The e-mail was innocent enough. Grace Scordino just wanted to let me know her husband, Tony, shot 77 at Clearwater Country Club just days after his 92nd birthday. Good for him. Then I thought: La-di-da. Let's see if you can handle a 16-handicap sports writer who is 50 years younger. You want some of that action? "Sure, whenever you want to play,'' Tony Scordino said. Glunk. I have just challenged a 92-year-old with a 14 handicap to play 18 holes on a course he has played an average of four times a week, every week, since 1981. A course he walks, no matter the weather, and still shoots several strokes below his age on a bad day. A course that has given me nightmares since the mid '80s, when I pulled off the trifecta of hitting shots onto Drew Street, Betty Lane and Palmetto Street in the same round. But there was no turning back. I'm either going to beat a 92-year-old or I'm going to shoot his age and throw the clubs in a Dumpster.
The stories he could tell
Tony Scordino was born in 1916. He is older than the electric golf cart, graphite shafts and golf tees. As a kid he carried bags at the Country Club in Scarsdale, N.Y., for $1 a bag. If he got a 50-cent tip, it was a good day.
He would show up at the club before dawn, sneak into the kitchen for a hot breakfast, then lug clubs for 36 holes a day. On slow days, he would be put to work on the course.
"We'd get $3 for the day if we went out to the green and picked out the weeds,'' Scordino said.
"That was big money in those days. We'd get a little nail and dig out the weeds, all the way down to the root. Ah, the stories I could tell.''
After spending time in the military, Scordino returned to New York and became a full-time caddie. He would work summers in Scarsdale then follow a club pro he knew to Vero Beach to work in the winters. He did that for 50 years, surviving on $5 per bag and a tip if he was lucky.
"I caddied for Babe Didrikson for a week,'' Scordino said. "She was ahead of her time, I'll tell you. And I've caddied for Gene Sarazen. And Sam Snead. He was a cheap son of a (gun).''
Scordino and his wife, Grace, decided to retire to Clearwater in 1981. He receives $511 a month from Social Security, but he is still treated like royalty at Clearwater Country Club.
The front nine
It is 7 a.m. and the pins have just been placed. Scordino has been at the club for an hour, using his trusty ball retriever to fish out balls in the creek. He figures he has 800 balls stored in his space at the club's cart barn.
I am teamed with John Wilson, a 69-year-old Pittsburgh transplant who lives in Dunedin, and Steve Hall, a 73-year-old retiree from New York.
Scordino knocks his drive straight down the fairway of the 313-yard first hole. He plays from the men's tees, never the gold senior citizens' tees. Almost before the ball lands, Scordino puts his driver away and walks down the fairway with his pull cart. Never an electric cart.
His legs are still sturdy. He figures he walks about a thousand miles a year. The three of us, on the other hand, hit our drives in the fairway and cruise down the first hole in our electric carts. Yep, the 42-year-old is riding while the 92-year-old is walking. Some people still use typewriters, too.
Scordino skulls his second shot into the greenside bunker while I dig a crater with my wedge and fall well short of the green. Scordino then knocks his sand shot to 5 feet and makes his par. I cozy my chip shot to 50 feet and two-putt for bogey. This is not going to be easy.
On the third hole, Scordino tees off and laces a drive down the middle, maybe 220 yards out.
"Won't see many 92-year-olds hit it like that,'' Scordino says as he places the driver back in the bag. We spend the rest of the front nine trading bogeys. The sun starts to clear the trees, and Scordino pops open the umbrella on his pull cart. He does allow himself a few luxuries.
By the time he taps in for double bogey on No. 9 with his 1960 blade putter he bought for $11, Scordino has recorded 46 on the front. Thanks to a few double bogeys myself, I'm also in at 46.
Losing to a 92-year-old looks like a very real possibility.
The back nine
I announce on the 10th tee that I plan to go low on the back nine. It was meant to amp up the pressure on Scordino, but it only drew a skeptical chuckle just before he sent his drive soaring down the fairway. To back up my chatter, I drained a 20-footer for birdie on No. 10. Who's laughing now, old man?
That is what Scordino is affectionately called by Hall and Wilson, two longtime partners. "Quit your complaining, old man.'' "Hurry up, old man.'' "Nice shot, old man.'' They call him that about as often as they call him Tony.
"He's a great old guy,'' Wilson said. "We take care of him. He doesn't have a lot of money, so we'll take him on golf outings and pay some of the greens fees. We'll take him out to lunch every once in a while.''
As the round moves on, it looks like I might really go low. Four pars and birdie over the next seven holes have me even par heading to the 18th. Meanwhile, Scordino has all 5s and has fallen off the leaderboard, so to speak. But he has pulled six golf balls out of the creek, so his day is salvaged.
On the last hole my first drive sails onto Betty Lane, which skirts the right side of the fairway. And so does the second. A triple-bogey finish has me at 39 for the back, 85 overall. Scordino does shoot lower than his age, 91.
And then there is Hall. He shoots a quiet 33 on the back nine and finishes with 74, one shot from his age.
Beat a 92-year-old, lost to a 73-year-old.
It's just another day for Scordino. He'll be there every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday before dawn, fishing out yesterday's lost balls and shooting well below his age.
"I'll play anybody 87 years and older that walks,'' Scordino said. "They've got to be able to walk. Bet there's nobody that can beat me doing that.''
That goes for me, too. But I'm taking a cart.