The U.S. Open is our national championship. Regardless, the Masters attracts golf’s most interesting crowd.
The 2017 Masters, for example, brought together two senior golfers — two acclaimed world record holders — who were Masters spectators. One came from Texas, the other from Oregon. They had never met, although golf has a way of bringing people together.
These two seniors set world records in categories that have nothing to do with age. In other words, they are the best in the world at what they do. Although they are in their 50s, they have established records that have eclipsed the efforts of younger golfers in their teens, 20s, 30s and 40s.
In 2016, 57-year-old Barry Gibbons of Austin, Texas, achieved a record that might seem unassailable. He played 878 rounds of golf, walking, carrying his bag each time.
For the mathematically impaired, that’s about 2.4 rounds of golf per day for an entire year, although Gibbons completed every round he started, often logging three rounds in a single day.
The old record, as recognized by the Guinness World Records organization, was 611 rounds. Gibbons, a retired executive at IBM, obliterated that one.
The other Guinness world record, established in 2005 by Christopher Smith of North Plains, Oregon, focused on the phenomenon called speed golf. Smith, today a 54-year-old golf teaching professional, was 43 when he set a speed golf record that has stood for 11 years.
Speed golf scores are calculated by adding together strokes and minutes. Smith was playing in the Chicago Speedgolf Classic at Jackson Park Golf Course in Chicago. He shot a 5-under-par 65 in 44 minutes and 6 seconds. His official total score was 109:06.
Is either record — that of Smith or Gibbons — in jeopardy? It would seem that Smith’s mark is more vulnerable.
Courses used for speed golf are required to play at least 6,000 yards. Jackson Park, like many old courses, is well-suited for speed golf because it is flat with greens and tees that are close together.
Speed golf events around the world invariably attract trained runners, such as Smith.
On the other hand, the crusade of Gibbons appeared to be more about persistence and determination than speed. Musing about his record of 878 rounds, Gibbons said seriously, “I’m probably crazier than you think.”
The tale of the tape affirms his assertion: Gibbons lost 33 pounds (from 210 to 177), injured his rib cage (“It felt like I was being stabbed in the ribs”), damaged his rotator cuff, and had trouble negotiating stairs because of knee pain.
At best, he lowered his handicap from 8.6 to 1.2. (“To be honest, my ballstriking was deteriorating toward the end, but my short game allowed me to hold it together”). He played primarily at two places — The Hills of Lakeway in Austin and Ridgefield (Conn.) Golf Club.
His odyssey may have been consuming, but he never lost his sensitivity. “My wife (Joy) is a very special person, and she encouraged me all he way” he said, “and it was important to me to play my 612th round, when I broke the old record, with my dad (Ed Gibbons) in Colorado. He has done so much for me.”
As newspaper stories began to appear, Gibbons caught the attention of shoe and apparel giant FootJoy. “The people at FootJoy were extremely supportive,” Gibbons said. “They supplied me with shoes to keep my aching feet going, and I needed their apparel for the colder months as the year came to a close. I can’t say enough good things about the FootJoy brand.”
Talk about a shoe fetish: Gibbons used 19 different pair of Foot-Joy golf shoes during the year.
Smith, meanwhile, received support from Nike. Phil Knight, the Nike founder, has long been a supporter of excellence in many different sports. Smith grew up in the running hotbed of Eugene, Oregon, where he father, Robert Smith, was a Professor of Economics at the University of Oregon.
So Smith combined his two loves — running and golf. Don’t look for him to continue chasing the speed golf record, however, because his right hip has been replaced.
Smith’s exploits go far beyond speed golf. One of the whackiest Smith stories comes from the 2006 Oregon Open, a 54-hole event in which he carried nine clubs and tied for the title at 11-under-par. At Eagle Crest Resort in central Oregon, he eventually lost on the third playoff hole.
His nine Nike clubs: driver, 4-wood, 3-hybrid, 5, 7 and 9 irons, gap and lob wedges, plus a putter.
“I hadn’t played in a ‘slow’ golf tournament, what I call non-speed golf events, in well over a year. it just wasn’t fun anymore. So I committed to playing the Oregon Open, with the primary goal being to enjoy the walk, the company and the experience. I normally played with six clubs in speed golf, so I threw in three more for this event. I felt like I was cheating carrying nine clubs. It was plenty.”
Today Smith is the PGA Lead Teaching Professional at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club, a magnificent 36-hole Pacific Northwest facility just outside Portland. Smith has been there since 1999.
Pumpkin Ridge, purchased in late 2015 by Escalante Golf of Fort Worth, Texas, is widely known as the site of the third and final U.S. Amateur triumph of Tiger Woods in 1996.
Smith’s reputation: He has a knack for teaching golfers how to take their golf games from the range to the course. “Many golfers spend too much time on the range,” he said. “I am a huge proponent of golfers practicing on the course, going out and playing a few holes, working on a variety of shots.
“My belief is that the modern-day driving range has not helped golfers really improve. Grinding away on the ‘perfect’ swing from a perfect lie, with many do-overs and ZERO consequence. Trying to achieve optimal numbers, averages and data – this sort of training does not replicate a round of golf.”
At Augusta National Golf Club, Smith and Gibbons could have told stories for hours. The fraternity of golf was overflowing with eager listeners.
Before they left, the two world record holders even talked about collaborating on one Guinness record or another. That’s golf, the game that never stops inspiring its dreamers.
Smith, playing the short par-4 18th hole at Jackson Park back in 2005, dreamed of finishing strong. He hit driver on the hole, which played about 280 yards, and his ball almost went in the hole. He quickly tapped in for a concluding eagle.
Gibbons, something of a philosopher, talked about his 878th and last round of golf in 2016. “There were maybe 125 spectators,” he said. “It was inspiring. It reminded me how much we humans enjoy challenges. Just point us in the right direction. Well, maybe we should have a beer first.”
—Jim Achenbach Senior Golf Insider firstname.lastname@example.org