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  • GOLF

    Golden Oldie

    At age 96, Bob Rickabaugh returns to tournament play in SOGC
  • Is it possible to be a young 96?
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  • Is it possible to be a young 96?
    Can you still be young at heart if said ticker is planning its centennial celebration?
    If 50 is the new 40 and 60 is the new 50, is 96 the new 86?
    These are questions you ponder once you've had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Bob Rickabaugh. And quite a few have gotten the opportunity this week in the Southern Oregon Golf Championships, because that was him out on the course, all 123 pounds of him, swinging the club and telling stories and yucking it up with the younger set.
    Yes, at 96, he competed in the men's super senior division at Rogue Valley Country Club. The division is for those 65 and older.
    "Sixty-five," said Rickabaugh, "that's quite young, comparatively younger. I could get a guy whose only 65 and he'll hit the ball considerably longer than me.
    "But I enjoy being around people younger than myself. If I didn't, I wouldn't have anyone to enjoy."
    A former 2-handicapper, it's the first tournament Rickabaugh has entered in 60 years. He won his first match on Thursday, then was eliminated with a loss on Friday.
    In that previous club tournament in Palo Alto, Calif., in the 1950s, he was in the first flight with a couple of Stanford University kids, Ken Venturi and Bob Rosburg. He was ousted by Rosburg, who, like Venturi, went on to fame in the professional ranks and as a broadcaster.
    "He was close to being a professional as far as capabilities at that time," said Rickabaugh, who lives in Jacksonville. "I had fun. It was a pleasant experience."
    There's no indication the setback soured him on tournament play or that he entered the Southern Oregon to finally get the taste of defeat out of his mouth.
    Truth is, he was busy raising a family and working, and golf took a back seat. Rickabaugh and Freda, his late wife of 68 years, had two children. When others on the putting green might show pictures of their kids, Rickabaugh can break out photos of his great-great-grandchild.
    One of his jobs was as the superintendent at Black Butte Ranch in Central Oregon. When he retired at 66, Rickabaugh got rid of his clubs in order to do things of mutual interest to him and Freda. He didn't come back to the game until he was 91.
    "It was a traumatic thing playing at that age after being a fairly low handicap in my youth," said Rickabaugh. "There's an awesome difference playing at that age. You lose muscle and flexibility."
    Rickabaugh had always had jobs that required physical activity. He still goes to the gym for an hour each evening and has a grip that could turn a lemon into lemonade. He draws double takes at RVCC several times a week when he walks and carries his bag on the hilly and challenging Oaks Course. He gained mention in the club bulletin earlier this year when he shot his age, something he's since done a few times.
    Garth Harrington played with Rickabaugh in the qualifying round Tuesday and afterward recounted what another member once told him.
    "Here we are over on 16 (on the outside course)," Harrington quoted his friend, "in our carts drinking beer, and he's schlepping his clubs up No. 2 on the inside."
    Rickabaugh was raised in Eugene and began caddying at age 12 at Eugene Country Club. It was before power carts, and he often carried two bags at a time. He played on the golf team at Eugene High School — there was only one other high school in town then, University High — before joining the Navy.
    Following his service, he moved to Palo Alto and worked for the city as a power lineman.
    "We were climbing poles back before they had buckets where you're comfortable," he said.
    He lived up and down the West Coast, eventually landing at Black Butte, where he was instrumental in the development of the resort's two courses, beginning in 1970. In the book, "There is a Place," about Black Butte, Rickabaugh is called a "lucky find" by the developers for his many skills and work ethic.
    He stayed on until the mid-1980s, then retired himself and, for a quarter century, his golf clubs.
    Rickabaugh terms his return to tournament play this week "a lark, kind of a swan song."
    "I wanted to get involved with people there and see what I could do in a competitive field," he said. "And having the honor of being the oldest one in a big tournament, that was kind of a novel thing in my mind. I could also draw attention somewhat to my Christian beliefs and realizing what the Lord can do in life."
    Indeed, while waiting to tee off in his first match Thursday, he produced an index card with Psalm 71:18 hand-scrawled on it: "Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, O God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your might to all who are to come."
    "That's where I am now," he said.
    The tournament was already a success because he broke 100 in qualifying, shooting 99.
    "That was quite a thrill for me to do that in a stressful, competitive manner," he said. "I scored as well as I could have expected for my age and ability, so I'm happy with it."
    He's resigned to the fact he doesn't hit it far, meaning, "You're losing all the way to the green."
    It's around the greens that he makes some of the strokes back.
    "You can tell that's where the single-digit handicap is very much alive and well," said Harrington, "because he can get up and down, as one of my friends used to say, from the bottom of a well."
    After his fine play in the qualifying round, Rickabaugh opened match play against Scott Milne with a solid drive that featured a wonderful little draw as it flew up the left side of the fairway.
    One of his playing partners, at least a couple decades his junior, was suitably impressed.
    "When I grow up, I want to be just like you," he said with a grin.
    Rickabaugh won his match that day, 3 and 2.
    Ever the gentleman, he said his opponent clearly had an off day and most certainly was the better player.
    Rickabaugh bowed out the next day.
    He can't predict if he'll be in the SOGC again next year.
    "That's a long time off, in one sense," he said, "but it's just a short time in another. All we have is one day at a time."
    Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email ttrower@mailtribune.com
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