South Carolina long-driving phenom Hopper prepares for Las Vegas

10/20/2013 12:07 AM

10/20/2013 12:07 AM

Patrick Hopper introduced himself to Tom Mason, owner of the Par Tee Driving Center, and said he would hit across the range from a corner of the tee to keep from losing balls.

Mason, a PGA of America pro, paused, then Hopper explained that he competes in international long-drive competitions and normal ranges cannot hold his blasts.

Hopper — a Gaffney native and Columbia resident — will be in the final eight of the RE/MAX World Long Driving Championship on Oct. 30 in Las Vegas.

The event’s marketing department labels the finalists “The October 8” and this will be Hopper’s third time in the elite company. He previously made the big show in 2006 and ’10.

“I peaked at the right time,” said Hopper, who competes for the MOI team. “I had been struggling lately, and everything came together” in order for him to become one of the eight from the field of 192 to remain in contention for the winner-take-all $250,000 first prize. He took the final step into the final eight by defeating former world champion Karl Wolter by six yards with a 405-yard drive last month.

“I’ve been playing golf all my life,” he said, and he took the challenge to try his hand at long-drive competition during his sophomore year at USC. The result: an instant love affair and almost instant success.

Hopper, 26, went into the final stage of qualifying ranked 25th in the world. One publication said in its preview of the finals, “Not noted for accuracy.” But he adhered to the competition’s mantra — “just keep advancing” — and he heads back to Nevada a week from today to make preparations for the championship at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Upon learning of Hopper’s prowess, Mason prepared Par Tee’s long-driving grid that stretches for 420 yards “and sometimes that’s not long enough,” the pro said. Hopper’s longest in competition is 436 yards.

Says Art Sellinger, CEO of the Long Drivers of America in looking at the finalists: “Hopper swings so hard. He could go 0-for-24, or he could hit one crazy freak ball and win it. He will swing full out, regardless.”

Crazy. That’s a word Mason uses in describing the swings of long-drivers who utilize his facility. In addition to Hopper, a frequent player is Gary Ramirez, who finished fourth in the Grand Champions (55 and older) division last month and regularly hammers drives more than 350 yards.

“Patrick has as 360-degree swing,” Mason said. “His club-head speed is 145 miles per hour and tour pros are generally in the 115 range. It’s astronomical with the ball coming off the club face at 212 miles per hour.

“Really, the same fundamentals apply, but his swing is so fast that you can’t see it unless you video his swing and break it down frame-by-frame. It’s absolutely crazy.”

Hopper loves to play the game and can often be found at the Woodlands. His handicap index, he said, “is five to six. I don’t practice enough (to bring it down); I just like to play.”

But he works out on physical conditioning under Ken Taylor at Power Golf of Columbia and said, “I got into the gym and started hitting it longer and longer.”

Chip shots

In the Captain’s Putter matches pitting amateurs from the Carolinas against a team of Virginians, the Virginia squad captured a 25½-22½ win in Linville, N.C. Chris Mitchell (Prosperity) led the Carolinas regulars with 2½ points and Rick Cloninger (Fort Mill) earned three points for the Carolinas seniors. ...

Donnie Abercrombie aced the 165-yard, par-3 third hole at Persimmon Hill GC in Saluda. He used a 6-iron.

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