SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — It’s not unusual for one of Geoff Ogilvy’s practice sessions at Whisper Rock Golf Club to be interrupted by a sound akin to a lightning bolt splitting a tree. He might stop what he’s doing, but he won’t run for cover. The only freak of nature that regularly pounds the range here is Jamie Sadlowski, a whippet-thin Canadian whose power can turn the major winners in his midst into wide-eyed fans.
“His ball-striking is incredible, not only the distance but how well he hits it,” said Ogilvy, the 2006 United States Open champion. He added, “It’s Dustin Johnson-, Rory McIlroy-level talent the way he strikes it.”
The comparisons end there. Sadlowski, 29, a two-time long-drive champion who once launched a shot 445 yards, has played fewer competitive rounds in his life than the top-ranked Johnson has logged this season. Ranked 1,967th in the world, Sadlowski has a long way to go to catch Johnson and McIlroy, who between them own five major titles and have spent a combined 120 weeks at the top of the rankings.
Surely, a golfer who drives the ball longer than anybody else is teed up beautifully to compete on the Tour, right?
Think again. Any weekend duffer will tell you that one of the most frustrating aspects of golf is converting length into low scores. That is the challenge facing Sadlowski: to turn his lightning-strike drives into consistent birdies, enough to become an everyday touring pro. It’s a butterfly dream in which no previous golf-ball bomber has emerged from the chrysalis stage.
Sadlowski’s metamorphosis continued apace in May when he made his PGA Tour debut at the Dean & Deluca Invitational in Fort Worth, Tex. His first shot traveled 365 yards, effectively wiping the frown from Colonial Country Club’s 565-yard downturned mouth of a first hole.
If hitting it long and straight off the tee was the winning combination for a touring pro, Sadlowski’s potential would have been unlocked then. Playing in a group with Kevin Tway and Brandon Hagy, both among the top eight on the tour in driving, Sadlowski routinely outhit both, even when he had a 2 iron in his hands and they had 3 woods.
But he struggled with his feel around the greens and his club selection in windy conditions. In 36 holes, Sadlowski would post six birdies — but also nine bogeys, a double and a quadruple bogey 7 for a 10-over total.
“I’m comfortable enough now I just get up there and I see the shot and hit the shot,” Sadlowski said in May.
Before his transformation, Sadlowski’s only concern was crushing the tee shot. In long-drive competitions, competitors have six attempts to put one ball in play on a football-like grid, and they do not have to find the ball and hit it again. The transition that Sadlowski is trying to make, from one-hit superstar to consistent scorer, is so unusual that those in golf had a hard time coming up with a comparison.
Jordan Spieth, a three-time major winner, likened it to a home-run slugger morphing into a singles hitter; Ogilvy said it is like Usain Bolt turning his attention from the sprints to the marathon; Kostis related it to the Olympic sprint champion Bob Hayes, who turned himself into a N.F.L. receiver with the Dallas Cowboys.
“It’s a whole different sport,” Kostis said recently between assignments for his other job as a CBS golf analyst and on-course reporter. “I can get him to strike the ball quite nicely. There’s more to being a PGA Tour player than hitting long and straight. He’s 15 years behind in playing experience. I’ve got to figure out how to help him accelerate that learning process.”
Sadlowski has a couple advantages over others who have tried to make the transition. At 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds, he is wiry, with a graceful swing. He takes full advantage of the unusual flexibility he possesses in his wrists and shoulders to generate a peak 148 mile-per-hour club speed (30 m.p.h. more than Tiger Woods averaged in 2013, when he won five Tour events).
Because Sadlowski did not grow up playing golf competitively, his learning process includes calculations – like how to read the wind when the tops of the trees are swaying one way, the water in a hazard is rippling the other way and the pin flag is not moving – that are second nature to those his age who came up through the junior ranks.
Neither history nor time is on his side. Sadlowski, who had a birthday last month, is older than five of the players ranked in the men’s top 10.
“If anyone can do it, Jamie can,” Ogilvy said, adding, “Physically, the tools are there and mentally, the tools are probably there, too. It’s a thousand-piece puzzle and he’s got 200 pieces put in.”
Sadlowski grew up in St. Paul, Alberta, and the cornerstone of his childhood was hockey. He spent three years as a defenseman on the Bonnyville Pontiacs of the Alberta Junior Hockey League and was known for his shot from the point on the power play.
“The aim wasn’t always good, but it was going to get shot hard,” Sadlowski said.
The balance, footwork and hip rotation through impact on a slap shot and a golf shot are similar, so it perhaps is not surprising that Sadlowski made a seamless transition to golf in the summers. He was a recreational player in his late teens, squeezing in 18-hole rounds around his job picking up roadkill. He accompanied a friend to a long-driving contest in 2003, and upon finding out there was a junior division, he entered on a lark. In 2005, he won the first of consecutive junior world titles. Three years later, he won the first of two consecutive open titles.
For more than a decade, Sadlowski earned upward of half-a-million dollars a year to launch 400-plus yard drives in competitions and 300-yard drives using his putter in roughly 600 exhibitions.
His manager, Art Sellinger, a former long-drive competitor, was insistent that Sadlowski possessed the skill set to become a touring pro. But it was a hard sell. Practicing alongside the likes of Ogilvy was a sobering exercise for Sadlowski, who said, “I know how good these guys are.”
Plus, he had found his niche. “When you’re so good at something, it’s hard to walk away,” he said. “You’re one of the best and it’s been that way for 10 years.”
Last summer, Sadlowski realized it was time for a new challenge. The decision, a few years in the making, to leave his long-drive comfort zone was motivated by the feeling that he had become a trained seal performing on command.
“Deep down I felt like I could be doing much more,” he said.
The roster of long-drive winners since 1975 does include two PGA Tour winners, Lon Hinkle and Dennis Paulson. But unlike Sadlowski, they came from tournament golf backgrounds. Hinkle was a multiple champion on the Tour when he emerged victorious in the 1981 long-drive competition. Paulson won four years later as an amateur in what he described as a fun diversion from his full-throttle pursuit of his Tour membership.
From 2011 to 2016, Sadlowski made three cuts in four starts on the Web.com Tour, a level below the PGA Tour, and his path became clear. Last summer, he put away the driver with the extra-long shaft and lower loft that he used in long-drive competitions and committed the next three years to the pursuit of his PGA Tour playing privileges.
Sellinger recalled a recent conversation with Bob Tway, a major winner and the father of Kevin Tway, one of Sadlowski’s playing competitors in his PGA Tour debut.
“He flat-out said if it wasn’t for the fact that Jamie has all this raw talent, trying this would be a very serious waste of time,” Sellinger said. “If we can refine that talent, hone those skills and get the learning curve to speed up quickly, then there’s a chance.”
Under Kostis’s tutelage, Sadlowski has made his swing shorter and more balanced. Navigating courses and conditions is a skill that Sadlowski has to learn himself. At Kostis’s urging, Sadlowski will play at least nine holes after he is done with his lengthy range sessions.
“Just go hit golf shots,” Sadlowski said, “and if I hit an awful one, try to figure out what happened and hit it again and learn that way.”
He is inspired by the success of Wesley Bryan, who had a background in tournament golf but until recently was more famous for his trick shot exhibitions. Last season Bryan won three times on the Web.com Tour, and he earned his first PGA Tour title in April.
“It’s there, it can happen,” Sadlowski said. “People say, ‘Hit with the putter’ and I’m like, ‘I’m so over that.’ I just want to be a normal guy that shows up at the golf course and tries to win a golf tournament.”