MESQUITE, Nev. (Army News Service, Oct. 31, 2007) - Army Staff Sgt. Bryan King of Wuerzberg, Germany, was runner-up in the 2007 Military Long Drive Championship Oct. 25 and U.S. Coast Guard Airman Ryan Hixson won with a drive of 367 yards.

Staff Sgt. King had qualified for the finals with a 381-yard drive at Fort Hood, Texas. He and four other finalists went to Nevada at the top end of more than 650 competitors from 25 qualifying sites in the summer-long Army Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command event.

With his victory, Bryan Hixson earned $10,000 and an exemption into the 2008 RE/MAX World Long Drive Championship in Mesquite.

"We're very proud to provide this competition for members of the Armed Forces," said Art Sellinger, owner of Long Drivers of America and producer of the RE/MAX World Long Drive Championship in Mesquite. "It's a great way to honor these heroes, and I hope it's the start of a great golf tradition."

The military golfers put on quite a show.

"Hopefully, we impressed upon the fans and some other people that while we may not be up to the professional level yet, we definitely can put the ball out there," said Staff Sgt. King, 29, a native of Mesquite, Texas, who launched the longest drive of the night - a 368-yard, second-round blast that pitted him against Hixson in the two-man finals. "The military always has some of the best people in the world."

Army Sgt. Joey Bozik, a triple-amputee who served in Iraq, launched the ceremonial first drive standing on prosthetic legs during an elaborate opening ceremony. The competition will air on ESPN and ESPN2 during the Christmas holiday season.

The Army's "Black Dagger" skydivers dropped onto the driving range to deliver an American flag and the ceremonial first ball, which, based on the crowd's response, sounded like Sgt. Bozik launched into orbit.

"It was great to see Joey hit the ceremonial first ball," Coast Guardsman Hixson said. "He got the recognition he deserved from the crowd, and the support. I was looking around at a couple of the guys and they were a little teary-eyed. I was, too. It was a very touching moment."
Coast Guardsman Hixson followed by winning the first round of six balls apiece on a 365-yard drive with his final swing.

Army Sgt. 1st Class John Merritt of the Human Resources Command in Alexandria, Va., who qualified with a 386-yard drive at Fort Meade, Md., finished second in round one of the finals with a 357-yard blast. His home course is Fort Belvoir, Va., an MWR facility that features two 18-hole courses.

Sgt. 1st Class Merritt was followed by Air Force Staff Sgt. Carl Taylor (348) of Troy, Ill.; Utah Army National Guard 1st Lt. Jeremy Williams (338), who qualified at Fort Carson, Colo.'s Cheyenne Shadows Golf Course; and Staff Sgt. King (338).

"I really didn't get a good piece of any of the first six balls," said Staff Sgt. King, who had one of the sweetest swings among the finalists. "Then I went back to the range and started getting some good pieces of the ball. It's just a matter of staying controlled and not trying to really over-swing. It's a strange thing: You're trying to hit the ball as far as possible, but if you swing as hard as you can, you just shank it."

Staff Sgt. King settled down and won the second round.

"Get in there!" Staff Sgt. King shouted while pumping a fist after his final second-round swing produced the 368-yarder that elicited a roar from the crowd.

"The fans were great," King said. "On that ball I got in to make it to the final, they pumped me up. They were clapping and cheering. They knew I needed something."

Fourth-place finisher Sgt. 1st Class Taylor needed nothing. He fulfilled a long-drive dream by merely being in Mesquite.

"I've been chasing the open guys around for three years, trying to make it out here," Staff Sgt. Taylor said. "I missed it by just five yards last year at Indianapolis. It's an awesome sport. I'm addicted to it. I'm so pumped up about it that I told my wife: 'One way or another, I'm getting out there this year.'"

About a month later, Staff Sgt. Taylor discovered that the inaugural military division of the RE/MAX World Long Drive Championship would award five tickets for an all-expenses-paid trip to Mesquite. He qualified for the finals with a 384-yard drive at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., about a 4-hour drive from his home.

"You've got to balance it," said Coast Guardsman Hixson, who qualified for the finals with a drive of 346 yards at Fort Stewart, Ga. "In the finals, I hit one 366 in the grid and was pretty comfortable with that, so I felt like I could just rear back and let it go.
"Then again, when you swing that way, it's kind of tough to hit the grid sometimes."

Such as his 379-yard blast in the first round that came to rest just four inches out of bounds.

"If I could have hit another one of those on the grid, then I'd have been very happy," said winner Hixson, who wanted to thank all supporters of his mission in Mesquite. "This has been an incredible experience - more than we could ever ask for...I hope they continue this tradition for a very long time."

(Tim Hipps writes for FMWRC Public Affairs.)