Shooting For A Score Lower Than Their Age Only Seniors Golf Offers Rewards For Wisdom.

Posted: September 01, 1993

Golf is a game for old men. It is by no means their game exclusively, for golf also belongs to skirted women with Republican hairdos and eager teenagers wearing braided bracelets and strapping athletes like Greg Norman and Michael Jordan and Nancy Lopez. But in the main, golf is an old man's game, whose place in the golfing landscape is prominent.

At Philmont Country Club in Huntingdon Valley yesterday, 200 or so men, ages 55 and older, competed in the second round of the 36-hole Pennsylvania Senior Amateur Golf Championship.

Thirty-two of the contestants were in the 75-and-older division, and from that group the best card was turned in by Clark Smith of Gettysburg Country Club. He shot 84 yesterday and 78 the day before, for a total of 162. Those are the same scores Clark, a balding man with a fringe of white hair and lively eyes, was making 30 years ago, when he was 51. Eighty-one, and still holing chip shots.

There are skiing competitions for elderly skiers, and there are parallel events for surfers and tennis players and runners long-qualified for Social Security. But there is probably no sport in which true competitive skill endures as well as it does in golf. Old golfers may get the yips, a nervous disorder that results in a wrist twitch over short putts, and they may lose distance off the tee, but with every passing season they come to understand the game, and themselves, a little better.

"Who did I play? Oh, hell, I can't remember," Thomas Fritchey said yesterday as he walked a Philmont fairway in search of his ball.

Fritchey, a retired surgeon, is 81, and he was talking about the days when he was really good, good enough to have played in National Amateurs in the 1930s.

"I played Ouimet, I remember that," he said, referring to Francis Ouimet, who won the 1913 U.S. Open.

Fritchey sipped a beer as he searched for his ball. Eyesight fades with the passing of time and, at a senior competition, any shot can lead to an expedition. Hearing fades with time, too. Fritchey and his playing partner were on opposite sides of the fairway, trying to exchange instructions, not able to make out the exact words.

In time, Fritchey found his ball. He pulled a long iron from his bag, which was attached to a cart, and made a sweet and rhythmic swing. The ball sailed, but Fritchey greeted the shot with no emotion at all. The day was muggy and his front-nine score, he said, matched his age, and his chief goal was to make it to 18.

The golfers played both the North and South courses at Philmont, one each day, and everywhere you looked you saw men in old-style golf shirts, with stiff collars and chest pockets, many groaning gently as they bent over to pull ball from hole.

They played on creaky knees but with equipment built from space age materials. In the air-conditioned pro shop, one man said to another, "You retired now?" "Oh, yeah," came the response, "retired for years." In the locker room, an elderly man wearing nothing but talcum powder and sheer knee sox weighed himself, nodding approvingly at the weight-loss brought on by 18 holes of golf. Over the walkie-talkies, tournament organizers expressed concern about a missing foursome. "Either they quit or they made a wrong turn," came a voice over a radio.

Clark Smith, the winner in the 75-and-older division, sat outside on a brick wall, freshly showered, looking trim and alert. He was for decades a furniture executive and, before that, a minister, and once he played golf with Dwight Eisenhower. ("He had a farm in Gettysburg and I live in Gettysburg and he was a Republican and I'm a Republican," Smith said, explaining how the game came about.)

In high school and college, Smith was a wrestler and a baseball player, but those are sports, he discovered, that have built-in retirement dates.

He didn't take up golf until 1940, when he was a 28-year-old minister given a slide on his clerical duties for the month of August. He's been at it ever since.

Do you think, he was asked, that you'll play right to the end?

"I imagine so," he said. He smiled cheerfully, threw his clubs in the back of a car, and began the drive back to Gettysburg, feeling good about his performance in the Pennsylvania Senior Amateur Golf Championships, plus-75 division, eager to defend next year.

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