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This hidden golf legend is unknown to you. But Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus on the other hand…


Joel Hirsch, a golfer, has competed in 38 USGA events, yet he hasn’t received much media attention. The Palm Beach Country Club’s course we had played is a behind-the-scenes Donald Ross classic, a tiny one set on 80 gently swaying acres against the Atlantic Ocean. Its sweeping third green, located at the top of a tiny hill, is so beautiful that strolling across it might make you emotional. (Would it be that difficult to construct such a green today?) PBCC isn’t on any top-100 lists, and its members don’t appear to mind. Or Joel may not. His winter residence is the Palm Beach Country Club, which includes the course and driving range. He spends the remainder of the year in Chicago, where he lives and performs.

On the first tee, Joel said, “We’ll play one step ahead of the back of each tee box,”  This brings the par 70 course to 6,001 yards. That sort of thing. It’s not like it matters.

Hirsch, a retired insurance executive with a knack for mathematics, completed the first-tee math and assigned me five points per side. For $5, we played. He’s been playing for longer. He’s done it for less. He’s faced tougher opponents. He’s almost certainly played worse. I had one advantage: I didn’t have any pace-of-play concerns. We didn’t even have to say “ready golf.”

Hirsch is 80 years old, trim and supple, and he walks confidently. For him, walking 18 is nothing. He exercises every day. Cynthia, his wife also takes part. They’ve had a Palm Beach condo for decades.

Joel Hirsch was 56 years old when I met him. Hirsch was at the top of his game at the time, in every manner. At the Palm Beach Country Club, the late Tim Rosaforte, a former Sports Illustrated colleague, brought us together. Joel sat in the back row of a megachurch in South Florida last month for a memorial service for Tim. Hirsch recognized or was familiar with some of the other golfers present, including Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Andy North, and Mike Donald, but he didn’t walk around saying hi. That’s not him at all. He supported Tim’s family.

Hirsch does not need a large number of people in his life. That makes him a follower of many great golfers. Arnold Palmer liked to have a crowd around him, but Ben Hogan on the other hand, did not enjoy being surrounded by others. The same goes for Jack Nicklaus, Mickey Wright, Lee Trevino, Curtis Strange, Annika Sorenstam, and Tiger Woods. Hirsch has personally played thousands of rounds. He’s played many more rounds in twosomes, threesomes, and foursomes, of course. There’s also the odd fivesome.

Hirsch once played a practice round with Nicklaus and Palmer at a US Senior Open. In the group was amateur golfer O. Gordon Brewer, a former president of Pine Valley Golf Club whose son is the president of Callaway. Brewer is to Philadelphia what Hirsch is to Chicago in terms of amateur golf. That is, there were few people in their cities who could beat them at their prime.

That’s the entire picture. There are leagues upon leagues upon leagues in golf. Of course, the club champion at your club has a certain level of golfing status. Hirsch was never one to compete in club tournaments. He didn’t think it was fair, given how much national competitive golf he had played and how much time he had spent improving on his game. He wasn’t a pro, of course. He wasn’t, though, just another good weekend club golfer. He had a lot of roles to fill. Allow others to have a chance.

Hirsch was never one to compete in club tournaments. It didn’t seem fair to him.

“Pros against the ams,” Palmer declared on the first tee of the 1998 U.S. Senior Open at Riviera, with Nicklaus, Brewer, and Hirsch all within earshot. Hirsch was never happier to part with $100 at the end of the round. He’s played for a higher stakes. He hasn’t faced a better-ball club with greater experience. Nicklaus and Palmer won the 1967 World Cup by 13 strokes, as you may recall. Hirsch and Brewer had no qualms about losing to those two.

“Palmer was a great guy and a friend,” Hirsch said. “Maybe not a friend. But more than an acquaintance.” He likes clarity. “You could play $100 seven-ways with Arnold, automatic two-downs and all the rest, and he could keep it all in his head. If, at the end of the day, he said, ‘You owe me six,’ you owed him six.” Six hundred. If you know anything about Arnold, you know that he didn’t play for large quantities of money. He worked too hard for his money and was too attached to it.

