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It was always about power. It was always about taking athletic endeavors to the extreme. From an early age growing up in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, Jason Zuback found particular joy in shooting a hockey puck as fast as he was able, hitting a baseball as far as possible and laying into a fullback as hard as he could while playing linebacker. He enjoyed hitting objects, and he enjoyed hitting them hard. Finesse? No, thank you.
He was raised on golf, as well. Near the house he lived in as a kid was a large, grassy area where Zuback, now 37, would take a bag full of golf ballshundreds of ballsand hit them as hard and as far as he could. Then he would hit them again, and again. He had a decent short game, too, becoming an accomplished junior player with victories at local- and provincial-level tournaments.
Zuback was never very tall, maxing out at 5’10”, but he was strong. He began lifting weights for football while in high school, and his body responded to the training. As a junior golfer, he always hit the ball quite well off the tee, in part due to his newfound strength but also because he’d often forgo the practice greens in favor of countless hours at the driving range. “As an asset, and maybe to a detriment sometimes, I would concentrate on hitting the ball far,” says Zuback, laughing sheepishly. “Instead of putting and chipping, where you could save a lot of strokes, I’d go hit 200, 300, 400 balls with the driver and just try to knock it out of the back of the range. It was always something I loved to do.”
By the time Zuback was 15 or 16, he was consistently driving the ball more than 300 yards. But he could hardly see that far into the future, and he didn’t know the sport of long drive even existed. In those early years, he never saw himself standing at a tee box at the Long Drivers of America (LDA) RE/MAX World Long Drive Championship or at a charity event next to a golf bag embroidered with Jason Zuback “Golfzilla,” not to mention being inducted into the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and the LDA Hall of Fame in 2003. Sometimes it’s not about setting a goal years in advance and working to achieve it; sometimes it’s about training for a sport unknowingly, only to have that sport come find you. You don’t plan on being Golfzilla. It just happens.
Long driving, like most other sports, is about repetition. It’s about hard work. You want specifics? No problem: Zuback has hit 1.3 million practice balls in his career (give or take a few thousand), has broken more than 1,100 golf clubs, has spent more than 15,000 hours in the gym lifting hundreds of thousands of tons. And here’s the beauty of it: Repetition begets repe-tition. A million-plus drives equal five world championships. Doing snatches and clean and jerks and squats in the gym, day after day, year after year, leads to 10 magazine covers and public appearances alongside Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) of America players such as Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman and Phil Mickelson.
But before all this, Zuback went to school at the University of Alberta in Edmonton and got a pharmacy degree, graduating with distinction. All the while, he continued to lift. Having started to train seriously at 17, he found a gym owned by a world-class powerlifter and received a proper training education that emphasized correct technique on core power lifts as well as bodybuilding exercises. “That’s where my training really started to take off.
I admired bodybuilders such as Arnold [Schwarzenegger], Franco [Columbu] and Frank Zane,” says Zuback, who also cites current pros Jay Cutler and Ronnie Coleman, as well as strongmen Magnús Ver Magnússon and Mariusz Pudzianowski, among those who inspire him in the gym. “I used to love the classic physiques but also the monster guys, too. I would’ve loved to be that big, but as I got older I realized I didn’t have the genetics.”
He kept golfing, as well. Then, in 1995, while he was playing at a professional qualifying event, a fellow player said in reference to Zuback’s mammoth drives off the tee: “I’ve never seen someone hit it as far as you. Why don’t you give long driving a try?” Sure, why not? Zuback thought.
He won his first event, a local qualifier, by 50 yards, a blowout by long-driving standards, and adopted the sport right then and there. “It’s the classic story of opportunity meets preparation,” Zuback says. “Not that I’d been preparing for this, but I’d been deadlifting heavy, benching heavy, squatting heavy, preparing my body for something, not knowing exactly what. I just enjoyed training. And the golf element, I always practiced a lot and I just loved playing. Those two things melded together.”
Long driving is about distance. Not your short game, not how well you play a dogleg, not getting out of a bunker. In 2007, the longest driving average on the PGA Tour belonged to Bubba Watson, at 315 yards, and the average of the PGA’s top 10 longest drivers was 307 yards. The average of the final eight competitors at the 2007 RE/MAX World Long Drive Championship? Much longer: 378 yards.
