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Will You Ever Shoot Your Age?

After attending the United States Open last year, I came away with two reactions: awe at how far and high the world's best golfers now hit the ball, and dismay that I have never played or—certainly now at my age—ever will play a variety of golf remotely resembling what I witnessed at Shinnecock Hills.

But there is a consoling thought. However impossible it may be for me to smash 300-plus-yard drives or slash through knee-high rough to a distant green, I do aspire—realistically, in my view—to a golf achievement well beyond the immediate reach of any top professional, including Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson or U.S. Open champ Retief Goosen.

I aspire to shoot my age, which is quickly approaching seventy-four.

Much will depend on how well my game holds up. Can I avoid serious injury or illness?Can I keep my short game, somewhat shaky of late, from getting shakier?Can everfriendlier equipment stem a worrisome loss of distance?Will my handicap's slow climb—from seven a decade ago to about eleven now—continue or, worse still, steepen?

For all the imponderables, my mood is optimistic. I'm cheered by the fact that, with a seventy-four, I came within hailing distance of the magic score just over a year ago. Of late, however, the gap has depressingly widened, with my recent best effort of seventy-seven interrupting much higher scores, some in the mid-nineties.

Of this I'm reasonably certain: The time to score my age—better yet, to break my age—lies just ahead, while I'm in my mid- to late-seventies and early eighties. This, at least, is what I've gleaned through interviews with numerous golfers who've turned the trick. To get there, I've further concluded, will entail serious effort plus some luck. Here's what I—or you, for that matter—need to do.

AIM FOR THE 76-80 WINDOW. There are no authoritative, comprehensive statistics on scoring one's age—how often it's been done, who has done it the most or, more importantly, at what age the feat most frequently occurs. So I have attempted an unscientific estimate from the senior players I've encountered who have maintained detailed scoring logs over the years.

There appears to be a sharp proliferation in scores that equal or better one's age in the range of seventy-six to eighty years old, after which time age-scoring again becomes less frequent. For example, Bill Bogle, a golfer from upstate New York, first shot his age at sixty-eight and did it again at seventy, and then he had to wait until he was seventy-four to do so once again. He subsequently achieved the goal more often, with his peak occurring at age eighty, when he shot or bettered his age fifteen times. Similarly, Tim Street, a South Carolinian of about the same age who gets to play more often thanks to a warmer year-round climate, started scoring his age in his early seventies. He did so forty-seven times before reaching his seventy-seventh birthday. But this pales against his managing seventy such rounds at age seventy-eight and a high of eighty-six such rounds at age seventy-nine.

What official record keeping does exist yields some arresting tidbits. The PGA Tour reports that Walter Morgan holds the mark as the youngest golfer to score his age or better in a Champions Tour event. This was in 2002 at the AT&T Canada Senior Open Championship, when Morgan fired a remarkable sixty at age sixty-one. PGA Tour data further shows Harold "Jug" McSpaden to be the golfer to perform the feat at the oldest age in a Champions Tour event. Byron Nelson's golfing pal from decades ago managed an eighty-one in the 1994 PGA Seniors' Championship, when he was eighty-five years old.

Unofficial reports of extraordinary age-scoring abound. In 1992, an eighty-four-year old allegedly shot a sixty-eight at a 6,006-yard course in Downey, California, bettering his age by sixteen strokes. In Abilene, Texas, a man of ninety-eight claimed to have matched or beaten his age 2,623 times, all accomplished after his seventy-first bir thday. And in Victoria, British Columbia, a man is said to have shot his age at a 6,215-yard course when he was 103 years old.

GET A SINGLE-DIGIT HANDICAP NOW. Those of you who can't break eighty by the time you retire should not kid yourselves: If you aspire to shoot your age, you need to bring a solid game into your golden years. In fact, I have never encountered a single age-scorer who didn't carry a single-digit (or better) handicap in his younger years. Both Bogle and Street, for example, previously sported very low handicaps—Bogle was scratch in his forties—though both are now in double digits. However old or young you are, you need to get under ten while you can.

FOCUS ON YOUR SHORT GAME. The secret to a low handicap, as we all know but seldom put into practice, is to develop a skillful short game. To shoot your age, this is mandatory. In his 1992 best-seller Harvey Penick's Little Red Book, the wise teacher observed that "seasoned citizens," as he euphemistically referred to senior golfers, should devote at least three-quarters of their practice time to the short game. Few older golfers can hit the ball as far as younger ones, but, as Penick noted, near or on the green "you and the younger player become no worse than equals." He added, "Every golf course has a few old geezers who can chip and putt the eyes out the cup." You want to be one of those geezers.

Bill Bogle, for example, has worked "like crazy" on his short game since a recent rotator-cuff injury cut his maximum distance down to about 210 yards. He now carries an extra wedge and spends "a heck of a lot of time just gauging approach distances to the pin." He overcame the yips some years ago, he adds, through a lot of time on the putting green and by switching to a left-hand-low grip. Despite his loss of distance, he shot his age again recently at Blind Brook Club, a Seth Raynor and Charles Blair Macdonald-designed course in Rye Brook, New York. He did so under strict medalplay conditions during the annual championship of the United States Seniors Golf Association, a group of some 1,000 over-fifty-five golfers whose ranks include several former U.S. Amateur champions.

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