Johnson City Press: Long drive competition coming back Aug. 10-12
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Long drive competition coming back Aug. 10-12

Jeff Birchfield • Updated Jun 23, 2019 at 1:01 AM

KINGSPORT — In only its second year on the World Long Drive schedule, the Tennessee Big Shots benefiting Niswonger Children’s Hospital already has a sterling reputation.

The three-day event, featuring 54 of the top men’s players and 18 of the top women’s players, will be held Aug. 10-12 at Cattails at MeadowView. The final rounds on Monday, Aug. 12 will be broadcast live on Golf Channel.

Players and organizers are looking to build off the huge success of the inaugural tournament, held in front of a standing-room-only crowd.

“I’ve been in the sport eight years and this is the most professional golf tournament on the circuit,” World Long Drive competitor Trent Scruggs said during Saturday’s kickoff for the event. “When the hitters show up, we’re treated like professionals and we feel like professionals.

“It’s a great place to come and perform and to benefit the hospital, it’s the biggest thing that’s happened in World Drive. A lot of money is raised for those kids.”

Proceeds benefit Niswonger Children’s Hospital, which serves more than 200,000 children from 29 counties in the Mountain Empire region, including Northeast Tennessee, Western North Carolina, Southwest Virginia and Southeast Kentucky.

The players see the impact of the hospital and the interest from the community. For Scruggs, it gives the Kingsport event a different atmosphere than most Long Drive tournaments.

“I think the only thing you can compare it to are the world championships,” said Scruggs, of Hickory, North Carolina. “There are other great tournaments, but this one has a different feel to it. All the hitters are excited to come up here. I don’t care if I finish last or first, I have the same attitude.”

Obviously, he would prefer to finish first.

The 2018 final came down to Florida golfers Justin James and Kyle Berkshire. James hit a 396-yard blast to edge Berkshire, whose best ball went 393 yards.

On the women’s side, Emily Tubert of Burbank, California, defeated Johnson City’s Chloe Gardner in the semifinals. Tubert, an LPGA competitor, hit a 322-yard drive on the fifth ball of her set to defeat Alexis Belton of Ruston, Louisiana, in the final.

Scruggs said the Long Drive competition is often compared to a home run derby in baseball and it’s no accident some former baseball players are among the best long ball hitters. The extra day added to this year’s tournament, however, could add more wear and tear on the golfers’ bodies.

“You can get in a bad funk real quick swinging as hard as you can,” Scruggs said. “You start pulling muscles and it’s hard to stay healthy for three days. You just have to get in there and win one. I would love to win this tournament.”

GOLF AND NISWONGER

The Tennessee Big Shots is part of the Niswonger Children’s Hospital Classic. It also features a world-class pro-am scramble that brings 24 of the PGA, LPGA, PGA Champions and Web.com tour players to The Olde Farm Golf Club and The Virginian in Bristol.

Golf has been a leading fundraiser for the children’s hospital for several years.

“From when we had celebrities coming like Peyton Manning, Dan Marino and Jason Witten, they helped create a unique experience we couldn’t offer anywhere else,” said Mike Hammontree, director of Niswonger Children’s Hospital Classic at Ballad Health. “To bring in PGA Tour pros and have so many wonderful donors commit so much money and time, it really has become something trademarked with Niswonger Children’s Hospital.”

It helps that the company has distinct ties to the links.

Hammontree is a former golfer and baseball player at UNC Greensboro, and Niswonger Children’s Hospital CEO Lisa Carter is a former state champion golfer at Happy Valley.

The huge interest in the Tennessee Big Shots competition caught organizers a little off guard last year.

“We were blown away by how much the region loved it and came out to it,” Hammontree said. “We knew we wouldn’t have a problem filling the 500 seats, but I didn’t think we would have 2,000 people lining the walkway and cramming in there any way they could. It was amazing to see and heartwarming to see the support for the sport and Niswonger Children’s Hospital.”

As a result of that response, grandstands are going to be added and there will be a festival area added at the end of the grid to accommodate crowds and add to the fans’ experience.

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