wednesday night, airing live on Golf Channel, with the winner receiving $20,000 and the title of world champion. But there are just four who most believe will be in contention: Troy Mullins, Chloe Garner, Sandra Carlborg and defending champion Phillis Meti.
As 2017 marks the first time any of the women's competitions have been aired on television throughout the season, the "big four" have suddenly become household names to golf fans. Though you may know their names and faces -- and definitely their golf swings -- you might not know who they are away from the driving range.
A former collegiate track star who speaks three languages and runs her own tutoring and home schooling business, Mullins is a jack-of-all-trades and modern-day Renaissance woman. After graduating from Cornell, she decided to try playing golf. She had never played before but thought it looked fun.
She was a natural and instantly fell in love with the game.
A friend suggested she sign up for a long drive competition in 2012, and she reluctantly agreed. She had never played with anyone other than her godfather and his friends. She bought a driver off the shelf from a local sporting goods store and had no idea what to expect.
She finished second.
Mullins instantly received a number of offers to work with various coaches and play in charity tournaments in her hometown of Los Angeles. She enjoyed it at first, but a bad experience with a coach made her leave the game completely for two years. One day she decided to go back to the driving range on her own with no pressure or expectations. A chance meeting with a former PGA player, who informally gave her some tips and pointers, encouraged her to get back into it.
That was in 2015, and today Mullins is one of the most feared competitors on the World Long Drive tour. She played in her first long drive event in 2016 and won the Mile High Showdown in July.
While Mullins is happy with her recent success and growing fame, it's made practicing at the public golf course where she's always gone a lot more challenging.
"Now I go to the range and people come up to me and they're like, 'Oh you're the long drive girl,'" she said. "It's very different. I practice at public courses so I'm just out there, and people sometimes stare.
"The coolest part is when a girl comes up to me and recognizes me. I love that. It's great that young girls are watching. I'll do selfies with them."
Mullins would like to win her first world title this week, but hopes to also one day join the LPGA. As most golfers have played the sport since childhood, she knows she has a ways to go before making that a reality but believes she can do it. With a 1-handicap, from the men's tees no less, she's hopeful her dream will become a reality sooner rather than later.
"There are a few tournaments next year in Southern California with Monday qualifiers," Mullins said. "I didn't do Q-school this year because I'm doing long drive and I didn't think I could do both of them, at least not well. So I'm hoping to get in through Monday qualifiers or a sponsorship exemption if anyone would give me one."
After a successful collegiate golf career at East Tennessee State and Texas A&M, Garner thought she was done with the sport for good. She had been playing throughout her youth in South Africa -- even finishing sixth in the 2008 South African Amateur Championship -- and was ready to try something else. She ultimately started training heavily in CrossFit and went three years without even touching her clubs.
But fate had other plans.
"CrossFit did a short documentary on a long drive competitor that used CrossFit as his training," said Garner, now 27. "So that kind of sparked the idea in my head as maybe it's something I should look into. But at that point there was no information on long drive so I kind of just gave up on it.
"A few months later I went to play in a pro-am to represent East Tennessee State and it happened to be a pro-am for a long drive qualifier, which I was completely unaware of. I had the opportunity hit in front of some of the guys competing who then introduced me to, in my opinion, the best coach in the game, Bobby Peterson. He invited me to hit in front of him, and told me he would honest and let know if I had what it took to compete in this sport -- and the rest is history."
She entered her first competition in July 2016 and won. In the 14 months since, she's become one of the best in the world and earned runner-up status at last year's world championships.
In that time, she's found herself recognized at golf courses and on the driving range, a thrill which she enjoys. She even played in a celebrity golf tournament this year that she had caddied at before. Playing with people like Chipper Jones and Phil Fulmer, she was more than a little excited for her elevated status.
"It was really exciting to see how much I progressed in a year from caddie to 'celebrity' and to get to be on the other side of the scene for the first time," she said.
She worked as an assistant golf coach at East Tennessee State last season and is starting a doctoral program at the school this year in global sports leadership. She will work as an academic specialist for the school's athletic program at large while also volunteering as a strength and conditioning coach for the women's golf team.
