Albuquerque Firefighter's Golf Swings Take Flight

July 17--Luis Saavedra knows pressure.

He grew up in Los Lunas, wanting to become a fireman, and since 2006 that is what he has been -- employed by the Albuquerque Fire Department.

But Saavedra has also been playing golf since he was a kid, making the rounds regularly at Tierra del Sol in Belen.

He could always hit the ball pretty long -- longer than most of the guys he played with. But it wasn't until last year that he decided to take on the rest of the world.

Saavedra has qualified for the 2014 World Long Drive Championship, which will be Sept. 20-24 in Mesquite, Nev. The final rounds will be televised by Golf Channel.

The 31-year-old also reached the world championships last year, the first time he attempted to qualify.

"I was playing with some buddies and they told me I should give it a try," Saavedra says of long driving. "I started doing it last year. I won a local qualifier and I ended up qualifying for worlds my first year."

He says the farthest he has hit a ball on a long-driving grid is 439 yards, but he has a 498-yard shot on a golf course.

When he first started long driving, he says he couldn't get faster than 133 mph on his club hit swing. Now he averages 147 mph.

The 6-foot-4 Saavedra says adding about 20 pounds to his frame the last couple of years has given him increased swing speed. He now weighs about 245.

He has found that stretching and yoga exercises help him more than lifting heavy weights. Flexibility is key. Long driving demands a lot longer swing than a regular golf swing, he says.

Saavedra says he didn't do too well at worlds last year. He hit some long shots, but an unpredictable wind spun a few of them out of bounds.

"It was nerve-racking," he says. "It was the first time I had been under pressure, in front of cameras and a big audience. I learned a lot on how to deal with pressure."

It is a different kind of pressure than he faces as a firefighter.

"You always have close calls," he says. "Anything can happen, anytime you are at a fire or a car accident. You've got to be careful."

Saavedra says there is a correlation between his two passions.

"You've got to adapt, make decisions," he says of firefighting. "It's the same with long driving. Sometimes you make a mistake and you've got to change your whole plan. I think being a firefighter does help."

Saavedra, who studied in the pro golf management program at New Mexico State, says he has always been a bit of an adrenaline seeker.

"I've calmed down a little bit since I've gotten older," Saavedra says. "But I still like competing."

He stills plays regular rounds of golf because it relaxes him. He says he generally shoots around 75 -- "Sometimes better, sometimes worse."

Between now and September he will compete in some professional long driving competitions. He even has a couple of local companies -- Lavu (an iPad restaurant point of sale system) and Sharp Industries (a general contractor) -- sponsoring him.

Saavedra says he feels good about his prospects as he points toward his world championship appointment.

"Something clicked in the last month or so," he says. "I'm hitting good -- straight and long. When I'm on, I can beat anybody out there."

Copyright 2014 - Albuquerque Journal, N.M.