‘Super-unicorn’ Kyle Berkshire is dominating long drive like few before him
Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, and it’s clear who holds that honor in long drive these days.
“I’ve definitely been feeling the weight of the world on me,” Kyle Berkshire said.
It was Monday morning, and Berkshire was calling from his car as he motored north from Georgia to his home in Maryland, fresh off the latest headline feat in his young and storied long-drive career. Only days before, Berkshire, who turns 27 next month, had turned up in Atlanta to prepare for the 2023 World Long Drive Championship, suffering from mild discomfort. This was partly due to a slightly strained oblique muscle on his right side. But it was also brought on by Berkshire’s sense that he had a target on his back.
“It’s the tall poppy syndrome,” Berkshire said. “When you get to the top of your sport, it’s only natural that guys are going to be gunning for you. Everyone wants to bounce you from the tournament, and that was very much the case this week.”
After a nervy start in which he missed the grid with several of his opening shots at Bobby Jones Golf Course, Berkshire settled in over the weekend to beat back a field that featured a Murderer’s Row of past world champions, including 2017 winner Justin James and defending titleholder Martin Borgmeier. The win gave Berkshire his third world championship in five years and thrust him into rarefied company; only two other competitors in the history of long drive — Sean Fister and Jason Zuback — have claimed its biggest event at least three times.
“I wouldn’t dream of calling myself the best ever,” Berkshire said. “But if we’re talking about the top three, I think that I belong in that conversation.”
As Berkshire sees it, the GOAT remains Zuback, the five-time world champ who reeled off four consecutive titles from 1996-99, and who returns Berkshire’s compliment with kudos of his own.
“Every sport has unicorns, whether it’s Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky or Tiger Woods,” Zuback said in a telephone interview Monday. “Kyle is what I think of as a super-unicorn. The combination of his natural ability and his work ethic are a perfect storm.”
In recent years, the force of that storm, which has generated the longest drive ever recorded and ball speeds north of 230 miles per hour, has, Zuback said, accelerated a sea change in the sport.
“(Kyle) just keeps putting the hammer down with velocity,” Zuback said. “He has pushed a whole new generation of long drivers into a speed race.”
WITH HIS SAMPSON HAIRDO AND STRAPPING PHYSIQUE, Berkshire looks like a man who was born for the gladiatorial trappings of long drive. In fact, he got his start with plain-old golf. An accomplished junior player in Maryland, he went on to compete collegiately at the University of North Texas before transferring to the University of Central Florida.
Berkshire the long driver began his career in 2017, when he entered his first official big-bombing event. But Berkshire the brand didn’t start taking shape into the following spring, during his junior year at North Texas, when he went to a barbershop in advance of the first televised long-drive tournament of 2018.
When the barber didn’t show, Berkshire left without a haircut.
“So my hair is a little long for the competition, and one of the TV commentators mentions it,” Berkshire said. “At that point, I figured I should just keep growing it.”
If they weren’t a part of his public image now, Berkshire said he’d probably cut his locks. They’re a hassle, really, often whipping in his face when he swings. In windy conditions, he tucks his hair into the back of his shirt.
“I can’t pile all of it on top of my head,” Berkshire said. “It’s too heavy.”
Not that bad hair days are his biggest hurdle. The chief challenges of long drive are the physical demands and the mental strains. Like his buddy, Bryson DeChambeau, Berkshire speaks of health and wellness in scientific terms, and attends to both in granular detail. One metric that looms large for him is “cumulative fatigue” (a combination of psychological and physiological exhaustion), which he strives to minimize through everything from tapered workouts to nighttime relaxation techniques.
Another biggie is sleep hygiene. No sugar or caffeine within seven hours of bedtime; a soothing red-light backdrop on his iPhone in the evening (“It’s a warm color that doesn’t stimulate my adrenal glands”); and highly selective choices in accommodation. When he’s on the road, Berkshire calls around to hotels before settling on the one with mattresses and bedding that suit him best.
“Five years ago, I’d show up for competitions on two hours sleep,” Berkshire said. “You can’t do that and expect to perform your best.”
Last week in Atlanta, he clocked eight-plus hours of shuteye every night.
“The last real low-hanging fruit I’m thinking of going for to improve my sleep would be deviated septum surgery,” Berkshire said of a procedure that DeChambeau had last year.
As golf fans might remember, the Berkshire-Bryson bromance blossomed into public view in 2022, when the latter made a needle-moving appearance at the World Long Drive Championship.
The two still speak regularly, sharing experiences, swapping insights, with Berkshire sharing long-drive tips and DeChambeau weighing in on what it might take for his pal to earn his Tour card.
On that front, Berkshire has no illusions — or ambitions — though, if the stars aligned, he would entertain a sponsor’s exemption to a PGA Tour event. In 2020, Berkshire was offered a slot in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, but the timing wasn’t right; his full game was too rusty. Anyway, he said, a better fit for him would be the Farmers Insurance Open, at Torrey Pines, a course where he could let the big dog eat.
“The greatest thing about the PGA Tour is the qualification process,” Berkshire said. “It’s rigorous. There aren’t any flukes. You aren’t not going to just catch lightning in the bottle. But at Torrey, if you can fly it 340, there are all kinds of advantages. If I got my game in shape and my putter got hot, maybe I have a chance at the weekend.”
OR MAYBE NOT. Either way, his focus lies squarely on long drive. Though Baltimore is home, when the cold weather hits, Berkshire decamps for Florida, where his schedule is thick with workouts, exhibitions and other professional obligations. Last month, Berkshire, who already had his own YouTube channel, launched another: The Bombers Club, a platform devoted to all things related to his high-octane sport. On a recent West Coast swing, Berkshire filmed an episode with PGA Championship sensation Michael Block before stopping in Wyoming for what was intended as a viral stunt: with the cameras on him, Berkshire smashed a drive of 579.63 yards, the longest ever recorded. In the video, the exuberant shouts from Berkshire’s production crew call to mind the cheers of NASA engineers at a launch.
The buzz generated by that blast intensified the chatter around Berkshire in the run-up to the last week’s world championship, which only added to the pressure.
“Hitting that record was nice,” Berkshire said. “But for the tournament, it really only made things tougher on the mental side.”
Tall poppy syndrome was in full flower. Berkshire said that he has sensed it off and on since he rose to the top ranking in his sport: resentment. He has no doubt that some of his peers harbor it toward him
“It’s human nature,” Berkshire said. “But when I sense any tension, the first thing I do is approach that other person for a conversation and the tension just melts away as you gain an understanding of each other. It’s amazing what a good talk can do.”
Berkshire’s run into the finals in Atlanta was a reminder of how much needs to go right for a player to win a tournament, and, even in a sport that celebrates big distances, how narrow the margins of victory can be. In the quarterfinals, Berkshire knocked his first five drive out-of-bounds before edging Justin James with his sixth and final ball. In the finals, Berkshire’s best effort of 398 yards nipped Sean Johnson’s best shot by a yard — a modest difference but enough for a win that further separated Berkshire from his peers.
“My mindset was that if I hit the ball as I can hit it, I would have the edge,” Berkshire said. “You’ve got to swing with that thought, and then expect the results.”
It was early in his trip, with hours to go before he got to Baltimore, and Berkshire sounded relieved and ready for some rest. His next long-drive tournament isn’t until March, when he’ll return to the grid with his hair below his shoulders and a target on his back.