MANAKIN-SABOT, Va. – Two 71-year-old golfers, Jack Vardaman and Mike Rice, won first-round matches Monday in the USGA Senior Amateur at Kinloch Golf Club.
Because the Senior Amateur includes players who are 55 and older, Vardaman and Rice definitely fit into the older part of the equation.
“These kids who are 55 probably think it’s time for me to move on,” joked Vardaman, “but I’m going to keep playing and keep competing as long as I can. It’s just another reason why golf is such a wonderful game.”
Phenomenal achievements by older players are nothing new in the Senior Amateur.
The record book shows that Lew Oehmig won the last of his three Senior Amateur titles in 1985 when he was 69.
In 1964, A. L. (Jim) Miller became the oldest player to win medalist honors in the stroke play qualifying that precedes match play. He was 71.
In 1994, Andy Andreola became the oldest golfer to play in the championship when he advanced through a sectional qualifier at 75 years, 10 months and 10 days.
Rice, who lives in Houston, Texas, is a legend in senior circles. He won the 2005 USGA Senior Amateur when he was 65 and continues to torment younger golfers. In Monday’s opening round of match play, he surprised Rick Woulfe of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., by a 4-and-3 margin.
Vardaman is less well-known than Rice, although this is something of an injustice.
Justice and injustice are constant factors in the life of Vardaman, who graduated from Harvard Law School, was a clerk for U.S. Supreme Court justice Hugo Black, and has worked 41 years with the law firm of Williams & Connolly in Washington, D.C.
“Once you turn 70, you leave the partnership and become ‘of counsel,’ which means I can enjoy the challenge of some law practice and still have lots of time to play golf,” Vardaman explained.
Along the way, Vardaman played in four U.S. Senior Opens, five USGA Senior Amateurs and two U.S. Mid-Amateurs. He reached the semifinals of the 2005 Senior Amateur, losing to Rice.
In Monday’s matches, he defeated Dave Ryan of Taylorville, Ill., on the 19th hole. Ryan bogeyed the first extra hole after his drive picked up a clump of dirt, causing his second shot to veer precipitously left into a bunker.
Despite his accomplishments as a competitive golfer, Vardaman is most proud of his volunteer work off the course. In the late 1990s he was general counsel for the U.S. Golf Association and later was named to the USGA Executive Committee, which makes all final decisions for the governing body.
After the First Tee was established to promote and expand junior golf, Vardaman also poured himself into that pursuit. When a 10-tournament junior circuit was established this year in the region stretching from Washington D.C. to Baltimore, Md., it was named the Jack Vardaman First Tee Tour.
“So many people in my generation learned the game from their parents,” he observed. “I did (in Anniston, Ala.), and I’m proud of it.
“But we were lucky. There are tens of thousands, maybe millions, of kids out there today who don’t have that inheritance. What if we could just make that available, each one of us, to one or two kids? What a legacy that would be.
“Just think of all the great friends we’ve made, all the places we’ve been. If we could just give that to one kid, what a wonderful thing it would be.”
Oh to be 71 and so deeply motivated.
In Tuesday morning’s second round of match play, Vardaman will play Philip Pleat of Nashua, N.H., and he will do so with his trusty long putter.
“I switched to the long putter in late April,” he said, “and I’m putting much better.”
Vardaman may not claim to hit the ball as far as PGA Tour player Adam Scott, but the two use identical Titleist Scotty Cameron Kombi long putters.
“Maybe that’s my one concession to getting older,” Vardaman said. “There was a time when I thought somebody who was 71 was really old. Now I don’t think about age. I just keep doing whatever I can do. I’m lucky that golf is a game that allows 71-year-old men to play in tournaments … and play pretty well, if I can say that.”
Sure, go ahead. It’s true.