In The Media

Alpharetta Neighbor Newspaper

Local golf pro chases passion

By Ryan Peck

Golf came naturally to John Marshall. As a youth in upstate New York, Marshall picked up the clubs when he was 14 years old. It took but one year for him to carry a single-digit handicap. A few years later while playing at Ithaca College, Marshall was a two-time team captain and a conference champion.

Golf continued to be a passion of his following college. Marshall stayed involved with the game, as he served as a public relations consultant for the now-defunct AT&T Classic, as well as Atlanta’s LPGA and Champions Tour events, among others.

His competitive nature came to a head in 2002. Marshall had always been a fan of the Long Drive competitions that were televised by ESPN. That year, it was announced that a Super Senior Division (age 55 and up) would be introduced in 2003. Marshall turned 55 in 2003, and his next goal was clear.

“I had always been fairly long as a golfer so I thought it would be a good fit,” said Marshall, 61, who teaches at Steel Canyon Golf Club in Sandy Springs. “When you get to be 55, there are not a whole lot of things you can compete in that are significant. It was something I could do on a national level.”

The road was not easy at first. Marshall always had the distance, but initially struggled to keep the ball in the 50-yard wide grid to qualify his drives during competition. He researched the Mike Austin golf swing, named for the deceased British-American golf pro who is credited with hitting the longest drive (515 yards) in tournament play. Austin was a kinesiology expert, whose methods allowed Marshall to increase his distance and hone his accuracy. Marshall studied in California under Dan Shauger, an Austin protégé. Today, Marshall is a two-time American Long Drivers Association Super Senior National Champion, with a longest drive in competition of 343 yards.

Marshall is considered the foremost authority on the Mike Austin golf swing in the southeast. He has instructed golfers from all across the nation, helping them improve their distance as well as all other facets of their game. In October, he will compete in the World Finals in Mesquite, Nevada.

“It’s been a great thing for me,” said Marshall. “Not only as a competitor, but as an instructor.”

Golf Styles Atlanta
November 2005


PERSONALITIES: The Big Knocker

By Ronnie Musselwhite

It’s nearly 7:00 p.m., and John Marshall is still warming up. For more than a half-hour, he’s been stretching and hitting wedges and short irons, slowly working his way through his bag. Finally, he pulls out driver – all 48 inches of it – and sticks a peg in the ground. A smooth swing followed by a mini-explosion that breaks the click-clack monotony of surlyn pinging steel and heads begin to turn.

As Marshall continues, he draws more glances as disbelievers watch the ball sail off his clubface 320 yards or more down range. Before long, all eyes at Heritage Hills Golf Center in Austell are focused on Marshall.

It’s not that the 320 mark has never been broken – it’s just not every day that you see a 57-year-old man doing it. Marshall isn’t entirely comfortable with the silent stares, but he has slowly become accustomed to them. For the past two years, he’s competed on the Long Drivers of America circuit, where oohs and ahhs come with the territory.

“This has been an unbelievable experience,” Marshall says of the competition. “It’s an adrenaline rush that at my age most people don’t get to experience.”

In 2002, Marshall saw a long drive event on television. The announcers mentioned an over-55 division and Marshall, who was turning 55 the following February, jumped at the opportunity to try a different avenue in golf. He started working out (Marshall hits a few hundred balls four to five times each week, lifts weights and practices yoga) and after his birthday began entering local and regional qualifiers in an attempt to qualify for the long drive super bowl: the RE/MAX World Long Drive Championship.

In his first season, Marshall won eight local qualifiers and competed in three district events. He finished second in his second district qualifier and in his third – in Florida – Marshall needed just one drive of 287 yards to win and advance to the nationals.

“I didn’t get a ball in the grid,” says Marshall. “After that unpleasant experience, I realized that I had to get more accurate.”

To improve his performance, Marshall began working with Gio Valiente, a sports psychologist and professor at Rollins College in Florida who mentors a number of professional golfers, including Chris DiMarco. He also sought swing training from Los Angeles-based instructor and long drive legend Mike Austin.

