Used with permission. Copyright © 2013 John Christensen.
In 1974, 64-year-old journeyman pro Mike Austin set a world record by driving a golf ball 515 yards. Although he had celebrity clients, appeared in Hollywood films and was called “a real-world Indiana Jones,” Austin died in 2005 bitter and virtually unknown. Now, however, he has a cult following on the internet and a brotherhood of instructors around the world who teach his unconventional swing. Following is an excerpt from Perfect Swing, Imperfect Lies: The Legacy of Golf’s Longest Hitter, an ebook by John Christensen. It’s available from Amazon, Apple iBookstore, Barnes & Noble and Sony.
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The last time he saw Mike Austin, John Anselmo was giving a clinic at the Navy Golf Course in Cypress, California, about 20 miles southeast of Los Angeles. It was early 2004. Anselmo was 81; Austin was 89.
“I was doing a little clinic about Tiger Woods,” Anselmo said, “and I look over and there’s Mike with his wife, Tanya, who was a very beautiful woman and a wonderful person. I went over to say hello, and Mike was in a wheelchair. That was a shock.”
Anselmo didn’t remember much about what was said that afternoon. They hadn’t seen each other in years, and their memories were refracted through the astonishment at what time had done to them. An eye injury had ended Anselmo’s dreams of playing professionally when he was young, and his 60-year career as a teaching pro had been interrupted by colon cancer. But when he was interviewed for this book, he was 89, healthy and in Beijing where he and his son, Dan, had opened an Anselmo Golf Academy similar to ones they operated in Huntington Beach and Irvine.
Austin, once powerful and movie-star handsome, had suffered a stroke in 1988 that left the right side of his body paralyzed. A broken hip from a fall in 2003 had so dispirited him that friends feared he would die. Although somewhat recovered, his hands shook and he drooled from the corner of his mouth, but seeing Anselmo warmed his heart.
“John,” he said, “they haven’t given you enough credit for teaching Tiger.”
Anselmo coached Tiger Woods between the ages of 10 and 20, although his involvement began to decline after he was diagnosed with cancer when Woods was 18.
But Tiger wasn’t Anselmo’s only notable student. Roger Cleveland, an Anselmo student, created Cleveland Golf and then sold it to Rossignol. Scotty Cameron proved more adept at making putters than using them, and his creations are now used by more Tour players than any other. Cameron sold his company to Acushnet, which also owns Titleist and FootJoy.
Kim Saiki, another Anselmo student, won eight times on regional, European and Asian tours and played 16 years on the LPGA Tour. And in 2010, 14-year-old Jim Liu of Smithtown, Long Island, announced himself as the latest Anselmo protege when he surpassed Woods to become the youngest winner of the U.S. Junior Amateur championship.
Anselmo and Austin met in the 1940s and often competed against each other in tournaments at Fox Hills Golf Club, a 36-hole facility in Culver City, and at the Sunset Fields Golf Club in Brentwood.
“We had three big tournaments in those days,” Anselmo said, “the Montebello Open, the Western Avenue Open and the Culver City Open, and a lot of the other pros came out to play in those tournaments to qualify for the Los Angeles Open. Mike and I were paired together a lot because our last names started with the same letter, and a lot of times Willie Barber played with us, too.
“I had gotten to know Mike and understood his emotions, and we got along real well together. He was never quiet during a round, and there were times when we had problems with him. If he missed a short putt, he would rave on and on, and Willie and I would have to calm him. I remember one time he hit a beautiful iron three feet past the hole and missed the putt and, my God, you’d think the whole world came to an end. I was afraid he was going to throw his club and hit someone with it. He was very excitable.”
After playing a casual round one day, Austin and Anselmo were at lunch when Austin commented, “You’re walking your swing.”
“I said, ‘What?’” Anselmo said. “And he said, ‘You’re walking your swing,’ and he gets up and demonstrates. By walking the swing, he meant that you were keeping the spine centered and staying balanced. It’s hard to understand that when you express it in the golf swing, but you don’t sway. You stay in balance. He’s the only one I’ve ever heard say that, and I’ve used it for years in my teaching.”
John Christensen is an author and award-winning freelance writer whose work has appeared in numerous books, magazines, newspapers and websites.