Senior Olympics' oldest golfer is one for the ages

By Steve Rocca, Contributor

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - In 1905, Sir Albert Einstein developed his special theory of relativity, the "Bloody Sunday" massace of protestors took place in St. Petersburg, the first dimple-pattern for golf balls was patented by William Taylor in England, and James "Clyde" Dameron was born.

Dameron's entrance into this world may not hold the same historical significance as the other three events, but on the grounds of Honey Bee Golf Course at the Senior Olympics in Southeastern Virginia he's making his own history. For here, the man who looks like Harvey Penick is something of a celebrity. When the Arizona resident walks into the room, or onto the course, or tees it up, people point and watch.

For good reason.

You see, Dameron is not only the defending gold medalist in the over-90 age group, taking the honor two years ago at the Games in Baton Rouge, La., but, at 97, he's also the oldest player in the field. He'll turn 98 in July, but you wouldn't know it by looking at him or watching him in action. He shot his age when he was 75, twice, and has done it so many times since then, "I stopped counting at 400" he said. He's been in Golf Digest several times, he has three holes in one to his credit, and he even makes his own clubs - yet he still lured a sponsor for these Games.

Ping sent him a set of Karsten Ping Zing 2 irons and a professional bag with his name on the back. Nevertheless, he still carries a home-made driver in his bag, "just to keep it handy." The bag is as large as any you'll see on the PGA Tour, and just as spiffy, but it's much lighter than the pros because he carries just five balls in his bag.

He says he simply doesn't need more than that. "But I may go get another sleeve for tomorrow," he said.

The absence of golf balls speaks to his simplicity. He has no logos on his shirts. A simple white pair of shorts on most days and white tennis shoes. There is very little flash in this former coal mine worker and expert pipefitter in Illinois who fell into golf by accident. "I was 23-years old and I bought my first set of clubs on Labor Day weekend in 1928," said Dameron, who has an incredible memory and can recite dates like a contestant on Jeopardy. "I bought it out of a jewelry store window for $5. There was a driver, a mid-iron, a mashie, a niblick and a putter. All of them had wooden hickory shafts back then, of course."

By Christmas, he broke 100 for the first time. In three months, with wooden shafts, he accomplished what 98 percent of all golfers crave but never accomplish.

"I played 18 holes in the morning with a buddy, and we played horribly," said Dameron, a Master Mason in the Shriners with 60 years of service. "I said let's play another 18, and I was on the 18th green at 97, and I two-putted for a 99."

But that's not surprising of Dameron, who has been a quick study all of his life. He picked up the game late in life but that didn't seem to stop him from getting good at it. He always was able to outdrive his playing companions, he paid off his first house in six months, and was never unemployed during the Great Depression. By the time he retired in 1970, as the superintendent, he had 200 men under his charge.

Doing things on a big scale just seems to be his style. Dameron had 14 siblings, with just one still alive, but he must have inherited the Superman gene. At the age of 16, he had his tonsils taken out, and at age 32, he had his appendix taken out. Other than that, he's had no physical problems.

What's that you say? Physical? He didn't have his first one of those until 1987, at age 83. The doctor in Arizona couldn't believe it when he handed in a blank chart. When asked why he didn't fill out the medical history portion of the paperwork, Dameron simply said, "there's nothing to tell."

"He's what you'd call a miracle," said grandson and caddy Mike Hoots, who flew in from Indiana to point Daneron in the right direction off the tee. "It must be that good steel-mill air he was brought up on."

So what's the secret to his prowess and longevity?

"I eat whatever I want," Dameron said. "And I stay out of doctor's offices."

He also partakes in a daily high-ball just before dinner. But he quit smoking at age 19 and has never even had to take any drugs. How could he? He'd have to have a prescription for that and that can only come from a doctor. When he retired in 1970, 33 years ago, he was in great health, so he set out to perfect the game of golf.

Now, 75 years after he first picked up the game, he's still hitting it straight and true, every Wednesday and Saturday at Quail Run in Sun City, Arizona. After the Senior Games, which he has been participating in for the past 20 years, he has his eyes set on Harold Hoyt Stilson Sr., who in 2001 became the oldest golfer to record a hole-in-one.

Stilson, who has since passed away, recorded his ace at age 101 in Boca Raton, Fla. He used a 4-iron to ace the 108-yard 16th hole at the Deerfield Country Club.

"I have been very blessed," said Dameron, who talks with pride of shaking Woodrow Wilson's hand back in 1916 when he was 11 years old. "So God willing, I'll still be playing when I'm 101.

"But I usually just play nine holes these days. I used to play four times a week, but I had to cut back about six or eight months ago," he said. "I don't get around like I used to."

Of course, at his age, it's all relative.

Back in 1905

The Complete Golfer by Harry Vardon is published. It promotes and demonstrates the Vardon, or overlapping, grip. Willie Anderson wins his third consecutive U.S. Open, and he remains the only player to do so. Norway separates from Sweden. The Trans-Siberian Railway is completed. Sinn Fein, Irish nationalist (Republican) movement, was founded.

Steve RoccaSteve Rocca, Contributor

Steve Rocca has 16 years of journalism experience, including stints at the Virginian-Pilot, the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Palm Beach Post and the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

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