But long driving is about precision, too, about making sure the ball lands inside a 4548-yard-wide gridotherwise, the shot doesn’t count. Easier said than done. PGA players typically drive a golf ball around 170 mph. When that number increases to more than 200 mph, the norm for LDA players, the margin of error shrinks drastically. “If you make one degree of error at impact on a 250-yard drive, you’re still in a 35-yard fairway,” Zuback says. “But when you make that one-degree error on a golf ball that’s traveling 200 mph plus, you’re in the lumberyardyou’re not even in the same ZIP code as the fairway.”
Where distance and precision are concerned, no one has done it better than Jason Zuback. Ever. His breakout performance came at the 1996 RE/MAX World Long Drive Championship in Las Vegas, where he hit the longest drive in the competition. Despite working at a pharmacy in Drayton Valley, Alberta, 5060 hours a week, he found enough time to train leading up to the event that in the finals he hit a 366-yard drive to win the title and the $35,000 first-place check. (The top prize has grown substantially since then; this coming October, the world champion will receive $250,000.)
The next year, the same event was held in Mesquite, Nevada, where it has been ever since. The buzz went something like, “This little Canadian guy won’t win again.” In response, Zuback drove more than 400 yards in every round of competition, including the longest drive to ever win a title in the finals, at just more than 412 yards. In ’98, around the time he quit the pharmacy to dedicate all his working hours to long driving, it was much the same: Three of his drives in the finals were long enough to win it all, and he became the first person ever to be world champion three years in a row. His four-peat, in ’99, was a bit tougher, as Zuback fought through herniated discs in his cervical vertebrae. Leading up to the event, he spent five days a week in physical therapy on top of his rigorous training schedule and won the title again.
His run ended in 2000, when in the finals he came up a yard short of winning five consecutive times. By then, the media hype was in full swing, anointing Zuback as the biggest name in long-drive history. In his career he has graced the cover of 10 golf publi-cations, has been featured in Time magazine, and has appeared on NBC’s Today as well as CBS’s now defunct The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn.
The sponsorships rolled in, as well: Pinnacle golf balls, Cobra drivers, Under Armour gear, FootJoy kicks. Go into a golf store to buy some balls and you just might see a box of Pinnacle Gold FX Longs with Golfzilla’s mug on it. He became a world traveler, flying around the country and overseas for corporate and charity events, around 100 special appearances a year, displaying such novelties as hitting a 280-plus-yard drive while sitting in a chair, teeing off while balancing on an exercise ball and being paired with Watson at the 2007 Kraft Shoot-Out in Boise, Idaho, outdriving him by 65 yards. Zuback has become a frequent flyer to Asia. The Japanese love him”They appreciate extremes,” he saysbut no, that’s not where his nickname came from. Sports Illustrated coined it in a 1998 write-up on Zuback titled “Drive Golfzilla Drive,” and the name has stuck ever since.
The demands of such a schedule cut into Zuback’s training. He failed to win another world title until 2006, when he recorded the three longest drives of the competition (388, 386 and 383 yards). “I racked up millions of airline miles during those years [after winning the championships],” he says. “But you’re not training when you’re on an airplane going to Japan. There were huge blocks of time when I wasn’t able to train. But starting in ’05, I rededicated myself to getting back to my past form.”
It’s about distance, yes, but achieving distance is all about producing speed. The type of speed that allowed Zuback to hit a golf ball through a phone book for the Sports Illustrated photo shoot. The same speed that helped him hit the longest drive ever in a competition (463 yards), the longest witnessed drive on a golf course (520 yards) and the longest drive down an airport runway: 714 yards, laser certified and witnessed. His clubhead speed was once measured at 163 mph, and his ball speed at 222 mph, both of which are the fastest ever recorded.
Speed can get complicated, though. It starts with the biomechanics of driving a golf ball. Sufficient range of motion and flexibility are required in the upswing to put you in a position to generate the most power possible. From there, a kinetic sequence of events needs to take place in the downswing, where the hips rotate and reach maximum velocity, then transfer that velocity to the trunk, then to the arms, then finally to the hands and wrists, where a snapping motion propels the ball into the distance.
“This sport is all about moving your body faster,” Zuback says. “If you can apply more force through your golf club, there’s a good chance you’re going to hit the ball farther.”