“He taught a a very unique and powerful method that is somewhat different from the conventional swing,” Marshall says. “I’ve always been a bit of a shut-face player and had a difficult time keeping the club square in a traditional method. Now, I feel like I’m swinging in my natural way.”

Last year, Marshall qualified for the RE/MAX World and finished 15th. Earlier this year, he won the 2005 American Long Drivers Association’s national championship, which earned him an exemption into the 2005 RE/MAX World Long Drive Championship finals scheduled for Oct. 18-22 in Mesquite, Nevada.

“I have mixed emotions about not having to play in the local qualifiers because I like getting under the gun and competing,” Marshall says. Still, he isn’t complaining about knowing he has a spot in the national event.

When he’s not banging balls or traveling across the Southeast for long drive events, Marshall teaches golf and longd drive at Steel Canyon Golf Club in Sandy Springs. Surprisingly, he plays very few rounds of golf each year, though he took up the game at age 14 and captained his golf team for two years at Ithaca College in New York.

“I don’t have the game to compete and be moderately successful in Georgia because there are so many good players,” says Marshall, adding that he’s like anyone else and can “shoot 70 one day and 80 the next.” In that sense, the long drive circuit has allowed him to fill a void by utilizing what has always been the strength of his game – power.

As much as he thrives on the adrenaline rush of competition, Marshall most enjoys the people he meets at long drive events. “The camaraderie is the best part. You make so many good friends because you’re all at many of the same events and all have a common interest. We take it very seriously, but nobody gets arrogant because we all know what it’s like to struggle. We’ve all been there.”


Golf Conversations

John Marshall, Long Drive Champion

John Marshall is a senior long drive champion who uses — and teaches — the Mike Austin golf swing method. Who is Mike Austin? In the 1974 United States National Seniors Open Championship (predecessor to the Senior PGA Open), at the age of 64, Mike Austin drove a golf ball 515 yards, on level ground, with a persimmon head driver. Austin died in 2005 but has attracted a cult following of golfers who want to drive it longer and straighter.

John Marshall and I first met at the PGA Show in January of this year. I challenged him to teach me the Mike Austin method. I also challenged him not to charge me, to which John graciously acquiesced. Several weeks later, we met at Robbie Biershenk’s driving range (Biershenk, incidentally, will be appearing in the upcoming Golf Channel reality show, “Big Break Indian Wells”) in Greenville, SC.

John demonstrated the Mike Austin golf swing to me. I took notes, went home, and for the next several weeks, put John’s teachings into practice. Then I drove to Atlanta and met John at Steel Canyon Golf Club where he teaches. I showed him my swing, John made a few adjustments, and off I went back home to “dig it out of the mats.”

I can now honestly say that the swing has become second nature to me. I DO hit the ball further; I’d say I’ve gained 10-15 yards. And more important, the ball does go straighter. Check out John’s website for more information.

Golf Conversations: How did you get involved in golf?

John Marshall: I grew up in Ithaca, NY and started playing golf when I was 14. A year and a half later, I broke 80 and made the high school golf team which was a good one. I played college golf at Ithaca College.

GC: Were you self-taught?

JM: For the most part. There was one person that I worked with a little bit at Cornell University Course where I was a member. It was Robert Trent Jones’ first design ever.

GC: He went to school there, didn’t he?

JM: Yes. Every golf professional that I ever worked with growing up and in later years, they wanted forearm rotation and toe up at the halfway point. In 2002, I decided to compete in long drive contests. They were starting a new division in 2003 for guys that were 55 and up and I had just turned 55 in 2003, so it was good timing.

GC: What was the name of this organization?

JM: Long Drivers Of America which owns the RE/MAX Long Drive Championship.

GC: That’s the one in Mesquite, Nevada?

JM: Yes, exactly. I went to 8 locals that year and won them all. Then I went to 3 regionals and finished third, second, and second. In my age group, it’s like 20 guys for 1 spot. It’s supposed to be a fun sport but we all take it seriously, so the pressure … you can choke your guts out.

