- The Washington Times - Friday, December 22, 2000

Long before Tiger and titanium, golf had a Goliath.

Decades before John Daly awed the masses with his "grip it and rip it" routine, fans were fawning over another long-knocking sensation.

Before Hale Irwin became the poster child for the gridiron-to-golf transition, the PGA Tour had Giant George Bayer.

"Big George could knock the living snot out of the ball," Sam Snead recalls. "Everybody talks about how far Jack [Nicklaus] used to hit it and how far Daly and Tiger hit the ball now, but Bayer was definitely much longer than any of those guys. I once saw Bayer drive a ball through the green on a 430-yard hole, and that was 40 years ago before the age of metal woods, graphite shafts and the modern golf ball. If he was out there with today's equipment, I bet he'd average near 350 yards off the tee.

"He was such a big man, well over 6 feet [6-5] and pushing 250. And it was all muscle left over from his football days. There still aren't guys that big in that kind of shape on Tour."

Bayer, now 75, was the Tour's resident prince of poke from 1955 to 1965, winning countless long-drive contests and four events. But golf was basically an afterthought career for Bayer, who grew up in Bremerton, Wash., caddying on weekends and dreaming of playing pro football.

After a stint in the military, Bayer attended the University of Washington on a football scholarship, the guard's considerable stature (officially 6-5, 245) earning him an invitation to the East-West Shrine Game after his senior season. And unlike Irwin, who later gained acclaim as a two-time All-Big Eight defensive back at Colorado (1967, '68), Bayer was considered a legitimate pro football prospect. His lifelong aspiration briefly became a reality when the Redskins selected him with the 252nd pick of the 1950 draft.

"It was certainly an interesting experience," Bayer says of his brief run with the Redskins. "Let's just say it was a whole lot different than it is now. Everybody played both ways you had to because we only had 25 players on the team. There wasn't much money in it, but there were a lot more characters. I remember all those guys Sammy Baugh, Harry Gilmer, Paul Lipscomb.

"But mostly I remember how much we stunk [3-9 in 1950, with eight straight losses] and how we used to always laugh about Charlie "Choo-Choo" Justice."

Justice, a halfback from North Carolina who led the Redskins in rushing in 1953, had the misfortune of being a college contemporary of SMU legend Doak Walker, a fact that manifested itself in Justice being the only player ever to finish as Heisman Trophy runner-up twice.

"Justice was a rookie in '50, too," Bayer says. "We used to tease him because he wasn't that fast, although if you read the papers you might have thought so. This guy was so slow that most of the lineman could outrun him in a sprint. But he was so evasive it was unreal. You just couldn't get a clean shot on him."

But a few anecdotes were all pro football ever provided for Bayer. Immediately after drafting him, the Redskins moved him to tackle behind Lipscomb, an All-Pro. Though no record of his efforts appears after the preseason media guide, Bayer claims he played sparingly in eight games as a rookie before quitting, his rancorous relationship with owner George Preston Marshall driving him from football.

"I agreed to disagree with George Preston Marshall," Bayer says with a chuckle, pausing for a moment of reflection before comparing Marshall with Washington's current owner. "You know this guy [Dan] Snyder he's nothing new to the business. Marshall would come out of the stands and make substitutions. That was just ridiculous. Herman Ball was the coach, but the guy couldn't take a leak without Marshall looking over his shoulder. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't some petulant superstar squabbling with management; I don't think I would have made it even if we had an owner with a third of a brain."

After leaving the Redskins, Bayer moved to Los Angeles and became a car salesman. He hadn't played a round of golf for nearly four years. And if not for the braggadocio of two colleagues at the dealership, he might never have found his calling as a ball-crushing colossus.

"I went out and beat these guys just to shut them up," Bayer says. "That kind of got me started playing again."

In 1953, Bayer got the biggest break of his golfing career when he was paired with Bob Hope at an amateur tournament at Lake Tahoe. Hope was charmed by both Bayer's wit and the prodigious length of his drives, and a week later he invited Bayer to join him for a round at prestigious Lakewood Country Club.

"I come home after shooting 65 in the first round of this local tournament. I'm leading by four strokes, and I get a call from Hope's leg man," Bayer says. "He says, 'Mr. Hope would like you to meet him at Lakeside Country Club tomorrow for a tee time with him, Danny Kaye, Harry "Lighthorse" Cooper and [Supreme Court] Justice Hugo Black.'

