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  • Air supply keeps golfer Bailey in the swing

  • Some might think Ken Bailey has commitment issues — that he's way too committed to golf.
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  • Some might think Ken Bailey has commitment issues — that he's way too committed to golf.
    He'd probably agree.
    Bailey plays five times a week.
    He plays well enough that he recently shot one stroke better than his age.
    He used to play often enough and so well that he carried a 2 handicap.
    Oh, and he had a heart attack during a match in the Southern Oregon Golf Championships "¦ then finished playing.
    "We thought it was indigestion," says the 75-year-old Medford resident.
    Not much will keep him off the golf course even as he continues to deal with ramifications from 48 years of smoking cigarettes.
    Bailey has the standard golf equipment: clubs, balls, bag, shoes. But he also packs with him a large oxygen tank. It's the only way he can play the game he took up some 35 years ago, the only way he can enjoy this camaraderie with longtime friends.
    The tank is a bit conspicuous and a lot necessary. It combats chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) that constricts airflow and makes it difficult to breathe.
    "It's kind of embarrassing," says Bailey, a Rogue Valley Country Club member. "But if I don't have it, I don't play at all. All my buddies put up with it. It's more about being with friends than the game, I think.
    "They come around and want a sniff of it, too, that kind of thing. They accuse me of having steroids in it."
    After nearly five decades of smoking, Bailey got a wake-up call during the SOGC eight years ago. He and Dick Brekke were on the 15th hole of their match on the inside course when Bailey experienced severe pain and had to lean against a greenside oak tree.
    They thought it was indigestion and got a chuckle out of it. Brekke took a picture of his opponent.
    The match lasted one more hole, with Brekke winning. A couple weeks later, Bailey had a second heart attack.
    "There was no doubt what it was," he says.
    Not long after he was back on his feet, he was outfitted with the oxygen. He breathes through his nostrils from a tube attached to the tank.
    "I just carry the big tank in the cart," says Bailey, who also has a smaller one he carries when away from the cart. "I'm able to take it (the tube) off and go out and hit the ball. I can be off it a short period of time as long as I'm not really exerting myself too much."
    He isn't likely to spend the allotted five minutes looking for a lost ball, and it behooves him to stay away from bunkers.
    "The thing that bothers me the most is raking the damn sand traps," says Bailey.
    Some of his playing partners are quick to handle that chore for him.
    When it gets dicey, Bailey says, he gets "really uncomfortable. It gets hard to breathe. I've never passed out or anything like that. I get a little light-headed because I lose the oxygen in my blood, but I've never had any serious problems."
    In winter, when carts aren't allowed off paths because of soggy terrain, the situation is compounded. He tries to hit near the paths but isn't always successful.
    "A couple of times I couldn't finish a round," he says. "If I'm playing bad and I'm a long way from the cart path, I'm in trouble."
    Yet, he plugs along.
    "My doctor said the best thing I can do for what I've got is keep exercising," says Bailey. "If I just go and sit on the couch, I wouldn't last very long."
    There are days when his opponents might wish he was relaxing at home rather than taking their lunch money. Such as 11/2 weeks ago, when he made a couple birdies, a few bogeys and shot a consistent, 2-over-par 74. He figures it's the third time he shot his age but the first under it.
    It was nothing spectacular, he reports. No aces — of which he's had six — or eagles, some greens in regulation and his trademark ability to get up and down.
    Asked when he knew it would be a good day, he said, "When I parred the first hole."
    Back in the day, Bailey could hit 250-plus-yard drives. Now, he has to bust one to squeeze 230 out of it.
    He packs an 8 handicap even if he can't play exactly as he once did.
    "It's tough," says Bailey. "You still think you ought to be able to do it, but you just can't."
    But he's always out there. It's that commitment thing, something he comes by honestly. His parents resided in the same house in Gold Hill for 73 years — the length of their marriage — and lived well into their 90s.
    His father, Wilmer, had a sharp mind and quick wit until the day he died at age 94, says Bailey, and served as the unofficial town historian. His mother lived to 97.
    Like his parents, Bailey and his wife, Sue, have long been married. They'll celebrate their 50th anniversary in August.
    Also like his father, Bailey bowls. He totes his tank with him and competes in a senior league once a week. He's been hitting the lanes since he was 21.
    Bailey graduated from Crater High in 1955, lettering in baseball and also playing football and basketball.
    "I played mostly the bench in those," he chuckles.
    He served three years in the Army, and upon returning, briefly tried carpentry and worked at a fire department before settling into a plumbing career. His primary hobby for years was trap shooting. But when he tired of that, he traded in his guns and other equipment for golf clubs, having played a round at the behest of a friend at Cedar Links.
    "It just stuck," says Bailey. "With golf, you either love it or hate it. I just enjoyed being outside, and I liked the guys that I made friends with. I've got the same friends now, the ones that are still alive, that I started out with. And they treat me pretty good."
    Playing at Cedar Links, it took only two years to get to a single digit handicap, another 10 or so to get to a 2.
    He once shot a 64 and held the course record, but only for about a month, he says.
    In the SOGC, his highlight was earning medalist honors in the senior division. He and two others shot 75s in qualifying, then he won a playoff.
    Bailey typically shoots in the low 80s, but he's had enough rounds in the 70s that his age seems a reasonable target for future rounds.
    "The good part of getting old," he says, "is it's easier to do."
    Have a local golf story idea? Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email ttrower@mailtribune.com
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