By William Nack Last Sunday at noon, with the sun ablaze in the South Carolina sky, a diminutive former jockey named Fred Wirth--all 5-2 and 112 pounds of him-- teed up a golf ball on the driving range at Whispering Pines Golf Course, addressed it with his homemade 48-inch driver, drew the mighty club back, and... thwack!
The ball sailed straight down the range, and bounced to a stop about 20 yards short of the 200-yard mark.
"I never was a long hitter," said Wirth, placing another ball on the tee. "Never
much over 220 yards, and I used to tail my drives until I made my own driver here. This is my anti-slice club. See how the head is set on it? Yes sir, I made this club. I sent off for the components, the shaft and the head, and made it in my garage. I make all of my own clubs. With this driver I can now hit a draw, like this"--crunch!--"or I can hit it straight, like this."
Oh, yes. Fred Wirth, of Louisville, KY, also happens to be 82, and while he doesn't look a day older than that, he still moves about with the purpose and energy of a man half his age. Wirth was in Myrtle Beach this week to compete in the World Am of golf--the World Amateur Handicap Championship--an event that he has been attending nearly every year since 1985. Wirth says he has won his flight--the level at which he plays, based on his handicap and age--five times over the last 25 years, and he is accommodating his advancing age by making longer clubs and playing as much as he can.
"I play every day, as long as it's not raining," he said.
He has learned that much in life is quite relative. "The only thing now, with my age, is I can't hit it off the tee with the guys who are only 75," says Wirth. "Those younger guys can hit it 50, 75 yards farther than me. I can't hit it 220 anymore. I go 180 yards straight and I'm happy. I'm here because I love to compete. I like the challenge, the competition, and you meet a lot of nice people here from all across the country, all over the world. "
Fred Wirth has been competing all his life, ever since he left a world of want and poverty as a kid growing up in a broken home during the Great Depression. "I had one pair of shoes," he said, "and when you wore holes in the soles, you put in a piece of cardboard and walked on that until it wore out. Daddy made a dollar a day diggin' ditches. We were lucky to eat. Mom and dad got a divorce when I was six or seven and I was in a foster home at nine or ten. I was always small, weighed just 65 pounds when I was 14, but growin' up in Louisville, I liked the horses and used to go to Churchill Downs. I wanted to be a jockey. So I ran off from home when I was almost 15. I went to New Orleans and then Florida and rode in quarter horse races."
He started riding seriously, as a thoroughbred jockey, in 1945. He was one of the nation's leading apprentice riders then, when he won 156 races, and along the way he took up boxing--one year, he was the Florida State golden gloves champ in the flyweight division--and also became an accomplished speedster on roller skates and a winning stock car racer on the two-state "Kentuckiana" circuit.
When his career as a thoroughbred jockey stalled in the 1950s, he turned to training thoroughbreds. Wirth trained some talented runners in his day--including Run for Nurse and He's a Pistol for millionaire owner J. Graham Brown--and at one point was a leading conditioner at Churchill Downs. He even saddled one horse, stakes-winning Mythical Ruler, for the Kentucky Derby. In fact, Fred's son Kevin, a jockey by then, rode Mythical Ruler that day in 1981, finishing in seventeenth place after breaking from the far outside post.
Fred Wirth had enjoyed his life in the saddle, and as a trainer he liked to gallop and exercise his own horses in the morning, a tough job that requires unusual hand and arm strength. Over the years, from his days as a jockey through his years as an exercise rider, that daily isometric of pulling on those leather reins ultimately took its toll. Indeed, today it is a wonder that his hands and fingers, bent and gnarled from arthritis, can even hold a golf club.
But they can. And do. Indeed, Wirth took up the game when he was in his 40s in spite of himself. "I didn't think I'd like it," he said. "Who'd want to go out chasing a golf ball around? But I started playing and I got hooked on it. At one point my handicap got down to about eleven. "
Today, he says, it's closer to a 16. Nonetheless, Wirth is treating the World Am like it was the Masters at Augusta. Highly intense and competitive as usual, the octogenarian showed up in Myrtle a week ago to begin serious training. As in the past, he is playing in the World Am's parent-child competition with his son Kevin, who retired as a jockey and is now a professional bass fisherman competing in that sport's Elite Series. Kevin says that he carries a "five or six" handicap.
Of course, the old man--the former jockey, boxer, and roller skater--is not in Myrtle to smell any roses (One Kentucky Derby was close enough).
"I'm here to compete," said Fred Wirth. "I'm here to win."(Photo: Fred Wirth at River Hills Golf Club, Erick W. Rasco/SI)