By Art Stricklin
THACKERVILLE – In its nearly 10 years of existence, the WinStar Golf Course and its Golf Academy has seen plenty of good golf, better times and memorable rounds, but golf general manager Michael Ferguson admits he’s never seen anything like this year’s World Long Drive Championship at the D.A. Weibring-designed golf facility.
"I was just looking for a chance to get WinStar on the national stage and the feedback and the crowd response has been outstanding," Ferguson said after Tim Burke captured the championship belt and the $150,000 first-place prize on a windy Wednesday night air before a rowdy, standing-room only crowd of hundreds on the long driver stage laid out on the WinStar range.
"I wanted to bring a great event to Oklahoma to showcase our great resort and these great athletes. This will only serve as a springboard to what we will do here at WinStar in the future," Ferguson said. While Burke celebrated his victory as the king of the long drive, with a monster 394-yard poke to win the final match against Jeremy Easterly, it was a season of firsts for the Long Drive Championship.
It was the first time the event was held in Oklahoma, the first under the new format which featured head-to-head competition with a 2:45 time clock, loud crowds, strobe lights and artificial smoke.
"I love the format, because I think it brings out the best hitters and I think WinStar has a heck of a place. It’s incredible," Burke said.
This year was on a one-year contract for WinStar to host the World Long Drive, but Ferguson said he has a meeting with the Long Drive Association executives in the next couple of weeks about returning here for 2016 and beyond.
Hoping to capture his home field advantage was former Oklahoma State Cowboy Jason Eslinger, who currently lives in Forney, Texas, about 80 miles from the tournament site.
The 29-year-old Eslinger didn’t play on the powerhouse OSU golf team while in college, but did work at Karsten Creek Golf Course, where he met his wife Whitney. He saw the long drive competition on TV while in school, ordered his first driver off the internet and now has a Dallas-based company, Power Golf Productions, where he showcases his long driving ability,.
"I was able to stay in my own bed this week and drive back and forth every day. It’s just a great experience." While he made it to the nationally televised finals of eight golfers, his bid for a world title came up short when he hit his best shot in the first round to, ‘only’ 390 yards, losing out to Will Hogue who boomed his first round shot to 404 yards.
"I like living in Dallas and like the neighborhood we live in, but it’s always great to be back in my college home," Eslinger said.
Event founder and CEO Art Sellinger said he felt he was returning to his home roots as well, as his North Texas based company was located less than an hour from WinStar.
"It’s nice to be back near home. It went good. The crowd is loud and excited and the place is packed. Here we go. It’s a great night."
Sellinger is a former two-time World Long Drive champion himself and has worked tirelessly over the last two decades to publicize the sport he once ruled. When a longtime deal with Re/Max ended last year, the LDA took an ownership position in the competition, brought the Golf Channel in as a stronger partner, including naming October National Long Drive Month, and found WinStar as his new venue.
His faith was renewed on a windy final night with three of the four winners in the quarterfinal round went over 400 yards, including Burke who did it in both the quarterfinal and the semifinals with drives of 401 and 404 yards.
With 27 golf holes at WinStar, Ferguson entertained a large group of casino VIPs during the week-long event and had 18 holes of the course open for all players during the tournament including a group of long drive participants who took the general manager on earlier in the week.
"I don’t want to say how far they outdrove me, but I go it under par on the back nine," Ferguson said.
He said the national and the international publicity WinStar received from the World Long Drive Championship will help it with its new golf goals for 2016 and beyond. A new nine holes designed by Weibring and associate Steve Wofford will open in the next few months and perhaps the ultimate goal will follow soon afterwards.
Ferguson said working with Champions Tour veteran Weibring, he hopes to attract a Champions Tour event for Winstar in the next couple of years.
"Where we are located on the Texas-Oklahoma border, people didn’t always think of this as a golf destination. Now they will. We have one of the best courses and complex in the country.
"The simple fact is you can’t gamble 24-7. You need a break and this is one of the best breaks there is."
After watching his grandfather U.C. Ferguson help build a legacy with Oklahoma Golf, Ferguson said he was glad to help build his own legacy at Winstar, especially after being inspired by the recent success of Johnny Morris with his own Champions Tour event in Branson, Missouri.
"I will never achieve what my grandfather did in Oklahoma," Ferguson said, "but if somebody could say I helped follow in his footsteps and help build on his legacy, that’s the greatest complement you can give me."
Among those at the finals on Wednesday was multi-Women’s US Open champion Oklahoma’s Susie Maxwell Berning and former PGA Championship winner Bob Tway of Edmond.
"We all want to come home to Oklahoma and build something great here," Ferguson said. "It’s a great time to be at WinStar."