HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. -- Leo Luken of Hilton Head Island, S.C., who was untouchable as a Fast-Pitch Softball Hall of Fame pitcher, established a feat Tuesday morning on the golf course that perhaps no other player will match.
The 95-year-old amateur posted an 18-hole score of 92, which marks the 1,000th time in his golf career that he has matched or bettered his age. Luken turned in his momentous round on the George Fazio Course at Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort.
“I guarantee you that is a record that neither Tiger or Phil will touch,” said PGA Professional Doug Weaver, the director of instruction at Palmetto Dunes’ Robert Trent Jones Course, and a longtime pro-am partner of Luken. “I have played with Leo in pro-ams and pro-member events for 10 years, and he has the heart of a warrior. He knows how to compete. When you think about all the people playing the game of golf today, his story is one that stands out for his sheer love of the game.”
Luken, who carries a 21 handicap, and claims that he has never taken a formal golf lesson, plays three times a week from the white (member) tees. He completed his momentous round on the par-72, 6,239-yard George Fazio Course layout. He holed out for birdie on the 165-yard, par-3 sixth hole from a greenside bunker, but also struggled to a quintuple bogey 9 on the par-4 eighth hole, and finished with a double bogey-6 on 18.
“I didn’t like finishing as I did, but I had a lot of fun,” said Luken, who began playing golf at age 45 in 1965, and first matched his age at 71. “My partners (Bill Linkner and Chuck Price of Hilton Head Island) told me I would have to swim across the lagoon on [the par-3] 17th if I hit it in the water. Last week, in my previous attempt at Jones, I hooked one out of bounds on No. 17.”
Luken said he bought a round of drinks for everyone that he saw in the clubhouse. A native of Covington, Ky., and a former production manager for Zollner Pistons of Fort Wayne, Ind., Luken already has a niche in the Fast-Pitch Softball Hall of Fame. He was 12-0 in Fast-Pitch World Series competition and owned 53 consecutive victories. “I would work by day and pitch by night,” said Luken.
The father of six children, Luken and his wife, Mabel “Mickey,” helped support the family by teaching ballroom dancing for 23 years in the basement of their home in Fort Wayne. “My wife and I moved to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., after I retired and joined a golf club. We played in a lot of club tournaments and I won one and Mickey won 10.”
Though he has had his share of health issues over the years, the 6-foot-2 Luken said that he has been able to avoid the most serious health problems by “not overdoing things in life,” and staying away from lifting weights.
Weaver knows something about golf feats himself, having landed in the U.S. Open record books in 1989 at Oak Hill Country Club in Pittsford, N.Y. Weaver was one of four players – joining Mark Wiebe, Jerry Pate and Nick Price – who recorded a hole-in-one on the same day on the same hole.
“Leo is the best all-around athlete I have met,” said Weaver. “As a former PGA Tour player, I have met many great athletes. Leo has a great warrior mind for competition, yet is a humble and gracious man. “He is fundamentally sound and flexible.”
At one point in his athletic career, Luken was arguably the world’s best fast-pitch softball pitcher, using a pitch clocked at more than 100 miles per hour to help win 53 straight games from 1944-46 for the Zollner Pistons of Fort Wayne, Ind. Nicknamed “Leo the Lion-Hearted,” his 511 total wins helped earn Luken a spot in both the Kentucky and Indiana Sports Halls of Fame.
Eight years ago, when Luken shot his age for the 530th time, he bettered his age by six shots and he picked a particularly sporty time to do it — the final round of the inaugural Shoot Your Age Championship at The Villages, Florida. This novel event brought together 58 amateurs and two legendary professionals, ranging in age from 67 to 96 on a course measuring 6,251 yards, with par represented by the competitor’s age.
Playing in front of 8,300 spectators, with cameras whirling for a CBS tape-delayed national broadcast the following afternoon, Luken took his 6-under 81 to the clubhouse, where he anxiously waited for everyone else to finish. Adding to the drama, once players reached the number of strokes equaling their age, they were eliminated and had to leave the course.
By the end, only six of the 60-player field lasted long enough to hole out on 18, and Luken finished three shots ahead of a trio of players, which included then-76-year-old Arnold Palmer. Another prominent star on the course, Gary Player, had been eliminated a day earlier on the 17th green.
Luken and his wife, Mickey, celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary last Feb. 27. The couple have five daughters and a son. Youngest daughter, Lisa, was a member of the women’s golf team at Purdue University and was chosen as the school’s Student Athlete of the Decade. Now, one of Luken’s grandsons also is attending Purdue.
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