Better with age

Published 9:55 pm Wednesday, July 13, 2011

MIlestone: James Butler, right, here with, from left, Gregg Crow, Dick Crafton and his son Jay Butler has shot his age, usually a once-in-a-lifetime feat for a golfer, many times. Jay and Mark Lambert, the PGA professional at Nansemond River Golf Club, both believe Butler’s total is in the hundreds. Butler, 85, is a nine handicap and routinely shoots in the low-to-mid 70s.

Suffolk  85-year-old shoots his age in golf

For most golfers, shooting your age is a remarkable feat if it happens once.

James Butler, 85, routinely shoots his age or lower, often by a wide margin, twice a week at Nansemond River Golf Club.

Mark Lambert, Nansemond River’s head professional, conservatively guesses Butler has shot his age — when a golfer shoots equal to or lower than his age for an 18-hole round — more than 150 times.

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Jay Butler, James’ son and a frequent playing partner, says his dad is “probably the luckiest guy I’ve ever seen.”

“If you figure he’s played about twice a week for the last 10 years or so,” Jay Butler said, “and I’m willing to bet he’s shot below his age a majority of those times.”

“He’s done it so many times, it’s really nothing short of incredible,” Lambert said.

“He started shooting his age regularly in his early 70s, so that makes 13 or 14 years now. There’s no telling how many times he’s done it. I’m sure he’s lost count,” Jay Butler said.

Lambert believes Butler once had a streak of 46 straight rounds matching his age or better. Butler’s handicap is nine, and perhaps dropping.

Lambert pulled up a log of Butler’s recent scores on Nansemond River’s handicap computer. It included a 74, a couple 75s, a 76, a 77 and more rounds comfortably under 85 between Nansemond River and Seascape Golf Links in Kitty Hawk, N.C.

Butler is not a lifelong golfer. After playing baseball at and graduating from Chuckatuck High School, Butler served in the Air Force in the last months of World War II.

Returning home, he went to work in the family business, now Butler Paper Recycling, until retiring in 1991. For most of that time, Jay said, work and family took priority over afternoons on the links.

“He picked the game back up again sometime in his 50s,” Jay Butler said.

“He’s always been a good athlete,” said regular foursome mate and former Suffolk mayor Bobby Ralph.

“He just has a natural swing. He doesn’t overpower the ball. James is a great player mainly because he has masterful control with every shot. Every drive is right down the middle,” Ralph said.

“People who play with him are amazed. He hits every shot down the center, all the time,” said Ralph, 71, who knows excellent golf when he sees it. He’s shot his age three times.

“He’s got a very short swing, very compact, and he very rarely mishits a shot. He’s always in the middle of the fairway,” Jay Butler said.

The few times his father has to chip or pitch from around the green, he’s excellent in that category, Jay Butler said. Most of the time, though, taking a page from Jack Nicklaus’s playbook, Butler plays his irons straight to the center of the green.

“Then he’s an amazing lag putter. That’s his style,” Ralph said. “He’ll make pars all day by lagging long putts to six or eight inches short of the hole and tapping in.”

Enjoying the fruits of retirement, Butler took golf vacations to Nags Head, followed by Pinehurst, for a couple weeks earlier this summer.

Butler was planning on getting back into Suffolk from the Carolinas on a Friday, said Ralph, and he’d be out for his usual foursome at Nansemond River on Saturday morning.

Jay Butler is a fine golfer, too, but that still means he bests his father only occasionally.

“He usually plays in a group with younger guys. He’s usually the oldest guy in the group by 10 or 20 years,” Jay Butler said.

“My dad’s very competitive, but it’s certainly not as though he ever brags about it or anything,” Jay Butler said. “I think he mostly feels lucky to be able to go out there, physically feel fine and go out there at his age and do it.”

“I’ve always thought of golf as a gentleman’s sport and on or off the course, that’s James,” Ralph said. “Everyone enjoys playing in his group because he’s a gentleman.”