A Winnipeg teen known for her prowess on the tee box will be launching bombs on behalf of Canada next month in Chicago.
Hannah Penner, 18, will don the red and white as part of a contingent of 20 golfers set to represent the nation at the 2021 World Amateur Long Drive Championship, set for Sept. 11-19.
She's headed to the Windy City but doesn't require a strong breeze at her back to routinely crush the ball well over 250 yards or, occasionally, eclipse the 300-yard mark.
Penner, one of four women in the group, said she's thrilled about the chance to compete against others with the same unique skillset.
"It means a lot to me because I’ll be representing Canada, and my dad’s side of the family will be in Chicago so they’ll be cheering me on," Penner said.
Penner has already participated in several long-drive events in Calgary, Toronto and the United States, and is hooked on the camaraderie and friendships she's made on the driving range.
"I would say, honestly, it’s kind of like a big family when we’re all together and really close and we cheer each other on no matter if the ball goes in the grid or not," said Penner. "It’s like a family away from home."
Interestingly, her journey to the worlds began when she started whacking balls with a putter as a youngster.
Ron Beshk, Penner’s foster father, knew golf was the right sport for Hannah at an early age when he would take her to the driving range while on vacation and in Winnipeg.
"She actually used to hit this old Ping putter that I had," said Beshk. "She would tee a ball up and hit the ball with this putter. Believe it or not she was getting some distances of over 100 yards with this old Ping putter. That’s where the bug got her.
"When she started to see she could hit the ball in the air, any distance, that’s what gravitated her towards golf."
"Believe it or not she was getting some distances of over 100 yards with this old Ping putter." – Ron Beshk
While attending Calvin Christian Collegiate, Penner put in a stellar performance for her school at a provincial event in Swan River in 2019.
"They had the skills event where they had chipping, putting and driving," she said. "For the driving, I did really well because I got 317 yards… I was really proud as that’s been my longest drive. I placed first and I beat all of the boys. I was in shock that it went straight and I didn’t think it went that far.
"As we were walking back to the clubhouse as other people were hitting, I saw the ball and I thought, ‘Oh, that must’ve been one of the men that hit that.' Then they announced it and I was like, ‘That was my ball!’"
Penner’s stunning accomplishment caught the attention of organizers with Amateur Long Drive Canada. She competed in Toronto in February 2020 and qualified for the world event, which was bumped back a year owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Beshk said Penner was outdriving him by 50 yards by the time she was 16. He believes her involvement in two additional sports boosted her strength and confidence in golf.
"It was like the perfect storm ‐ she spent several years swimming and figure skating and it built that natural ability." – Ron Beshk
"I think a combination of swimming — which she was a freestyle sprinter which put some muscle fibre on her body — and her figure skating allowed her the flexibility," said Beshk.
"She takes the club back almost 360 degrees around her body. She can see the face of the club before she swings it. It was like the perfect storm — she spent several years swimming and figure skating and it built that natural ability."
Penner finished third in women’s driving distance at an event in Calgary earlier this month.
Fareen Samji, the Amateur Long Drive Canadian Tour commissioner, is one of Penner’s mentors in the competition and Canada's team instructor heading into the Chicago championship.
She first met Penner two years ago in a long-drive qualifier in Ontario and was immediately impressed.
"What impressed me right away is the pure and sheer delight that she gets from hitting golf balls," said Samji. "Her power comes from speed and rotation and using her body efficiently. What I’ve really noticed with her is that when she is competing, the other people around her feed off her energy and that is really special."
"Long drive is explosive, it’s like the home-run derby of golf," explained Samji, a five-time Canadian long drive champion who once belted a ball 334 off the tee.
"There are hitters from Japan, Columbia, Puerto Rico, Germany, South Africa, Canada, Mexico, USA, and Venezuela so there are a lot of countries competing. She will have a pretty stiff field to compete against."
In Chicago, each golfer will have 12 drives in total, split into sets of six. Each set must be completed in under two minutes.
Beshk believes his foster daughter could have a high finish if she can replicate a previous missile off the tee.
"If she could hit one of those 317 (yarders) again or better, she would have a very good chance."
Joseph Bernacki is the reporter/photographer for The Headliner. Joseph was the 2021 Vince Leah Sports Intern with the Winnipeg Free Press before joining Canstar Community News. A 2020 graduate of the University of Regina’s school of journalism, Joseph enjoys playing golf, listening to his country music collection and following his favourite Chicago sports teams. In his spare time, he is the host of a variety talk show podcast including Better Call Saul as a weekly topic.