(laughter)

It’s fun when you win. The last one, I walked out on the tee… I was in a 3-man shootout for 1 spot. The two guys before me did not hit it well and the best number was 286 and I’d been hitting it 320 all day.

GC: Where was this, John?

JM: This was in Haines City, Florida near Tampa. I got out on the tee – I was the last guy to hit – and I was mentally calling Delta to make plane reservations….

(laughter)

… I was mentally making hotel reservations … I was mentally making my acceptance speech. And I proceeded to hit six straight balls out of bounds. It was not one of the great experiences of my life.

So I realized that I needed to make some changes. I had the length but I had to get more accurate. So I started doing some Google searches and came upon Mike Austin’s name and went out to L.A. and got together with Mike and started working with him.

Within an hour I was just as long – maybe a little bit longer – but much straighter.

GC: Where were you living at the time?

JM: In Atlanta. I’ve been there for 39 years. I didn’t get a whole lot longer ‘cause I was always pretty long. But I now had a good idea where the ball was going.

GC: Was it an “a-ha!” moment?

JM: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. It was one of those things where it happened almost overnight. The idea of missing the grid now with 6 balls … it’s just not going to happen. In Mesquite this past October, I went through 3 rounds – that’s 18 balls – and I didn’t miss the grid with one.

GC: How wide is the grid?

JM: It used to be 45 yards. In Mesquite, they used to have 2 guys on the tee at the same time. Now they have 3 guys on the tee at the same time so it’s about 60 yards wide. It’s not hard, but guys still miss it. I’m starting to lose some length now ‘cause I’m getting up there in years.

GC: Say it ain’t so, John!

(laughter)

JM: But I’m confident knowing that I’m going to put it in the grid.

GC: So you met Mike Austin in L.A.?

JM: This is fall of 2003. In 2004, I won a regional to qualify for Mesquite and then went to an American Long Drivers Association qualifier and finished second. I qualified for their national championship in 2005 and I won that.

GC: What was your winning drive there?

JM: In their format, it was best two of six. I think my total was in the neighborhood of 650 yards.

GC: That’s a nice neighborhood! So was one drive 150 and the other 500?

(laughter)

Or was one 600 and you popped up the other one 50 yards?

(laughter)

JM: Didn’t quite work that way! But I knew at that point that I was on to something.

GC: How long have you been using the Mike Austin method?

JM: Since the latter part of 2003.

GC: Is this the method that you teach your students?

JM: I will die with this one and it’s the one I teach my students.

GC: Do your students come to you and say, “Hey, I heard about this Austin method” or do you use it with from the start with beginners?

JM: A very good question. A lot of the people that come to me have done Google searches, found Mike Austin and then found me.

GC: All the desperadoes!

(laughter)

JM: All the desperadoes looking for a better way …

(laughter)

… Looking for some level of success and sanity. But then there are other people who have heard about me from the long drive competitions and come for lessons because they want to get a little bit longer. Not necessarily knowing about this method.

Robert, two or three times a year, I’ll have a student come to me … I’ll tell them to do what they do to warm up – stretching, hit a few balls …

GC: Or my favorite: eat a hot dog!

(laughter)

JM: … eat a hot dog, chug a couple of beers. But I can think of a guy back in August … we worked up to a 5-iron, which I normally wouldn’t do with someone. But he hadn’t missed a shot yet. He was hitting little 2-yard draws that were landing on a cocktail napkin at 185 yards. And I said to the guy, “I don’t really know why you came to me but I’m going to sit here for an hour and watch you hit balls. I’m not going to charge you a dime. If you have any questions feel free to ask. But if I attempt to change anything you are doing, I should be arrested.”

GC: So did you make bail?

(laughter)

With a beginner, I assume you go through the whole thing with the grip, the stance, the alignment, hit down to make it go up … are a lot of those fundamentals different with the Austin method?

JM: No. Ultimately, I am a big believer that 75-80% of success in golf is predicated on what you do before you move the club head. How you put your hands on the club, posture, alignment, ball position, and grip pressure. And grip pressure is absolutely key.

