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Brandon has the drive to succeed

Lee Brandon has the world in a bear hug and isn't about to let go.

This is both remarkable and understandable, given she nearly lost life and limb - her left arm, to be exact - at the age of 17.

"When you feel like you almost lost your life and it's all gone," says the Los Angeles health and fitness entrepreneur, "you feel like you have to do it all. It's not an option. You are driven."

Brandon has more activities going than a cruise ship director. But one in particular has captured her fancy of late: long driving.

Brandon has played golf on and off for three years, but only in the last three-plus months has she competed in long-drive competitions. Nevertheless, her recent shot of 319 yards, 12 inches is the best among women this year in North America.

She will be at Eagle Point Golf Course Sunday to compete in District 4 of the RE/MAX World Long Drive Championships. A top showing here would qualify her for the October finals in Mesquite, Nev.

The women's division is expected to go in the early afternoon, following the men's open division, which starts at 9 a.m. with the first of three rounds, and the men's senior division.

Through long driving, Brandon has come full circle from her childhood days, when she was an elite player on a national-caliber softball team and when she was a pentathlete training for what she hoped would be a berth on the U.S. Olympic team.

But then came her injury, years of rehabilitation and a career of motivating and training others - including a stint with the New York Jets - so they could compete or, at the very least, be fit.

"I hadn't competed in 22 years," says Brandon, 39, referring to her first long drive-contest this past spring. "I was more than nervous."

In May, she debuted with a drive of 222 yards, good for second place. The next time out, she reached 296 and won. Then in late July in Sacramento, Calif., she uncorked her top mark.

To borrow her pet phrase, she stepped up and "owned it."

"When people see me drive," she says, "they say, 'Oh my goodness gracious, honey, we've never seen a woman hit like that before.'"

This all seemed so unlikely 22 years ago when, as a star athlete with so much going for her, Brandon lay tangled and mangled, blood draining from her body at a horrific rate after she fell through the plate glass window on a gym door.

Brandon had just finished playing basketball at her Brentwood, N.Y., high school and was talking over her shoulder to a friend as she shoved to open the heavy door. The glass cracked and gave way, and she dropped into the door frame.

"It was a like a guillotine," she says.

A main artery was sliced. Her bicep was slashed and wrapped around her shoulder. Muscles and tendons were severed.

"My arm was more off than on," says Brandon. "Basically, the surgeon had to reattach it. At first they didn't know if I'd be able to keep my arm or not."

It took seven years to regain feeling in the arm and get it functioning adequately. She did a lot of weight lifting, something she's been fond of since age 12, and she undertook alternative forms of therapy. Already an accomplished guitar player, she learned the piano so she could turn her hand over and work it in a different position.

She must maintain an advanced and aggressive stretching program to keep her arm flexible.

"I still have parts of my arm that are numb and days that are worse than others," she admits.

But she has neither the time nor inclination to dwell on them.

Brandon, a strength and conditioning specialist, has patented an exercise machine that targets abdominal muscles around the spine and has other patents pending. She also is a motivational speaker, a model and an occasional coffee-house singer.

Among her claims to fame is that she was the first woman to serve as an assistant trainer in the NFL in 1990.

She marched into the Jets' complex and asked what the minimum strength requirement was if one were to serve as a team trainer.

"They said I had to dead lift 315 pounds," she recalls. "So I went over and did it three times."

Weight lifting has served her well. She is 5-foot-11, 190-plus pounds and has a 31-inch waist.

"I'm dealing with a lot more muscle than the average woman," says Brandon. "I'm just a healthy gal who loves doing things."

Like hitting the long ball, something she got into at the behest of a client who sponsored her at Mountain Gate Country Club.

Her swing speed was recently measured at 125 to 130 mph, and her goal this weekend is to get off a 330-yard drive. She'll need to follow her routine of staying calm, focused and following through.

"The sensation I get is almost like you're not turning it up at all," she says.

If she can do that, then she can own it.

* * *

What would it be like to play a round of golf with the ability to hit a 400-yard drive?

Local long driver James Lewis played from the gold tees at Eagle Point Golf Course this week. On the par-5, 16th hole, he hit driver, then a 137-yard sand wedge to the green. At 17, his 5-wood put him in a greenside bunker. At 18, he was 30 yards short of the green.

"I almost never back off," he says. "I just don't know how to back off. I think it's easier to bang it up somewhere close and get it up by the hole."

Understand the long drivers must hit to a 45-yard grid for it to count, so many are accurate off the tee.

"A lot of the guys are scratch golfers and some have plus handicaps," says Lewis, himself a 5-handicapper. "A lot of them do this for a living and teach golf. The stereotype that if you hit the ball a long way, you can't chip or putt, that just is not true. Tiger Woods is a good example of that. He hits the ball a long way and nobody chips or putts better."

* * *

Pacific Dunes, the new sister course to Bandon Dunes on the Oregon Coast, made a rousing debut in Golf magazine's biennial ranking of the top 100 courses in the world, coming in at No. 26.

Bandon Dunes is at No. 70, up 10 spots from two years ago.

They are the only two courses in the Pacific Northwest to make the list.

Pacific Dunes, designed by Tom Doak, is nestled between U.S. Open and British Open sites Oakland Hills (25th) and Royal St. George's (27th).

Pine Valley in Clementon, N.J., is ranked No. 1, followed by two Pebble Beach courses, Cypress Point and Pebble Beach.

Augusta National is fourth and St. Andrews' Old Course is fifth.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 776-4479, or e-mail ttrower@mailtribune.com