"And Ben Hogan says, ‘What distance is it up there?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know the hell. That’s the way we play in Ireland'"

"And Ben Hogan says, ‘What distance is it up there?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know the hell. That’s the way we play in Ireland'"
Liam Higgins picture with the Payne Stewart statue at Waterville last summer. Picture ©  Pat Cashman

Liam Higgins picture with the Payne Stewart statue at Waterville last summer. Picture © Pat Cashman

Paul Casey and Ian Poulter blasted drives measuring nearly 700 yards in Abu Dhabi a few years ago - from the wing of a Boeing 767. But could they have lived with Waterville wonderman Liam Higgins in his prime - a man who impressed even the great Ben Hogan with his hitting prowess?

The English pair took part in a publicity stunt for tournament backers Etihad Airways by hitting balls from a makeshift ‘tee’ set up on the wing of the plane at Abu Dhabi International airport.

Poulter came out on top by a narrow margin - launching one 696 yards down the runway to beat Casey’s mark of 689.

But they’ll never achieve the same fame as Higgins, who once held the world record with an effort of 634 yards using a Spalding Top Flite ball and a Toney Penna persimmon driver at Baldonnel military aerodrome in the 1960s.

As a young professional at Waterville, he was once spotted blasting massive drives by some visiting Americans and asked if he would be interested in travelling to Westchester Country Club to take on the World Long Drive Champion of the time, Dick Parlow.

He was picked up at La Guardia Airport by former heavyweight legend Joe Louis, whose promoter Ray Jacobs had spotted him at Waterville.

But the long-drive contest on Westchester’s 380-yard par-four opening hole ended almost before it began when Higgins’ first effort airmailed the green and plugged.

Parlow immediately threw in the towel and Higgins, now 73, still remembers the day clearly and his meeting with Hogan at Desert Springs the following day.

He recalled: “It was 1968 and Parlow didn't even hit. I had the task to strike first and I knocked it over the back of the green the very first shot and I never hit another one.

“He picked up the bucket of balls he had and left. I got paid my money at that was it. He didn’t drive. He just said: ‘Look, I could drive this green but I can’t take the chance’. He was making so much money out of being the world long driving champion that he couldn't take the chance that he may not have been able to do it.”

Higgins went on to become a successful tour player and has since won three times on the European Seniors Tour.

But he pines for the days when players would go for broke and give the fans something to talk about for years to come.

Modern golf is far to safe for Cork born Higgins, who has had more eagles in his career than most players have had hot breakfasts.

He once had a hole-in one on the 368-yard par-four 16th at Waterville  — now called Liam's Ace — and another on the par-four 11th in a pro-am at Longford.

But one of his greatest memories came on that famous US trip in 1968 when he was a raw 26 year-old with Howitzer-like driving ability.

He recalled: “After the contest at Westchester I played down in Palm Springs with Ben Hogan, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Claude Harmon.

“I remember hitting a big one-iron there that I didn't take any notice of because I was doing this every other day and I didn’t think about it.

“But Hogan was a little bit surprised that I didn’t know the yardage. We didn’t do yardage at that time, in 1968. I just looked at it and hit the iron-iron in to six or eight feet form the stick.

And Hogan says, ‘What distance is it up there?’ and I said: ‘What do you mean, what distance?’. He said, ‘How many yards was that?’

“I said, ‘I don’t know the hell. That’s the way we play in Ireland. We just do it by eye and give it a rip.

“And Hogan said: ‘Well, I’ll tell you. I couldn't hit a shot like that. If I didn’t know the yardage I wouldn't know what I should do’.

“He was a bit surprised but I wasn't. That was just the way we played at that time. You did it like Christy O’Connor Snr is still doing it. And I still do it now on the Seniors Tour. I buy the yardage chart but most times I don't look at it any more. I just want to get up there and hit it and go.

“Hogan was an incredible man to play with. The only thing he could do was putt. He couldn’t putt from four or five feet inside. He wasn’t able to take the putter through. He was a little bit jiggy at that time. It was the end of his time but he was still a great player.

“I was hitting seven or eight irons for my second shots and he was hitting four irons and three woods but he was still inside me every time.”

Higgins used a 100 compression Spalding golf ball to set his world long driving record and a big headed Toney Penna persimmon driver he believes set the trend for the big headed drivers that have become so popular today.

He added: “The club is still hanging in a glass case in the shop here at Waterville. That was when the big head came into play.

“It was a massive sized head at a time when the big head wasn’t used. I set that world record and then the big head came on the market and it has been there since.

“In those days I was travelling around the world with Jack Mulcahy who owned Waterville at the time. I went to several places where people were trying to break my record. The record was 540 yards before I broke it.

“The very first shot I hit I shot it 580 or 590 and then I broke my own record with 634 yards so I stopped then. But I still hit it a good distance,  over 300 yards all the time on the senior tour now.”

Higgins wants to see more big hitting antics on the professional tours where there is far too much laying up and safe play on our TV screens.

He complained: “The golf courses have changed so much they are target golf courses now. I feel disappointed.

“They can all hit it over 300 yards but they hit three irons and four irons on par fours. It is no mechanically minded to what we used to play. It is not the same.

“The only people who are keeping golf going are people like Tiger and John Daly and Vijay Singh and theses guys.

“I remember players like Jack Newton, who used to hammer the ball and really he was one of the best players of my lifetime.

“That guy hit it so straight and so far, every time he went to a golf course he had half the country with him.

“Bringing back the thinking man, as Paul McGinley says, takes the excitement out of it. When John Daly came over to play Mount Juliet he was slashing his ball over trees and houses and everything else.

“The whole country was talking about it for months and months and months afterwards. Fans don’t talk about the man who is putting it into position and just knocking it down the fairway a little bit. They won’t talk about him for a long time.

“In my time people would come out at watch. Maybe I didn’t score or think as well as all the top players but every time I saw an opening I went at it.

“People may have e heard that I drove a certain green one day and they would be waiting there the next day to see if I could do it again. Now it has gone very timid now.”

Higgins is determined to shoot his age on tour this year, although he once shot a 12 under par 60 in an event at Little Island in Cork in 1962.

“It was a par 72 and on the very same day the eighth hole was 400 yards and I pitched it in the middle of the green from the tee. We were using the small ball at the time.

“They talk about the distance they hit it now, but that was a long time ago. That was in 1960. I was only every young at the time. I pitched it in the middle of the green and the few people round the green couldn’t believe where the ball had come from.”

If you get out on the course this weekend, take a leaf out of Higgins’ book and give it a rip.