Hey, this is totally off the subject but I want to tell you a quick Bridgestone story. I noticed that you went to their ball-testing facility in Georgia and did a great interview. I played with one of their testing people a couple of years ago — just out of the blue, got paired up with him. I asked him about Fred Couples. He said Couples will come down once a year and he’ll say, “Give me some stuff to hit. Do not tell me any numbers whatsoever. Ball speed, club head speed. Don’t tell me anything. All I want to know is do I hit this ball well or not. I’ll make the decisions on what works for me.”

GC: Freddie… you gotta love him! That’s a great story. But I’ve got to run; I’m meeting J.B. Holmes’s plumb-bob instructor for an interview. I’ll call you in a few weeks and let’s arrange to meet halfway and you can show me the swing.

JM: Ok, thanks Robert.

[The following conversation took place at Shank’s Driving Range in Greenville, SC]

JM: The two main elements of this swing that differ from the conventional swing are the way the hands, wrist, and forearms move … and the way the lower body moves. It’s not a difficult thing to learn and when you think about it logically, to me, it makes so much sense.

Essentially, with the hands, wrists, and forearms … we are not rolling the forearms. We are actually counter-rotating them, so that when the shaft is parallel to the ground halfway back, the club head is parallel to my spine angle.

By conventional definition, this would be referred to as “shut.” And when we come into the ball, we’re releasing underneath. Again, we’re not rolling the forearms over.

Occasionally with my new students, I will bring a soccer ball out to the lesson. I’ll put it into their hands and tell them to get into a golf posture. And I’ll say, “In a swinging motion, I want you to throw the ball as far and as straight as you can down the target line.”

No one ever does that the conventional way; that is, rolling the forearms. It’s a natural movement. When you think about it, a lot of rotation requires a lot of timing, and you’ve got to hit a lot of golf balls to make that happen.

My buddies and I talk about Ben Hogan digging it out of the dirt, as he used to say. As much as he rolled his forearms, he needed to dig it out of the dirt because so much timing was involved to do that correctly every day.

The other aspect of this swing is we tilt our hips rather than just turn them. And we do that by straightening the right leg which causes the right side of the body to extend, the left side of the body to shorten, and then, coming down, we do the opposite: the left side of the body gets longer, the right side of the body gets shorter.

GC: Every time I hear “Hogan” I want to scream! I don’t want to hear about Hogan again in my lifetime! I don’t want to hear about his book! I interviewed Jack Lumpkin … who worked under Claude Harmon who was buddies with Hogan. And Lumpkin said that Hogan’s book was good for Hogan! Hogan was fighting a hook early in his career so he weakened his grip and did all kinds of other anti-hook moves. So I never understood it when you hear so many people — the majority of whom slice the ball — say that they learned how to play golf reading Hogan’s book. So no more HOGAN!

(laughter)

Ok, I’ve calmed down. Now, regarding your swing method, this rolling of the forearms is something that really needs to be felt or demonstrated one-on-one with an instructor. Most instruction doesn’t say anything about what to do with your wrists…

JM: Exactly.

GC: They’re supposed to somehow naturally go back into the correct position.

JM: In my swing, I start out with a slightly cupped left wrist.

GC: Now those terms – cupped, concave, convex – nobody knows what the hell you guys are talking about. I always thought cupped was like this …

JM: No, that would be bowed. Hogan’s position at the top…

GC: What did I just tell you about mentioning Hogan???

(laughter)

JM: His position at the top was a cupped left wrist. I start it at cupped in my address position. My first move back is to immediately flatten this left wrist. See what that does to the club face? I want the club head parallel to my spine angle when I’m halfway back.

Mike Austin was the original proponent of this golf swing. Mike’s way of explaining this is that the club head always stays on the target line side of the shaft until the very end when it turns over.

GC: In this swing, the forearms are not rotating as much after impact?

JM: Yes. Exactly.

GC: They will … but later on?

JM: Way late in the swing when everything has already been decided. I’m taking it back, going from cupped to flat left wrist … and then as I come through the ball, I’m releasing more underneath. I feel as though my right hand is actually passing underneath my left through impact.

