Berkshire wants long drive career to go the distance

azielonka@baltsun.com

Kyle Berkshire capped off his rookie season on the World Long Drive Association tour by making a serious run at winning its premier title.

Berkshire, a Crofton native and Archbishop Spalding graduate, advanced to the semifinals at the Volvik World Long Drive Championship this week at the WinStar World Casino & Resort in Thackerville, Oklahoma, before being eliminated from the final four.

The final several rounds for the Open Division and Women’s Division were broadcast live on the Golf Channel Tuesday and Wednesday.

Berkshire qualified for the championship when he won his debut long drive event in March, the Endless Summer Invitational in California. He entered the week ranked 29th on the tour. From a championship field of 96, Berkshire advanced to the round of 64 and began winning matches head-to-head with some of the highest-ranked players in the world. He sent Jeff Gavin (ranked 23rd) and Justin James (third) to the loser’s bracket; James came back and won the Open Division title Wednesday night.

“That sent some shockwaves through the field because he was a pretty consensus pick to win it all,” Berkshire said. “And it turned out pretty prophetic, but when I beat him in the Round of 32, I think everybody realized I could win this because I just kept playing well.”

Berkshire went on to beat Kevin Shook (14th) in the round of 16 and Tim Burke (fifth) in the quarterfinals. The 20-year-old was the youngest participant to make the round of 16.

In the head-to-head rounds, players alternated hitting two sets of four drives, and the longest individual drive to land in-bounds in a 53-yard-wide grid won the match. When Berkshire faced Burke Wednesday night, he recorded a 414-yard drive early but hit his final five shots out of bounds, with the last two rolling out of bounds on the left side. In Burke’s final four-set shot, he mashed a drive longer than 430 yards, but that too rolled out of bounds. He only managed a 411-yarder in bounds, and Berkshire stayed safe.

Berkshire was eliminated after his semifinal match with Mitch Grassing. Grassing hit the last shot of his first set 437, which put the pressure on Berkshire, whose only drive in bounds to that point was 406. Following Grassing, he pounded his first shot 433 yards, and managed a 420-yarder on his final ball, but that wasn’t enough.

Berkshire said his biggest issue during the tournament was keeping too much spin on his drives.

“That spin caused the roll-out to not be what it needed to be to win, at that launch angle,” he said. “So if I launched it higher, carried it more with less spin, it would have carried further with a similar release.”

Though he said he needs to give his body time to recuperate now that the season has ended, he also will have time during the offseason to work on spin control. Berkshire also wants to up his swing speed to around 152 mph and his ball speed to around 226 mph. (His ball speed reached as high as 220 mph Wednesday night during competition.)

Though a collegiate career and a run at the PGA Tour looked like they were still in the picture last spring, now Berkshire is all in on the sport he once called “golf with a football flavor.”

“I am focusing 100 percent on World Long Drive, given the fact that it's showing explosive growth,” he said, “and I’m achieving everything I wanted to achieve (in terms of fame) through long drive anyway.”

Berkshire enrolled at the University of North Texas after high school with plans to play on its golf team, but now he has transferred to the University of Central Florida. Its Orlando location was important because of its proximity to Golf Channel’s studios; Berkshire said he will make occasional appearances on the network in the future.

As another part of his whirlwind rookie campaign, Berkshire signed sponsorship deals with Volvik golf balls, Tornado Tees and Krank drivers, but they expire at the end of the year and will require re-negotiation.

People have come up to Berkshire at the Oklahoma casino that hosted the championship to congratulate him on a job well done, and he’s started to gather a fan base, according to his recent spike in Instagram followers. With a strong performance on long drive’s biggest stage in his pocket, and a path forward that’s clearer than ever, Berkshire has one goal in mind.

“It’s nice to go pretty far here, but my only goal is to win the belt at this point,” he said. “That’s really my goal next year and I think that’s all I care about, at this point, is winning the belt. That’s really where I am.”

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