SEMINOLE — When it is suggested to Loyal "Bud" Chapman that he may be the best 88-year-old golfer in the world, he shrugs.
"Gosh, I don't know. Maybe,'' Chapman says. "I used to play with some guys my age, but it got a little boring.''
That's because not many octogenarians carry a 4 handicap on regulation courses. Fewer still can shoot their age, as Chapman had done 2,151 times as of Tuesday.
"He's a freak of nature,'' Seminole Lake Country Club head professional Bruce Chaleff said.
Chapman can be found on most Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at Seminole Lake, playing with a group in their 60s and 70s. He can still hit the ball about 240 yards right down the center and knock approach shots near the cup.
On a good day he'll shoot par, a bad day in the upper 70s. And he plays from the men's tees. Chapman, who lives in Treasure Island, plays mostly at Seminole Lake and St. Petersburg Country Club.
He first bettered his age when he was 68. Chapman shot a then-club record 64 at Wentworth Golf Club in Tarpon Springs. It was broken a few months later by PGA pro John Huston.
Through five months this year, Chapman has played an average of five times per week and has 100 straight rounds of shooting better than his age. On May 21, Chapman got the 16th hole-in-one of his career on the seventh hole at Seminole Lake.
"That's really not that many when you think of how many rounds I've played,'' Chapman said.
A life in golf
Chapman first picked up a golf club when he was 12. He caddied at Interlachen Country Club in Edina, Minn., a Minneapolis suburb. On Mondays caddies could play for free. In his first round, he shot 166. Pretty soon, he says, he was shooting par.
After World War II, in which he flew B-29s, Chapman returned to Minnesota and became a commercial artist. In 1972 he created a painting called "Victoria Falls Golf Club," a fictional hole set in a difficult landscape. Over the next 10 years, he created 17 more holes, calling them "Infamous Golf Holes.''
The paintings sold worldwide and financially gave him the freedom to play golf. He played often. Chapman has been named the Minnesota Golfer of the Year in three decades. He has played in U.S. Amateurs and the U.S. Senior Open. He shares the course record (64) at Minneapolis Golf Club. He has played in competition with Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen.
He first won Minnesota's Senior Men's Championship in 1978. He has won the Grand Masters Championship for players 65 and older nine times since 1998, the last time in 2009. He is in the PGA-Minnesota Golf Association Hall of Fame.
Chapman started wintering in Florida about 40 years ago. He used to return to Minnesota for the summer, but lately he has stayed year-round. His wife, Mitze, is in a nursing home. He said he continues to paint and is writing a book. But he makes sure to leave time for golf.
"Who knows what would happen if I wasn't playing golf,'' Chapman said. "Got to keep my body active.''
Chapman is well-known in his home state for his paintings and his golf. But he has one other distinction: He is 0-for-60-something in trying to qualify for the U.S. Open. He's not sure how many times he has tried to qualify. He is sure of the zero part.
He remembers first trying in 1944. He says he has had some close calls. The closest was at a sectional qualifier in Detroit, he says. He's not sure of the year, but he says he was in the lead with two holes to go. He says he was four or five shots ahead of Snead and PGA Tour pro Frank Stranahan.
He says his caddie told him he should hit an iron on a par 4 hole because there was so much trouble. He sprayed the shot into a marsh, needed several hacks to get out and took 14 on the hole.
"The caddie did the right thing,'' Chapman said. "What I should have done was just re-teed the shot, but I thought I could hit it out of there. Oh well, I could still qualify.''
But on the final hole, a par 3, Chapman says he hit a shot he thought was going right at the flag. Instead, it embedded in a greenside hill. Back then, you could not remove an embedded ball.
"It was sitting up a little, so I choked up and just tried to punch it out,'' Chapman said. "But I kept burying it deeper and deeper. Finally I had to blast it out of there. I took an 11. Missed the cut by a shot. It would have to be the biggest choke in U.S. Open qualifying history. I was laughing about it right after it happened. I don't let things bother me.''
The last time Chapman tried to qualify was six years ago, at age 82, when he had an official handicap of 1.
"I wanted to try it one last time,'' Chapman said. "I didn't make it, but what else is new.''
Not quitting his day job
Chapman thought about making a living at golf.
"There was a time in my 40s or 50s where I was thinking about turning pro,'' he said. "I remember being at Riviera Country Club (in Los Angeles), and I was watching Ben Hogan on the range. It was after his (February 1949 near-fatal auto) accident. I was watching him hit shots at his caddie, who was down on the range. He was hitting them right next to his caddie, and (the caddie) would throw them back.
"After about two hours, when he finished, I stopped him in front of the clubhouse. I said, 'Mr. Hogan, you were really hitting them well out there.' He said to me, 'If I hit them like that tomorrow, I'm withdrawing.' That's when I realized I could never compete with the tour players.''
Another reason is the nerves it takes to be a professional golfer.
"I can spend hours working on one small little detail in my paintings,'' Chapman said. "If you watched me doing it, it looks like my hand isn't even moving. But I'm moving ever so slightly. Then I get over a 3-foot putt and I'm shaking all over the place. Craziest thing.
"I was in Las Vegas once, and there was a guy on the putting green practicing 3-footers. I noticed him and went over and tried to help him out. The next morning we met again and I tried to help him. Not sure I really did, but when it was over he said he had a show on the Vegas Strip and he gave me tickets.
"I didn't know him, but when we showed up, we were in the front row. Turns out he's one of the greatest jugglers in the world. He can't make 3-footers, either!''
Never stop learning
Chapman has played thousands of rounds of golf. Part of what keeps him going is the hope that he will finally figure the game out. He is constantly tinkering with his putting stroke and making notes on the course.
"He jots things down as he's playing,'' playing partner Paul Bernard said. "They're his secrets, notes about how he's playing or something. He won't let you see them.''
Chapman is motivated by hope. Maybe today is the day everything falls into place, and every drive finds the fairway, every approach shot cozies next to the hole, every putt drops.
"One thing I found was that whatever I wrote down, it never worked the next day,'' Chapman said. "If you were at my house, you would see piles of old notes I've written to myself. I would look at them, then go out on the range and try it, and it never works. One day I'm going to find the holy grail.''