For some golfers, shooting their age gets better with time

Peter Chen at Maryland Senior Olympics golf tournament at Compasse Pointe Golf Club in Pasadena on Sept. 24.
Peter Chen at Maryland Senior Olympics golf tournament at Compasse Pointe Golf Club in Pasadena on Sept. 24.(BrennanPhotos.com)

Peter Chen spent all of his childhood in Trinidad, playing cricket and soccer. After he came to the United States at age 19 to attend Howard University, where he helped start the men's soccer team, Chen worked as a bellboy at Columbia Country Club in nearby Chevy Chase.

It was there that Chen was introduced to a new game: golf.


"[Fred] 'Scotty' McLeod gave me my first set of clubs in 1949," Chen said, referring to the longtime pro at Columbia and the 1908 U.S. Open champion. "I've been hacking around since then."

Chen, whose parents were both athletes in Trinidad and whose paternal grandfather served as foreign minister of China under Chiang Kai-shek, was not immediately taken by the new sport.


"I thought it was an old man's game," Chen said. "I was used to playing cricket and I was fascinated by people hitting balls 150 yards when you could only hit a cricket ball not even half that distance. I said, 'This looks like fun.'"

Chen has come to realize that it's a game that old men can play well. While it's difficult for the game's current stars such as Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson to shoot their age, the now 87-year-old Chen does it all the time.

At the National Senior Games in Cleveland in July, Chen shot rounds of 85-86-87 to win his age group (85-89) by eight strokes. It was his second gold medal to go along with three silver medals earned in the dozen times he qualified for the nationals since turning 50.

Though he has not shot his age as many times as Frank Bailey of Abilene, Tex., who holds the Guinness World Record by shooting his age more than T. Edison Smith's previous mark of 2,663 times (the Moorhead, Minn. resident did it first at age 71 and did it for the last time at age 98), Chen does it with great regularity.

In fact, when Chen recently won the gold medal for his age group at the Maryland Senior Games at Compass Pointe Golf Club in Pasadena, the former 30-year government employee who worked in "personnel management and civil rights" was not happy with his performance.

"Today is a bad day because I shot one over my age," Chen said. "Usually I shoot in the 70s."

Chen spent much of his early years playing golf on public courses around Washington, D.C. He said he kicked in "$5 to help Lee Elder get to his first professional tournament" and also beat legendary boxing champion Joe Louis in a tournament in 1960.

"He took his golf clubs and threw them in the Anacostia River," Chen said with a smile. "He said, 'I will not let that little shrimp beat me.'"

Chen said that he became serious about golf when he was posted in Panama for six years. He won his first significant tournament at Rodman Naval Base and shot better than his age for the first time at age 70, when he shot a 69 at his home course, Wicomico Shores, in Mechanicsville.

"I was little, but I could always hit the ball a long way," he said. "I hit the ball 50 yards longer than I do now."

According to About.com, the youngest player ever to shoot his age was 1944 PGA champion Bob Hamilton, who shot 59 at age 59 in 1975. The PGA Tour record is held by the legendary Sam Snead, who shot 67 in the 1979 Quad Cities Open at age 67.

Chen, who typically plays three times a week, said that when he plays in competition, particularly against younger players, "the juices flow." He considers golf a "very cerebral sport, you have to connect the mind with the body, and then you deal with the conditions regardless of what they are."


Admittedly, Chen enjoys the game more than he did years ago "because I feel like I am on borrowed time."

Jim Sherwood, a 76-year-old retired dentist who lives in Eastport, doesn't quite feel the same way. After shooting an 84 to win his age group (75-79) at Compass Pointe, the former scratch golfer was scratching his head over the number of putts he didn't make.

"I had 20 putts on the front nine, to 23 other strokes," Sherwood said.

Asked if he enjoys the game as much as he once did, Sherwood is blunt.

"Not at all, because I play so poorly," he said. "It's not fun when you hack around. Many people are happy. I play golf with guys who shoot 95 or 100 and they're so happy just to be outside. I want to play good and I can't seem to do it anymore."

Sherwood said that he has long been bothered by a case of the "yips" — the inability to calm oneself down while putting, causing your heart to race and your hands to shake. Some of the world's best players, most notably Tom Watson, saw their careers take a nosedive when it happened.

"It's great to be playing golf all these years, and it's still fun when you're clowning around like we did today, but when you're trying to play well and you miss a 1 or 2-foot putt two or three times like I did today, that's not fun. It takes away your heart and when that happens, it's hard to play that way."

Like Chen, Sherwood didn't get started in golf until late, when he too was stationed in Panama while serving in the Air Force. He shot his age for the first time when he was 68, while playing golf on vacation in North Carolina.

"It's not too important to me," Sherwood said. "Playing and playing better is. I want to play good and I can't seem to do it anymore. I can't enjoy it unless I hit the ball well."

Dave Pearson of New Market, who played with Sherwood at Compass Pointe, said he usually plays about 27 holes a week, usually with his wife, Joy. Though amazed by those who can come close to shooting his age, the 81-year old Pearson said that being able to play at age 81 "is the great thing about golf".

Unlike other sports, such as basketball, "you don't need 12 people, you don't need five people, you can just go out there yourself, an old guy and golf."

Chen said that he prefers the competition to the camraderie.

"The main object in golf is to shoot one stroke better than the other guy," Chen said. "If you shoot an 88 and you win, that's fine. If you shoot a 68 and win, that's fine too. If you ask Tiger Woods, you can rarely go out on the first tee and say, 'I'm going to shoot a 65.' You do what you have to do."


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