"I told him to tell Mr. Hope that I was leading this golf tournament, and he told me that playing with Mr. Hope at Lakeside would do far more for my career than winning some dink tournament."

So Bayer withdrew from the tournament and played with Hope and his high-powered cronies at Lakewood, shooting 67. Hope was so astounded when Bayer flew his second shot over the green of Lakewood's fourth hole, a 575-yard par-5, that he invited him to join him that fall at the 1953 National Celebrities Tournament at Rockville's Woodmont Country Club.

"That pretty much started it all," Bayer said. "Hope introduced me to the MacGregor people, and I turned pro in January of 1954."

Over the next decade, Bayer became one of the Tour's first cult heroes. He was the circuit's ultimate sideshow, golf's sultan of swat.

Bayer could "easily carry the ball 300 yards." By all reports, he was at least 30 yards longer off the tee than Mike Souchak, the next longest hitter of his era. Giant George attributes his startling power to the combination of his size, long and free-flowing swing (20 degrees past parallel) and massive hands. He could palm a basketball using only his thumb and pinky.

Bayer delivered such a titanic blow to his MacGregor Tourney golf balls that he routinely knocked them out of round, giving rise to one of the game's most unusual accouterments.

"They were awful balls, inconsistent and soft, but MacGregor was paying me well enough that I had to use them," says Bayer. "Anyway, I used to carry around this iron ring and check the balls after every couple of holes. That ball was so mushy that I could hit the driver maybe three times before that ball wouldn't even go through the ring. I'd go through like six dozen every two weeks."

Although no official records were kept for driving distance or any comparable statistic during Bayer's playing days, his feats are mentioned in the occasional newspaper clipping.

In the 1957 Canadian Open, Bayer apparently missed just one fairway over four rounds and never needed more than a 9-iron for any par-4 approach en route to his first victory as a professional.

Ron Green Sr., a longtime golf columnist for the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer and the author of "I Remember Augusta," recalls one of Bayer's bombs at the 1958 Masters. In the second round, "Bayer wedged his second-shot into the 485-yard, par-5, 13th hole from just 94 yards only to three-putt for par."

At the 1960 Masters, his winning blast in the long-drive contest measured 361 yards. That same year, the Augusta Chronicle also mentioned that Bayer and playing partner Jack Fleck were so disgruntled by the pace of play during the week that they set a Masters speed record that still stands, playing the event's final round in 1:52.

In July 1964, the Arkansas Gazette references a charity event at Little Rock's Ellis Park Golf Course in which "Giant George Bayer" drove three par-4s and carded a course-record 67 to best Julius Boros by two shots.

What does Bayer remember as his coup de distance?

"The longest drive I ever hit was on this course in Australia. It was on this 586-yard, par-5 up a hill and then down again. The hill crested some 315 or so yards from the tee box, such that if you flew it, the ball would roll forever. It was hard and there was a little breeze behind us, and I busted one. I flew the hill, and my ball ended up about 25 yards short of the green."

That's 561 yards of tee ball. Chase that one, Tiger.

Alas, Giant George was never much of a showman with the short stick. Bayer admits he "wasn't a particularly adept putter." Others, like Snead, have a less subtle take on Bayer's ability with the blade, suggesting that he had less touch than a baboon wearing boxing gloves.

Thanks to that futility with the flatstick, Bayer made just $188,868 in his 11 years on Tour. And unlike Daly, Bayer was not fortunate enough to have two of his four magic victory weeks coincide with the majors, his three wins after the Canadian Open coming in now-defunct events (1958 Havana Invitational, 1958 Mayfair Inn Open and 1960 St. Petersburg Open).

But Bayer milked his mind-blowing talents with the driver (a steel-shafted MacGregor 985) into a solid living in exhibition and appearance fees after retiring from the regular Tour in 1965. And he added a few semi-lucrative years on the Senior Tour before his hips and knees betrayed him in the late '80s. He's fully retired now, living with his wife of 30 years, Mary Ann, in Palm Desert, Calif.

"I don't play too often now, and the old power is a thing of the past," says Bayer. "But occasionally I'll run into someone who wants to talk about those days, and it's nice to remember that I could give it a pretty good ride."

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