She isn't quite sure how she'll have time to balance everything -- not to mention finding time to spend with her wife and their two children -- but she is determined to win her first world title.
"My goal is obviously to become world champion," she said. "For those who have been following long drive they will be familiar with the top four girls -- Sandra Carlborg, Troy Mullins, Phillis Meti and myself. And honestly anyone of us could take the title.
"We all physically have the ability to win it. It obviously comes down to the mental capability that everyone has to be able to deal with those pressures, but there also many variables that are out of any of our control, so that is a factor that we can't predict. But either way it will be an exciting and close competition."
A four-time World Long Drive champion, 33-year-old Carlborg is probably the most recognizable and successful of the women on tour. She first learned to play golf as an 11-year-old in her native Sweden, and she started competing the next year. She quickly began to collect wins like her peers were likely collecting Beanie Babies, or, you know, whatever the equivalent was in Scandinavia during the 1990s.
She turned professional in 2004 and joined the Ladies European Tour in 2005. Her best result was a 14th-place finish. She went on to compete in the LET Access Series, Sunshine Ladies Tour and the Swedish Golf Tour, all of which she had modest success.
However, her trajectory changed in 2008 when fellow Swedish golfer and long driver Jessica Wallstrom suggested she sign up in a Long Drive competition. She decided to give it a try and was immediately enamored -- and her result in her first event didn't exactly hurt, either.
"It was lots of fun," she said. "It was so different than regular golf with the music and the adrenaline. I won my first tournament."
Despite the win, Carlborg remained dedicated to competing in traditional golf tournaments and considered long drive a hobby. Despite the lack of full-time commitment, she smashed a world record in 2009 with a 391-yard drive and won her first world championship title in 2011. She defended it in 2012 and reclaimed it in 2014 and 2015 -- all while still traveling the globe as a conventional golfer.
Finally, last year, she decided to hang up her clubs and focus solely on her driver. As the sport has grown, so has the prize money. She's able to devote herself to the sport and cover the hefty fees that come with traveling from Sweden to the United States to compete several times every year.
She's enjoying the television exposure the events have gotten on Golf Channel, and the rapidly increasing fan base. Her long-standing world record was finally broken earlier this summer by Meti (406 yards) during the Mile High Showdown, where Carlborg herself notched a personal-best at 401 yards.
While she recognizes the field is deeper than ever, she is completely focused on one thing and one thing only this week -- her fifth world title.
"There are some really talented girls so all I know is that it's going to be a great competition," she said. "But I'm always here to win. There is nothing else in my mind."
The reigning world champion and current world-record holder, Meti, 30, grew up in New Zealand dreaming of becoming a professional golfer. However, it was skills off the tee that separated her from her peers. A friend of her father who competed in local long drive competitions suggested she give it a shot.
Her mother signed the then-19-year-old up for her first tournament in 2006, and while she confesses she found the whole thing "scary" and "nerve-wracking," she not only won the New Zealand title but broke a national record in the process.
She quickly rose up the world ranks and was the runner-up at the world championships in 2007 and 2008. However, despite her immediate success, she ultimately decided to step away from long drive and focus on traditional golf. She has played professionally all over the world and is currently on the Australian Ladies Professional Golf Tour.
Meti decided to return to long drive in 2016. She had just completed her college degree and felt the time was right to make her return.
"I had always kept an eye on how long drive was doing and just imagined what it would be like if I were to try it again," she said. "Entering last year's worlds, I didn't know what I was getting myself in to or what the benchmark was, but I really just wanted to see where I was in the world of long drive and it turned out I wasn't too far away from where I thought."
That might be a slight understatement: Meti won the world title.
After her victory, she decided to fully return to World Long Drive and quit her full-time job, running corporate golf tournaments at Royal Auckland and Grange Golf Club. She knew the sport had grown but didn't quite realize to what extent. She's been surprised by the media attention and has started to embrace it.
She's most proud of breaking the world record in July, and hopes to defend her world title, but her ultimate career goal hasn't changed from childhood.
"One day I would like to hold up an LPGA Tour trophy."