The zeal for golf just won’t dull for Matt O’Brien. He is 77 years old and gleefully chases the game into the abyss where it leads him. “A cruel game,” O’Brien says. And then he smiles, as if he would have it no other way.
Experience is why O’Brien will not allow the game to bamboozle him, and that is what being a Geezer Jock is all about. Whenever he faces a challenge he reaches into his bag of …not clubs…but remedies.
He appropriates from the Masters and starts to climb out of his rut by swinging the club like Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer and, here is a name for you, the suave Tony Lema (he died at his peak in a plane crash in 1966).
Most of us cannot tell one swing from another. O’Brien is not most of us, clearly, if he can imitate the swings of the greats.
“I’ve built up over the years an arsenal of swing options if I get into a rut during a round, or in between rounds,” O’Brien said. “That goes back to the days of having an Arnold Palmer swing, or a Jack Nicklaus swing, or a Tony Lema swing. It’s not that you are showing people that you think you are them.
“It’s a memory bank to go back (rely) on. I say to myself ‘Let me try this’.”
To cure a case of the “yips” O'Brien borrowed from the great Sam Snead who used a side saddle stance to see the hole better. You can see a video at the end of this story.
The emulating works. O’Brien can shoot his age on the course, and 77 at 77 is pretty dang impressive over 18 holes. O'Brien has shot his age at least 200 times. Not surprisingly, his name is peppered on trophies and plaques in the modest Mystery Valley clubhouse.
Why should we care? Because golf continues to be an elixir for many Americans as we age. It is juice. Guys like O'Brien inspire the rest of us to keep going, and do more.
Almost 25 million people teed up a ball in 2020, which was 500,000 more than 2019, the largest net increase in golfers in 17 years. According to the United States Golf Association, golfers 70 and over played an average of 40 times in 2020.
That’s two months of work for O'Brien who plays four times a week. He shows us we can do more, and we should do more. Even if you live in the tundra of Maine golfers should get out there more than 40 times a year. The game is more accessible than ever.
You might have guessed that a guy who plays four times a week is not mildly competitive. He is wildly competitive and that is another ingredient to aging well in sport.
O'Brien plays for money during the week. Not huge stakes, but greenbacks nonetheless. A foursome might throw $15 to $20 into the pot, but even $60 makes you go for it and seriousness about what you are doing is important for a Geezer Golfer, insists O’Brien.
“My advice to older golfers is be competitive, play in tournaments, play in events, play in money games,” he said. “Don’t just go out and play by yourself for fun. Be competitive because it keeps you sharp and it gives you something to look forward to.
“If you are working on your game, you’re thinking of ‘Ok, I’ve got a tournament on Saturday, and I need to get ready for the tournament’.”
It’s an attitude. Second place is not ok.
“It’s just a matter of, of staying sharp,” O’Brien said. “And you can’t do that with just practice or playing by yourself. You’ve got to play against other people. I’m talking good players, too. The adrenaline can boost your game. There’s pressure involved in a tournament atmosphere, but it can be beneficial.”
Think of the payoff. In 2009, O’Brien won the Georgia Super-Senior Championship when he birdied the last hole to win by a stroke and defeat a strong, statewide field. Golf in Georgia for men in their 60s is not peanuts and O’Brien rightly thrills in that victory.
He plays with what the kids call “drip.” It is an effervescence, a joyfulness, like the displays of Trae Young of the NBA Atlanta Hawks, who has not yet been jaded by veteran cool. Just watch Young bounce around on the floor and enjoy the game. That’s O’Brien, who is well known at his public club and, seemingly, well-liked.
Fun is a habit of his thinking on the course.
Yet, golf would not be the most enduring thing about O’Brien for some people.
He was a professor of English Literature for 31 years at Georgia Tech. Matt studied the literature around the Civil War and surprised me when he said Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick and other novels of the sea, had a collection of poems related to the war. I didn’t know that.
O’Brien finesses a subtle comparison of golf to the Civil War and the notion of “fighting against ourselves.” You understand, right? Golf is a mental game and frequently golfers are wrestling with their own inner demons and self-doubt.
The Civil War, on a whole other tragic level, of course, was similarly about fighting against ourselves.
“The predominant theme of civil war literature that attracted so many writers was Brother versus Brother, Father versus Son, Family versus Family,” O’Brien said. “We are fighting against ourselves. So many works of literature at that time focused on this.”
O’Brien attended Boston College and earned a Masters and Ph.D from the University of Maryland. He knows his stuff. Off the top of his head, he recalls a work of the short story writer, Ambrose Bierce, the author of the acclaimed “Devil’s Dictionary.”
“It was a story called Horseman In The Sky. Bierce sets it up as the beginning of the secession in western Virginia, which would become West Virginia. A father and a son are at odds over to which side to commit. The father wants to stay with Virginia. Fight for the Confederacy. The son says, ‘Father I can’t. I have to go with the Union’.
“Two or three years later, the son is a scout and he’s on top of a mountain. His army is beneath the mountain and he is there to warn them of any impending attacks. He sees a horseman come to the edge of a cliff. The horseman is wearing a Confederate uniform and looks down and sees the Union army. What is the Union scout going to do?
What is he going to do?
The story segues to the Union army seeing the Confederate on the horse fall from the cliff, and obviously it is going to be fatal. When the Union sentry goes back to his camp, they ask him what happened.
“I saw an enemy scout up there. He was my father. I shot his horse.”
Golf is that intimate fight against ourselves. It is surely intimate for O'Brien, who started playing at 12 and hasn’t stopped.
“You play against a golf course and you play against opponents,” O’Brien said. “Ultimately, you play against yourself. In many ways, you’re battling yourself trying to overcome things within you that are maybe trying to defeat you.”
He is competitive on the golf course—with himself and others—but O’Brien insists he never took it home and laid that overbearing competitiveness on his four kids. He was a high school star athlete (he’s in the Hall of Fame of the prestigious St. John’s Prep in Danvers, Mass.), but he did not chart a course for his children in athletics to follow his own.
Still, they had something extra, just like their father. One son, also named Matt, was a high school basketball star in Decatur, Ga., and played Division I basketball at Georgia State, which made the NCAA Tournament in 1991. His other son, Eric, was an All-American runner at Georgetown University and competed in the 1996 U.S. Olympic team track & field trials in the 1,500 meter run. Cathy helped found a girls soccer team at her high school and was a star. Leslie was an accomplished swimmer.
Matt, the dad, played baseball and golf at Boston College. He grew up on team sports, and excelled at them, but the solo sports suit O'Brien just fine. It’s good to be king.
“Team sports are fine, but they involve coaching, regimentation, strict practice patterns,” he said. “What a relief golf provides. No coaching, just individual, self-made decisions about when, where, and how to play and practice. I really enjoyed those freedoms when I left team sports behind.”
O’Brien has heroes these days to replace Nicklaus and Palmer and Snead. They are the golfers in their late 80s and early 90s who still come out to Mystery Valley and bang it around. They can’t drive it like they used to, but they hit it dead straight and that is more than admirable to O'Brien.
“I’m shooting for 85. If I can be playing at 85, and then go beyond that, it would be gravy,” O’Brien said. “People, us Geezers, are proving it can be done.”