Boyden Atwood’s normal Friday round with his pals two weeks ago at Boone (N.C.) Golf Club became the most unforgettable 18 holes he’s ever experienced.
The 89-year-old who typically finds himself shooting rounds in the high 70s or low 80s carded the lowest score of his life, a 4-under-par 67 from the red tees of his home course. The “senior tees” measure 5,096 yards at a course rating of 68.6.
“It’s the best round I’ve ever played,” Atwood said in his thick North Carolina accent, noting that his previous record was a 68 he shot on his 70th birthday. “I’ve had four holes-in-one in my life and I told my wife that this was a lot more exciting than them. I was nervous all the way until the drive home.”
Guinness World Records lists the lowest round below a golfer’s age as being set by John Powell on June 1, 2017. Powell, then 86 years old, shot a 64 at Indian Springs Golf Club in California.
Atwood’s round ties Powell’s, although Boone Golf Club head professional Tom Adams verified that the course has implemented raised cups as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19. But according to guidance set forth by the USGA, a temporary measure is in place to accept scores played under these conditions as official rounds for handicap purposes. How Guinness record certifiers will react is uncertain.
“It’s still a great story, especially with how much he has meant to this community,” Adams said.
Regardless of whether he officially has set a record, Atwood’s round will be remembered as extraordinary for several reasons. A fixture in the Boone area, Atwood plays in a dogfight game with a group made up primarily of Christian men multiple times each week. During the winter and fall, there normally are about 15-20 players. In the summer, a few Floridians flee to the cool of the mountains and that number grows to 30-35. The “young guys” of the group are in their 60s.
“I told the boys that there’s no use in my playing the rest of the season because I can’t look forward to improving my game. My iron game was the best it has ever been. On all four par-3s I had a good chance for birdie.” – Boyden Atwood
Atwood says that since retiring from a 26-year career as a high school biology teacher in June 1986, he has played about 50-60 rounds a year, mostly at Boone. Many of those rounds are with his former students, like his playing partner, Harry Lyons, who is in his early 70s now and was taught by Atwood more than five decades ago. Even the head pro, Adams, was taught by Atwood.
None of the thousands of rounds Atwood has played at his home club have gone like the one he experienced on April 17.
In a fivesome of close friends, Atwood started with an outward 2-under 33 that featured birdies on the two front-nine par-3s to go with seven pars. The fireworks came on the back nine, starting with an unexpected bogey on the par-5 10th. Two holes later, his 80-yard approach shot on the par-4 12th found the hole for an eagle.
Atwood then birdied the par-4 13th and the par-4 15th to reach 5 under for his round, but he narrowly missed an 8-foot birdie putt on No. 16 and then bogeyed the par-5 17th to drop to 4 under. On the finishing par-4 18th, he hit a 7-wood to 15 feet and missed another birdie by the width of the ball.
“I told the boys that there’s no use in my playing the rest of the season because I can’t look forward to improving my game,” Atwood joked. “My iron game was the best it has ever been. On all four par-3s I had a good chance for birdie.”
Don Bolster, a close friend of Atwood’s who often plays in his group, wasn’t too surprised to hear the score.
“He’s always in the middle of the fairway,” Bolster said. “The best part of his game is chipping and putting. He usually uses his 8-iron and always seems to have a relatively easy putt to get up and down. We all have days where everything just comes together and that’s what happened with him that day.”
Another reason Atwood’s round will be remembered is that it came square in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. Age is a major risk factor for severe illness and death from the virus, so it has been common practice for the elderly to stay home to avoid contact with others.
The Watauga County area where Atwood lives has been virtually untouched by the virus, with eight of North Carolina’s 9,142 confirmed cases in the county, making golf a realistic activity. Also, precautions such as having one person in each cart have been taken at the course to reduce risk. The group normally holds hands in prayer before rounds but they’ve adapted to a social-distancing prayer instead.
Atwood said that the lack of cases, coupled with the precautions the course has in place, has removed any fear of catching the virus while playing. Bolster agreed, adding that the group has moved to elbow bumps instead of handshakes.
“I don’t think anyone is concerned about it,” Bolster said. “We’re pretty isolated out here.”
Golf has played a vital role in Atwood’s life, despite his not coming to the game until reaching his mid-30s.
He was born near Sparta, N.C., and became an outstanding athlete with a particular affinity for baseball. As an eighth-grade student, Atwood lettered on the high school team. When he joined the Air Force in 1950 and served four years during the Korean War, Atwood became known for his baseball ability.
In autumn 1955 he started at the Appalachian State Teachers College in preparation for becoming a science teacher, while working at a tobacco market, gas stations and mowing lawns to provide for his children. He and his wife, Gelene, had two children when Atwood started school, four by the time he graduated, and had five overall.
With Gelene finding a job as a chemistry instructor at Appalachian State University in 1956, Atwood became a teacher at Cove Creek High School and later Watauga High School. He also coached the Watauga golf team to conference championships in 1972 and 1974. All the while, Atwood has been a deacon since 1963, teaching Sunday school at Rutherwood Baptist Church for 44 years.
Community has remained a central part of Atwood’s life with golf being among his favorite hobbies. When asked how many times he has broken his age on the course, Atwood said he has lost track of the number because it happens just about every time he plays now.
“I’ve never had a lesson and couldn’t tell you anything about the golf swing,” Atwood said. “I just use baseball talent.”
There’s some golf talent there as well.
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