Producing speed requires a level of physical strength, and Zuback has plenty of it. Some of his best lifts include a 405-pound three-rep max on the bench press, a 714-pound squat, a 680-pound deadlift, a 364-pound clean and jerk, and shoulder presses with 120-pound dumbbells for 12 reps. You don’t get this strong by accident; it takes discipline and dedication. For Zuback, it took squeezing workouts into his busy schedule whenever he could, whether it meant driving around at 3 a.m. looking for a 24 Hour Fitness or Powerhouse Gym when traveling for corporate events in Japan, Los Angeles, New York or wherever he happened to find himself. Endurance is critical, too, but the real key is muscular power. You need it to generate speed.
You might say Zuback has no choice but to be freakishly strong and powerful. Look at some of his top compe-tition on the LDA circuit: Brooks “Big Country” Baldwin is 6’3″, 240 pounds; 2007 World Champion Mike Dobbyn is 6’8″, 296 pounds; Baden Waiwai, aka “The Bus,” is 6’8″, 299 pounds. When you’re just 5’10” (in spikes) like Zuback, you’ve got to make up for that somewhere. He does it with powerhis compact, power-producing frame holds 225 pounds. And conditioninghe consistently carries around 6% bodyfat.
“The golf ball doesn’t know how big you are,” Zuback says. “All it knows is the force that’s applied to it.”
In the end, it’s not about power or distance or speed. At least not completely. It’s not about being the all-time money leader in LDA history, with more than $700,000 in career earnings (not including appearance and endorsement revenue), or owning 38 career long-drive tournament titles or even proving wrong the long-drive skeptics who say, “You guys are just a bunch of gorillas who hit it longyou can’t play golf.” Golfzilla, so you know, shoots below par on a good day, just above it when he’s off his game.
No, it’s more about the journey, the experience that comes from being the best in the world at what you do. It’s about absorbing the bumps and bruises along the roadwhich for Zuback have come in the form of 15 stress fractures, three herniated discs, 20 muscle tears and a sports-hernia procedure this past winter, in part from hitting the weights as hard as he hits the little white balland working through them with more than 5,000 hours of physical therapy in his career, 120 visits to sports-medicine physicians and 50 to orthopedic surgeons.
“I’ve faced a lot of challenges in my career, but this sport has given me the opportunity to go places I never would’ve gone, to meet so many different peopleprofessional golfers, entertainers and successful people in different walks of life,” he says. “It has been very enjoyable for me, minus all the injuries and things like that. It has been a very good ride.” M&F
520 YARDSZuback’s longest drive (witnessed) on a golf course
ZUBACK'S SPEED AND POWER WORKOUTS Monday Exercise Sets1 Reps Barbell Snatch (technique work) 10 1 Clean & Jerk (75%80% 1RM) 10 1 Barbell Squat (70% 1RM) 6 4 Pull Snatch (85% 1RM) 6 3 Power Clean (70% 1RM) 6 3 Tuesday Hang Snatch (70% 1RM) 6 4 Squat and Jerk (70% 1RM) 6 2+1 (2 squats + 1 jerk) Clean from Plyo Box (70% 1RM) 6 2 Military Press (70% 1RM) 6 3 Box Jump 3 6 Tornado Ball Chop2 (side to side + overhead) Wednesday Power Snatch (75% 1RM) 6 2 Hang Clean (75% 1RM) 6 2 Front Squat (75% 1RM) 6 5 Push Press (75% 1RM) 6 3 Thursday Barbell Snatch(70%80% 1RM) 6 2 Clean and Power Jerk (70% 1RM) 7 1+2 (1 clean + 2 jerks) Pull Clean (85% 1RM) 8 4 Hang Snatch (70% 1RM) 6 3 Box Jump 3 6 Tornado Ball Chop2 (side to side + overhead) Saturday Power Clean (70%80% 1RM) 6 2 Jerk from Rack (75% 1RM) 6 2 Single-Arm Dumbbell Snatch 5 6 (per arm) Box Jump 3 6 Tornado Ball Chop2 (side to side + overhead)
1 Not including two warm-up sets of 3-4 reps per exercise
2 A tornado ball is a medicine ball attached to a rope