It was in 1985 that Conway native Mike Dunaway announced himself to the world as not only one its most powerful drivers, but possibly golf’s savviest self promoter. On the cover of Golf, the former UCA linebacker stood atop a mound of money and boasted that he would pay anyone who could drive a golf ball farther than he could, that person could take the entire $10,000 beneath his feet.
“One soul stepped up to the tee, was thrashed, and the magazine bested its previous single-issue sales record,” the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Bobby Ampezzan wrote in 2009. That exposure and success propelled Dunaway, who died Monday at age 59 in Rogers, into becoming a one-man marketing hurricane in the niche sport of long driving, in which the act of hitting as much hell out of a ball as is physically possible with a piece of graphite becomes something like science.
“Long driving back then, you kind of got your name out there from folklore,” Dunaway told Ampezzan. “I mean, I’d do exhibitions, and I would hit the ball farther than anybody. But then if I came back in five or six years, to hear people talk about the distance, it would take two shots to match it — with an air cannon! Folklore and bar talk. But that’s all fishing was until they started those $1 million bass tournaments.”
Over the decades, Dunaway penned numerous instructional articles and appeared in videos touting his technique. In the 1990s, he hosted the TV show “Golfing Arkansas” and appeared at events with 1991 PGA champion and fellow Arkansan John Daly. PGA Tour great Greg Norman said of Dunaway: “This is the longest driver in the world,” according to a 1991 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article.
For Dunaway, the notion “Drive for show, putt for dough” did not apply. For years, he used a pure technique honed at the feet of the sport’s Yoda and a powerful 5-11, 245-pound frame to make a living from whacking living daylight out of pebbled sphere. In the early 1990s, he won a $25,000 distance shootout in Texas and $40,000 from the world’s richest long-drive contest in Japan. His longest drive in competition was a 389-yarder in Utah.
Dunaway’s career began in 1976, a year after he injured his back on the first play of his junior season at the University of Central Arkansas. Dunaway hadn’t played golf seriously as a teenager, but after receiving a series of cortisone shots up and down his spine that left his right hip numb for decades, he decided on a less physical outlet for his competitiveness. “I just decided football looks different from a hospital bed,” he told the Democrat-Gazette’s Marty Cook in 1999. The article continues:
After quitting football, Dunaway took up golf. He moved to Las Vegas to reunite with his family, who had moved from Hot Springs after the state “closed it down.” In Las Vegas, Dunaway’s father got him entered as an amateur in a tournament.
At the tournament, Dunaway was clocked by a machine that measured clubhead speed. He broke the unofficial world record on his first try at 131 mph. “I’ve always been able to hit the ball pretty far, just a natural ability,” Dunaway said. “[The machine] was kind of how I got my start. When I lived in Las Vegas, a lot of people got to know me.”
Dunaway used those connections and his gift for promotion when the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas held a tournament for their best customers. Dunaway invited some of the longest drivers he knew and paired the visitors with them in a scramble.
From there, the idea grew into long-drive competitions, and Dunaway was a founding member of the 350 Club, for those people who hit balls 350 yards or more. Back in the 1970s, before the advent of graphite shafts and titanium clubheads, a 350-yard drive was rare.
“During my time, I was as good as anybody,” Dunaway said. “There was not one real dominant guy for a long period of time. There were six or seven guys who could win. I think I can drive the ball, ball for ball combining distance and accuracy, as well as anyone who has ever done it.”
In the early 1990s, Dunaway moved to Rogers, where in 1994 he was elected to the Rogers School Board. He still competed here and there, but by then his most brazen days were behind him. Just last month, the Long Drivers of America honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award. “I’ve had a great life with golf,” Dunaway said in 1999. “Everybody has had their ups and downs but, pretty much for a guy who came from Conway, I’ve got to go around the world meeting a lot of great folks.”
“Dunaway was long driving’s original barnstormer. He was an evangelist for bombing the ball. He traveled the globe with other long hitters in tow. He was the flamboyant leader of golf’s version of the Rat Pack.” – Golf Week writer James Achenbach
Here’s some more praise for Dunaway and his extraordinary ability I found on a site named, appropriately enough, HitItLonger.com:
“Two guys back home can hit it past me – Mike Dunaway and Bobby Wilson.”– John Daly (after winning the PGA Championship)
- “Combines power and accuracy with a driver better than anyone I have ever seen.”
- – Ken Venturi
- “There is no reason to doubt that he is indeed the longest driver in golf.”
- – George Pepper (Editor of Golf Mag.)
- “He is the longest living human on Earth.”
- – Greg Norman
- “He his the longest drive I personally have ever seen. On the 485 par 5 9th hole at Jeremy Ranch, his drive came to rest 15 yards from the green which I was on.”
- – Gary Player
- “He is the longest most accurate power-driver I have ever seen.”
- – Bruce Crampton
- “Mike Dunaway is the purest swing of all the long-drives I have ever seen and he doesn’t use a gimmick club.”
- – Davis Love
- “Mike Dunaway’s presentation of the golf swing on DVD is the best I have ever seen”
- – Tiger Wood’s author, John Andrisani
- “If Iron-Byron breaks down, they can replace it with Mike Dunaway.”
- – Tommy Aaron
- “Mike Dunaway has the best golf swing in the history of long driving.”
- – Art Sellinger, 2 time NLDC president of long drivers of America