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Medford man has a crush on golf

In local golf circles, he's James -- the golf ball crusher -- Lewis.

The bad boy among long drivers in Southern Oregon.

Lewis, 32, lives in Medford. His calling card: Driving golf balls between 350 and 400 yards. Consistently. And spectacularly, with incredibly high ball flight.

Outwardly, Lewis seems a humble guy. But when he blasts a golf ball seemingly into the stratosphere -- so far that you lose sight of it coming down -- he seems anything but humble.

Don't make me sound arrogant, he said. I'm really pretty normal. My priorities are family and faith.

But when he steps up to the tee and spreads his large legs -- which look like fir trees -- people notice.

When he flexes and coils his 6-foot-7, 275-pound body, he creates his own gust of wind when he swings his 50-inch driver. The wind gust is caused by a swing speed of up to 155 miles per hour. His smooth swing speed: only about 148.

Only? Are you kidding me? This guy swings harder than John Daly.

When I first heard of this ball-striking monster, I was reluctant to believe.

Show me, I said.

He did. It took about 10 minutes and 15 drives on the driving range at Stewart Meadows Golf Course for me to become a believer.

First, I saw Lewis launch a pitching wedge 175 yards. In warmups.

Then, he smacked a 5-iron 270 yards.

Then, he flew his Zero Tolerance driver, complete with 50-inch double-extra-stiff Penley shaft, over the fence.

That's 320 yards of carry, considering the 30-foot screen the ball must fly over.

I'll bet you can't do it again, I said, still in denial about what I had just seen.

After about 10 balls sailed out of the range, I said, That's enough. I'm a believer. Don't break the club.

Lewis will host the Northwest Regional finals of the Remax World Long Drive Championships Sunday at StoneRidge Golf Course. He says he won't enter the competition because he's the official director and host of the tournament.

But he says he's tempted to enter, just to test his mettle and his big swing with the pressure on.

In the event, amateurs are invited to enter along with professionals. Any amateur can enter. Man or woman, but there's only one division.

Professionals will be playing to advance to the district finals. The ultimate world champion will win $75,000.

Lewis will automatically advance to the district finals of the world tournament as the host of the event at StoneRidge. The contest runs from — to 8 p.m. on the first tee.

Local golfers are encouraged to tee it up Sunday with the big boys. You must officially declare as a professional to be eligible for the $75,000 check, which will go to the world champion.

But with Lewis and his elite group of fellow-long drivers around, it's probably best to enter as an amateur. Unless you can pound a golf ball over 400 yards with some kind of consistency.

All entrants will get six balls to hit for $30. You may enter as many times as you wish.

All drivers must put their shots within a 40-yard-wide grid down the middle of the first fairway at StoneRidge. Lewis, a former Hidden Valley High javelin thrower and Class 3A state runner-up, has only been playing golf for nine years. He says he plays to a 10-handicap.

He once drove a golf ball 423 yards on the par-5, ninth hole at StoneRidge.

It was his third 400-yard-plus drive in nine holes.

He says he's caved in the faces of many a driver with his menacing swing. He's also put dimples on the faces of his drivers.

Stewart Meadows sponsors Lewis' long-drive practice at its driving range. When he shows up, heads turn. Crowds gather to watch the show.

People seem to like to watch, he says. I don't mind. Actually, it pumps me up.

I'll hit one and hear a guy say, `Gosh, did you see that one.' But I like it.

Josh Loy, who works at the Stewart Meadows driving range, says the burly Lewis has become a legend.

When he shows up, it's a circus, says Loy. He's his own show.

One day, I was fixing holes in the net behind the range, says Loy. Suddenly, golf balls started landing in the tree branches behind me. At first I thought they were rocks, but then I saw the white balls bouncing on the ground. I looked to the tee area and I saw James was on the range hitting.

I scattered out of there, says Loy. I decided I'd better find something else to do. It was dangerous to be there.

As good as Lewis is off the tee, he says he's almost as bad around the greens. The big guy can hit it long, but he can't putt, says Lewis.

But when you hit a ball like he does, who cares?

It's fun to see the ball disappear into the distance, says Lewis. I told my coach (Mark Laurence) I can't see it come down. He said, `No wonder, James. You're hitting it a quarter of a mile.'

Randy Hammericksen is the Mail Tribune's golf columnist. He can be reached at 776-4499.