GC: Is your wrist flat all the time?

JM: We start out cupped, go to flat … flat at the top, flat all the way down, flat at impact. That’s not something I’m really thinking about through impact. I’m thinking about keeping my grip pressure nice and soft and allowing my right hand to work under.

Mike Austin said that this golf swing resembles a Ferris wheel. A conventional golf is a little bit more like a merry-go-round.

GC: And my golf swing is like the House of Horrors!

(laughter)

JM: Mike wanted the golf swing working up, down, under, and up. The result is that the club is on the target line a little bit longer. Which is a good thing.

GC: Lee Trevino had that swing where he seemed to be chasing after the ball after impact. Is that similar to the Austin swing?

JM: There are some similarities in what he did because Lee was one of the great shut-face players of all time. Azinger: a great shut-face player. If you look back at some of the swings we used to see 40 years ago before video became popular, we saw a lot of homemade, caddy yard sort of swings that guys figured out how to make work.

Now that we’re in the age of video, if you watch the players on TV or in person, a lot of golf swings look pretty much the same.

GC: Do their swings require a bit more athleticism and timing … something that the average player doesn’t have?

JM: I often say that the 15-handicapper has no idea how hard the golf courses are that those guys are playing. They also have no idea how physically gifted those tour players are. BUT, they’re also hitting a TON of golf balls.

This golf swing is a low-maintenance swing for the higher-handicap player. For ANY player. But especially for the person who doesn’t have the time or the desire to hit 400 balls a week. Because we’re not rolling the forearms, we’re much less dependent on timing.

GC: You mentioned the hips being more vertical as opposed to turning?

JM: Tilting. They turn as well, but we’ve got a lot more of a tilt in here. Most conventional instructors these days – as I’m sure you know – say to start with the knee flex at address and keep that knee flex all the way through the golf swing.

GC: Right.

JM: It’s a little bit hard on your back to do that. It also restricts the turns of people who probably don’t need to have their turns restricted. Tour players have a lot of gifts; one of which is flexibility. I’m sure you’ve read about Jim McLean’s “X-Factor,” which is the difference between the amount of hip turn and shoulder turn.

GC: Yes.

JM: This swing is different; it’s a little easier on the body.

GC: John, would you say that the right leg is straightening, but not swaying?

JM: It’s a good question and a good point. In doing this, when we straighten the right leg, our head is not going with it. Our head is staying stable. A lot of instructors of the conventional swing want you to get your head out over your right knee.

To me, it’s like a polo player trying to hit a moving ball from a galloping horse. You can do that but the chances of having a square club face at impact are somewhat diminished.

GC: I’m sure the polo player analogy will really resonate with the golfers who are reading this.

(laughter)

John, would you say that this swing starts as a one-piece swing that moves together?

JM: I feel as though it is. My thought, Robert, as I mentioned before, is this movement of going from cupped to flat. The back leg straightens and everything is moving together.

Ultimately, too, no matter what golf swing we’re using, we’re doing two things: we’re swinging our arms and at some point in the swing, turning our body.

In this swing, we’re turning our body – we’re just doing it in a slightly different way. The only connection point between those two activities is left-upper arm and chest. No matter what swing we’re doing, we’ve got to keep that connection point.

It’s like going to Vegas and getting on the craps table: you’re gonna roll the right number occasionally but in the long run your success is not going to happen. And when we get this left-upper arm away from our chest, we are in no-man’s land. We’re gonna hit a good shot or two once in a while but it’s not going to happen with any great regularity.

GC: What about a 2-way yo?

JM: Say that again.

GC: You’re using craps analogies. I said 2-way yo – you didn’t understand — so obviously you’re not a craps player.

(laughter)

JM: My one trip a year with my buddies to play golf, we also play blackjack. So I don’t know that term.

GC: A yo in craps is an eleven. With a 2-way yo, you throw down two chips: a yo for me and a yo for the dealer; you want an eleven on the next roll.

JM: Ohhhh!

GC: I’ll also sum up blackjack for you very simply: when the dealer is showing a face card, he’s always got another face