Alive and kicking

FORT WORTH, Texas – I am standing here at Shady Oaks Country Club with the world’s oldest man.

No, no, no, make that the oldest man still remaining after the first round of match play in the USGA Senior Amateur Championship.

In dog years, Jerry Cundari of Portland, Ore., would be 476. Now that’s old.

In golf years, though, he is a 68-year-old golfaholic who seems to defy aging. He is agile and athletic, limber and light-footed.

That being said, maybe Cundari won’t be mad at me for insinuating he is old. If this is old, somebody ought to bottle it and sell it. It’s that good.

Entrants in the U.S. Senior Amateur must be at least 55 years old. Historically this championship has been dominated by players between 55 and 59, although Cundari and Bill Ploeger, the 1999 U.S. Senior Amateur champion, both qualified for this year’s event at 68.

Ploeger, though, fell 3-and-2 to Paul Murphy of Arlington, Mass., in Monday’s first round of match play. Cundari, meanwhile, waltzed home with a 5-and-4 victory over Greg Kendall of Sioux Falls, S.D.

On second thought, can any 68-year-old be characterized by waltzing?

“I played very well,” said Cundari, who won his third straight Oregon Super Senior Championship (65 and over) just three days before the start of this event.

Cundari has qualified for and played in 11 U.S. Golf Association championships, which is 11 more than most of us. Winning his first-round match Monday was something of an anniversary celebration for Cundari, because 50 years ago he played in his first USGA championship, the 1958 U.S. Amateur at San Francisco’s Olympic Club.

“There was no stroke-play qualifying (at the championship site) back then,” he recalled. “Everybody went right into match play. I played 15 holes, got beat 4-and-3, jumped in my car and drove back home to Oregon.

“There was a highlight, though. When I showed up for my practice round, I was just an 18-year-old kid who didn’t know anybody and they paired me with Billy Jo Patton and Bill Campbell, both of them Walker Cup players. That was a thrill for me.”

There is a message here. Reflecting on the success of Cundari and Ploeger, it is easy to make the point that golf is a game that can be played for a lifetime.

Of the 64 players who advanced from 36 holes of stroke play into match play here at Shady Oaks, 19 of them were in their 60s.

There are other signs that point to the growth of amateur competition on the senior level. Consider, for example, the explosion of competition on the national senior amateur schedule, administered by Golfweek. For 2008, this schedule includes more than 40 designated points tournaments around the United States. In 2007, more than 700 individual golfers earned points in these events (depending on the size of the field, a top-15 or top-10 finish generally is required to acquire points).

The Golfweek/Titleist Senior Amateur Rankings are the official barometer of national Senior and Super Senior competition. Both races are extremely tight this year, with Paul Schlachter of Pittsburgh holding a slim lead in the Senior division and Bob Hullender of San Antonio edging ahead in the Super Senior division.

The importance of senior golf, though, goes far beyond all these tournaments. Golf offers many benefits for many ordinary seniors, even if it’s as simple as getting exercise or setting a goal and then achieving it.

“From 1984 to 1997 (the year in which Ben Hogan died), Mr. Hogan was here every day but he played only nine holes in all those years,” said Mike Wright, director of golf at Shady Oaks. “What he did, though, was hit balls all the time. Then he would pick them up himself. He would make sure he bent over (grabbing them by hand) every time. That’s how he got his exercise.”

Hogan was a hero to Cundari. Continuing his match-play journey at the U.S. Senior Amateur, Cundari may have to perform like Hogan to stay alive. The competition among these old guys is ferocious.

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