Hirsch is familiar to anybody who follows golf in Chicago. (Former Northwestern golfer Luke Donald and former Chicago Bulls basketball player Michael Jordan can both tell you all about Hirsch’s game.) Since he was 11, he has lived in and around Chicago. He played as a freshman at the University of Houston under Dave Williams, recognized after a year that he couldn’t earn a livelihood as a professional golfer, and transferred his golf talent and math gene to the University of Illinois. “He majored in finance and minored in golf,” a writer for The Trib once said of him. The Chicago Tribune needs to know how to cover golf. Chicago, along with Philadelphia and New York, is one of America’s three major golfing destinations.

Debate it amongst yourselves. Ben Crenshaw, the original Robert Trent Jones, and Herbert Warren Wind are my sources.

Hirsch was named Golfer of the Year by the Chicago District Golf Association in 1993 and 1994. In other words, he was excellent in his fifties. In 1996 and 2000, he won two British Senior Amateurs. He qualified for the Western Open in a Monday four-spotter in 1999, at the age of 58! Yes, this is the real deal.

“Hey, Joel,” Tiger Woods said to Hirsch during the Cog Hill Western Open in 1999. In the press tent as they were passing each other. They have previously played practice rounds together at the US Ams. Hirsch, Woods, and Jordan played Medinah, where the PGA Championship will be hosted in six weeks, during that week, the week of the 1999 Western Open. At Cog Hill in 1999, Woods won the Western. He also won the 1999 PGA at Medinah six weeks later. Woods is now attempting to restore two public golf courses in Chicago, Jackson Park and South Shore.

I hadn’t seen Mr. Hirsch in 24 years until just the other day. Of course, going from 56 to 80 transforms a man. When I arrived at the Palm Beach Country Club’s practice tee (not to be confused with the super-fun and public Palm Beach Par-3 course or the great Jack Nicklaus public course in North Palm Beach), there he was, on the far end of the practice range, which also serves as the 10th fairway. He appeared to be slimmer and tougher than the last time I saw him. Hungrier. He now looks like actor Christopher Walken. Hirsch’s hair, his thin face, and his wise eyes. His demeanor was also courteous. Hirsch gets to the heart of the matter in conversation.

He was dressed in white sneakers, khaki tech-fabric shorts without a belt, a white long-sleeved shirt, and a white bucket hat. He rarely goes for a practice swing. When I say Joel hit his tee shot off the first with a driver 260 yards, I’m not exaggerating. Although the ball was downwind on a hard fairway, it was also up in the air, caught on the face, and had roughly three yards of draw. He has a long, limber, and rhythmic swing. Because of a slight bout of childhood polio, his left arm does not straighten.

Hirsch stands with a broad stance. (Ed Oldfield Sr., one of his teachers, promoted wide stances.) Hirsch appears to always know how he wants to play the shot, pausing only to assess the wind or the lie now and then. His golf was a clinic, and his longtime PBCC caddie, Zak Haas, was unsurprised by the caliber of his shots. Hirsch has a million of them, according to Zak.

I’m not claiming Hirsch is on Trevino’s level. That would be just insane. However, he is a fantastic golfer.

He putts with a normal-length putter and a claw grip he taught himself. Going out, he shot 34. He was curious as to how I came to play golf. (Except when we weren’t talking.) Hirsch began his golf career as a caddie. Caddies and Chicago. It really exists. (Take, for example, the Murray brothers.) I went 4-for-3 on the short par-4 home hole, to Joel’s par, and we went into the locker room level after a fantastic round. Five a side. He knew.

Joel hasn’t played competitive golf in years but is considering doing so again. He’s already competed in a pair of Florida State Golf Association competitions this year, in the 75-and-older division, at Donald Ross public courses in north Florida, Joel said, “you could play them every day for the rest of your life and never get tired of them.” (There’s one in Ocala and one in Palatka.) He is not a golf snob in the least.) Hirsch said his golf was okay, but not up to par, and he didn’t compete in either tournament. Everything happened at the last minute.

He and Cynthia found an old-timey bed-and-breakfast in a renovated estate when the Hampton Inn in Palatka was full. The proprietor, who was also 80, assisted Joel in carrying his heavy baggage up the stairs to their room. No grunting was heard.

Joel was inspired by the gentleman.

We know how that goes.

Original article posted on Golf

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