SPORT SECTIONS
Tuesday, May 14, 2002
Updated: May 15, 11:26 AM ET
Brandon makes 300-yard drives the norm




It almost doesn't seem fair.

Lee Brandon is a relative newcomer to a game that supposedly takes years to conquer. She's barely played 30 rounds. She's no threat to make the LPGA Tour. And yet, she can crush a golf ball some 300 yards.

Lee Brandon
Lee Brandon hits the ball more than 300 yards

Golfers search in vain for the game's holy grail, the coveted ability to hit the ball as far as possible. We'll buy a fancy new driver, search for a hot ball, swing with all our might, hoping to get a few extra yards.

Then along comes Brandon, a golfer for all of five years, a model and motivational speaker and former strength and conditioning coach for the NFL's New York Jets who picks up a golf club and now hits a golf ball farther than any woman in the world.

The reigning RE/MAX World Long Drive champion in the women's division, Brandon, 40, who is 6-foot, 190 pounds, won the competition last October with a drive of 291 yards, 3 inches. Another drive went more than 300 yards but failed to stay in the landing area.

"I used to make fun of golfers," Brandon said. "But I can't describe how much fun I'm having. People love to see the long ball."

Brandon is on a 10-city tour where she demonstrates her driving prowess and seeks competition with the promotional phrase: "Do you have the balls to challenge Lee Brandon?" She is referring to Spalding's new line of Top-Flite XL 3000 golf balls, which she is promoting.

There's a lot more to her success than that, of course. Her background is in strength and conditioning and in 1990 she became the first female strength coach in the NFL when she worked for the Jets.

For Men Only
As the name suggests, the new Black Sheep Golf Club in Sugar Grove, Ill. promises to be different. In fact, women need not apply for membership. They'll be invited to the private club one day a year.

"Our club is not designed to exclude women," Vince Solano told the Chicago Tribune. Solano is a land developer who owns the club that will have some 200 to 250 male members.

"We feel this club is not a product women would patronize," he said. "Women at country clubs enjoy the ancillary things. They like golf, but golf is not the focus for many of them. In order to build a product that would be fair to women, we would have to build more of a country club."

Solano also stressed that his club will be a golf club only, with no tennis courts, swimming pool or family activities available.

"We're basically trying to have a place to come play golf, smoke a cigar in our underwear and go home quick," he said.

Solano will be portrayed as sexist, but he pointed out that when he owned Royal Fox in St. Charles, Ill., in the early 1990s, the club became the first in Illinois to allow women members. He said the club never had more than seven or eight, solidifying his point that there would not be enough women to join Black Sheep, which will have an initiation fee of $85,000.

There is at least one person not opposing Solano's venture: his wife, Karen: "I belong to women-only organizations," she said. "A private club has the right to set its own rules. I know how much he loves the game. I'm fine with it."

All-male clubs are not unusual. This summer's home to the British Open, Muirfield in Scotland, might be the most high-profile closed-door club. While Augusta National, home of the Masters, has no female members, it does allow women at the club.

Not Muirfield. Golf World reported that a BBC production crew arrived at the club recently do to advance work for the Open. The producer, a woman, was barred from the clubhouse. The club doesn't allow women members and never allows women, even guests, in its clubhouse.

-- Bob Harig

Her involvement in golf stemmed from work as a fitness instructor. She often worked with clients who had golf-related injuries, and once accompanied a golfer to a during range. She decided to take a few swings, and Brandon was a natural.

"Like Mark Twain, I thought golf was a great way to ruin a walk," said Brandon. "I didn't understand it and respect it. It takes playing it and realizing how psychologically impossible it is. That's what makes it so great. Five years ago, I didn't understand that. I was in an uneducated place about golf. I didn't understand you could burn calories on the driving range. You gain a deep respect for the game."

Brandon got together with instructor Rex Flory, who told her she could be a force in long drive competitions. She started entering contests last year.

"He told me had never seen such a naturally gifted swing in a woman," Brandon said.

Unlike typical long bombers, such as John Daly on the PGA Tour or Laura Davies on the LPGA -- both of whom wrap the club behind their head and swing violently at the ball, all but coming out of their shoes at impact -- Brandon has a slow, textbook move that focuses on perfect spine alignment.

"Posture equals power," she said. "There are a lot of people who don't have perfect posture. I'm able to repeat a swing for eight hours in a row because my swing plane is based on posture.

"I have a slow, deliberate drawback and I focus solely on spine position and really trying to deliver a blow to the ball."

For the record, Brandon uses a Nike 400cc prototype driver, the Top-Flite XL Super Long ball, an Accuflex 1X shaft (47 inches), has a swing speed of 104-110 mph and a ball speed of 160-170 mph. (The latter is equal to or greater than most PGA Tour pros.)

Brandon's success hitting a golf ball is more remarkable when you consider that she nearly lost her left arm in 1979 when she severed the brachial artery in her left elbow. Brandon fell through a small window attempting to push open a locker room door. During surgery, her heart stopped. An aspiring Olympic pentathlete at the time, her athletic career was over.

At least for a time. Although it took some seven years for the feeling to return in her left hand, Brandon embarked on other sporting endeavors. Through physical therapy, she became involved with strength and conditioning. That led to being a strength and conditioning coach on the Olympic team and later her stint with the NFL's Jets.

Now she is into golf, and although she can hit the ball a mile, Brandon admits conquering the game overall is a long way off. "I have a lot of potential," she said. "I can hit my sand wedge 120 yards. But the issue is not my full swing."

Brandon said her lowest score is 82, which says something about the importance of the other aspects of the game.

Nonetheless, it would be difficult to argue with her approach to hitting the long ball.

"No. 1 would be equipment. You have to have the right equipment for you," she said. "No. 2 is all about posture equals power. That is how you are able to generate higher clubhead speed. The third thing is to find a coach who speaks your language. The reason Tiger (Woods) is who he is is because he was willing to go back to the drawing board and reinvent himself. A good coach is important."

Major Champions Tour on life support
The proposed tour for major championship winners age 37 to 55 appears to be dead, at least in the form presented. Fox needed at least 20 of the 35 eligible players to agree to give up their PGA Tour membership by a deadline this month, and apparently is not getting enough support. Players do not want to have to compete against the PGA Tour while giving up their right to play it.

That doesn't mean some form of the tour won't happen, however. Past major winners could surface in special offseason events or early-week tournaments that would not conflict with the PGA Tour.

Bob Harig, who covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times, writes a weekly column for ESPN.com.



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