Mike Austin, the world record holder for longest drive in a professional golf tournament, died Tuesday of natural causes at the Motion Picture & Television Hospital in Woodland Hills. He was 95.
Austin is best known for a 515-yard drive made during a 1974 U.S. National Seniors Open championship in Las Vegas, when he was 64. He used a steel-shafted persimmon wood driver and a balata-covered ball and had a 27-mph tail wind. The drive is recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records.
Despite subsequent advances in club and ball technology, the record stands. Davis Love III hit a 476-yard drive in 2004 that is second on the list.
Born on Guernsey in Britain’s Channel Islands in 1910, Austin lived in Scotland, Boston and Atlanta before moving to Los Angeles in 1939. He had brief stints as a professional golfer, but his short game was problematic. His best finish was 37th at the 1961 Ontario Open in Canada.
“He was so amped up for the big drives and had so much adrenaline that he’d get the yips and putt off the green, sometimes into a water hazard,” said Philip Reed, who wrote “In Search of the Greatest Golf Swing,” a biography of Austin.
Austin relied on teaching and hustling for income. He once won $5,000 when he made a par with a Coke bottle. He won matches while playing left-handed and one-handed. His exploits earned him the nickname “The Golfing Bandit.”
Austin earned bachelor’s degrees in physics and engineering at Emory University and Georgia Institute of Technology. He also earned a doctorate in kinesiology at Georgia Tech. He applied his scientific background to develop a swing that relied on efficiency of body movement.
The key to his swing was a concept called “supple quickness,” which generated club-head speed by relaxing all the pertinent muscles.
As a teacher he was a lifetime member of the Professional Golfers Assn. of America. Austin, was voted the Southern California Golf Professional of the Year in 1984. He was voted one of the top 50 golf instructors in the United States in 1991 by PGA of America.
“He is the dean of all golf instruction from the beginning of time, as far as I’m concerned,” said Mike Dunaway, who won the 1991 World Super Long Drive title after working with Austin. “I worked with him for 28 years, and I learned something from him every time I met with him.”
His methods were not without controversy, however. A former boxer whose career ended when doctors found an irregular heartbeat, Austin was known as an impatient instructor and often yelled obscenities at students during lessons.
“Mike wouldn’t tolerate ignorance,” Dunaway said. “But he always said, ‘A vivid presentation is one you’ll remember.’ He didn’t mince words, but in the end, you’d learn what he had to say.”
In his early years, Austin played with golfing legends such as Sam Snead, Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen.
Biographer Reed said that when steel shafts came on the scene, Snead received a set of clubs from a manufacturer but gave them to Austin saying, “You’re the only one who swings fast enough to use these.”
Austin also occasionally sang opera and acted. He appeared in the Los Angeles Civic Opera production of “Desert Song” in 1947, and played Judge Lang in the 1983 Michael Douglas crime thriller “The Star Chamber.”
Austin suffered a stroke in 1989 that left him partially paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. Still, he taught golf until about two weeks before his death.
He is survived by his wife, Tanya. The couple had no children. Memorial services will be private.