Fred Rowland’s first golf shot, struck nearly 65 years ago, was at Southern Hills Golf Club in Tulsa, Okla. All these years later, he sees the rarity in that.
Rowland, 75, was just a little tyke then. When his father, who worked for the Safeway chain of grocery stores, moved the family from Little Rock, Ark., to Tulsa for business, his mother decided they would wander out to Southern Hills just for fun – the boss, it turns out, had a membership.
“Country clubs weren’t quite so exclusive,” he said of a club that since has hosted four PGA Championships, three U.S. Opens and two PGA Tour Championships.
That first foray into the game had Rowland hooked, and when the family moved to Phoenix less than two years later, Rowland had his thoughts on little else.
“I didn’t do anything but play golf every day,” Rowland said. “That’s where I learned to golf.”
Rowland’s story will come full circle in July, when he joins the Kansas Golf Association Hall of Fame. Only 10 other amateur players have been inducted into the 41-member Hall, and Rowland is an appropriate addition.
When Rowland graduated from high school in 1956, all he could think of was pursuing a career as a professional. Back then, an entire PGA Tour purse might max out at $10,000, so Rowland’s father convinced him to get a degree in business. Rowland attended the University of Kansas, where he played on the golf team, and pursued a career in retail after graduation. Rowland went through management training with the JC Penney corporation before being drafted into the Army.
By 1965, Rowland had relocated to Kansas City and had changed career paths. Over the next decade, he became a pioneer in helping large corporations self-insure their employee medical plans. During those years, “life happened,” and Rowland’s time on the course dwindled.
“That’s one of the reasons I was so interested in senior golf,” Rowland said. “It was always in the back of my mind.”
Rowland has played in 11 U.S. Golf Association championships, beginning with the 1955 U.S. Junior at Purdue University’s South Course in West Lafayette, Ind. He next qualified for the 1973 U.S. Amateur at Inverness Golf Club in Toledo, Ohio, and has since played in the U.S. Mid-Amateur, six U.S. Senior Amateurs, and two U.S. Senior Opens.
“I did some kind of halfway noteworthy things when I was younger but almost everything I’ve done has been in senior golf,” Rowland said.
Upon turning 50, Rowland threw himself into golf as he might have done if he had chosen that path as a young man. He played about 20 Monday qualifiers for Champions Tour events from 1990-91, gaining entry three times. His competition, however, was a lifetime ahead of him.
Rowland developed a friendship with Frank Beard, an 11-time PGA Tour winner and two-time Ryder Cupper, and it was Beard who helped put things in perspective. Beard praised Rowland’s swing and talent level, but also delivered this line: “You have to remember, all those years you were going to little league games … Al Geiberger and I were hitting downhill bunker shots at the U.S. Open.”
It didn’t help that this Champions stint overlapped a crucial transition point in the game. Rowland qualified for the first of two U.S. Senior Open appearances in 1990, the same year Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino became eligible. After a heated battle, Trevino won that year at Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus, N.J.
“I was a spear-carrier,” Rowland jokes.
Upon being reinstated as an amateur in 1994, Rowland immediately qualified for the U.S. Senior Amateur. In 1996, he advanced to the semifinals in that event.
Upon trading in the Champions Tour life, Rowland joined another tour, of sorts. He began traveling the country to play against the best senior amateurs. That took him all the way to the British Senior Amateur, where he finished T-3 in 1997, and to the Canadian Senior Amateur, which he won in 2003.
“There’s a fraternity of senior golfers that play every week,” said Rowland. For many years, he was part of it.
These days, he explains, he’s playing against men as many as 25 years younger. Regardless, Rowland finished second in the Legends division (players older than 70) the last time he teed it up at a major senior event, the Golfweek Senior Amateur played at PGA West in La Quinta, Calif. Rowland aced the Stadium Course’s 13th hole in the first round for the 14th hole-in-one of his career.
Rowland and his wife Susan spend five months of the year in Palm Springs, Calif., to avoid heavy Kansas winters. The rest of the time, Rowland plays out of exclusive Wolf Creek Golf Links in Kansas City, the same course as Tom Watson.
Having won the Kansas Senior Amateur three times, the Kansas Super Senior once, the Kansas City Senior Championship twice and the Kansas City Super Senior once, Rowland owns just about every title available to a Kansan. He’ll spend the summer playing a series of one-day senior events around the state.
Rowland’s Hall of Fame induction in July is slated to overlap the Kansas State Amateur. That trophy is perhaps the most notable missing from his vast collection. For now, he’s planning to tee it up with the young men in that event.
It’s worth one more shot, at least, to fill a void on an otherwise complete resume.