Professional clubfitter Jim McCleery thought he'd seen every type of golfer in his shop (McGolf Custom Clubs in Waverly, Ohio). Then one day in May, 85-year-old Pauline Whitacre walked through his door. "That woman, what a treat it was to get to spend time with her," McCleery says. "I can only imagine what she was like back in the day. Competitive, to say the least."
Whitacre, of Canton, Ohio, doesn't just like golf, she loves it and lives it almost every day, even though she's been suffering from emphysema for the last three years. "I still play about three or four times a week all year, both here and in Florida, so I guess that's over 150 rounds a year," she says. Whitacre picked up the game as a 10-year-old at her parents' club in Canton back in 1937, and broke 80 for the first time at age 14. She went on to play college golf (long before there really was such a thing) at Ohio State, where she lost to LPGA co-founder Marilynn Smith in the semifinals of the National Intercollegiate. After getting married, she won the Ohio State Amateur Championship three times and the Ohio Invitational Senior Championship at least six times (she can't quite remember). To this day, she competes regularly, and she hasn't lost an ounce of drive (she was even featured on the local news at last year's Ohio Senior Women's Amateur Championship, where she competed in the Super Seniors division).
But lately, Whitacre's scores had been inching up, and she just wasn't hitting the ball as far as she used to. And even though she keeps shooting her age or better on a regular basis (she estimates she's done that at least 70 times by now), she wasn't happy with her 13.5 handicap. So her daughter, Janet Kaboth, booked her a clubfitting session with McCleery to see if a new set of clubs might help.
McCleery began the fitting by looking at Whitacre's putter, a center-shafted blade that he quickly determined was about two and a half inches too long for its owner. The centered shaft was also detrimental to her arc stroke. "She has the traditional screen-door type of putting stroke, so she needed something more heel-shafted," McCleery says. A new putter was assembled on the spot, and it turned out to be instrumental in the 86 Whitacre shot the day after her fitting.
The remainder of the four-hour fitting session ("We made sure she took a lot of breaks between swings, because we didn't want her to get too exhausted," McCleery says) was spent on the launch monitor identifying Whitacre's best driver and iron specs. "She had been playing with irons that measured out super soft on the shaft flex and had too much offset for her swing type -- she flips her wrists a lot through impact, and was missing to the left," says McCleery. "So we determined that she needed something lightweight but slightly stiffer, and clubheads with a bit less offset." When testing clubs that fit those criteria, Whitacre started hitting 6-irons farther than her own 5-iron. To compensate for her diminishing clubhead speed, McCleery put her in easy-to-launch hybrids rather than mid and long irons. The club brand they finally landed on was a big name that McCleery ordered with un-cut shafts so that he could customize them for Whitacre (women's clubs that he cut to men's length, with standard men's grips because she has large hands).
The driver fitting was an eye-opening experience, both for player and fitter. When McCleery measured Whitacre's current driver, he found that it was almost 46 inches long with an extra-stiff shaft (the flex most PGA Tour players use) and only had nine degrees of loft. "It's no wonder she couldn't get it up in the air," McCleery chuckles. The launch-monitor data showed that she got almost 70 yards of roll out of her old driver but only carried it 79 yards. "That'll work in Florida, but up here in Appalachia, it's not going to do you much good," says McCleey. With a higher-lofted driver head and a lighter, shorter and much more flexible shaft, Whitacre immediately gained 30 yards of carry.
At the end of the day, a tired but happy Whitacre went home with a new putter and an order placed for the rest of her set. "The whole experience was so enjoyable," she told me the next day. "I'd never had anything like that happen before. It was strange to have somebody giving me clubs to fit my swing rather than the other way around." Three weeks later, Whitacre proudly told me about the 80 and 81 she'd just scored with her new clubs. "I'm doing very well especially with the woods, and really the whole set. It's taken me some time to learn the new distances, especially with the irons because they go farther. But I feel so much more confident now that I know I have the right clubs for my swing."
The fitting bug has spread through Whitacre's family -- her daughter has gone through the same procedure since seeing what it did for Pauline, and her son-in-law is next. "I would recommend it to anyone," Whitacre says.
For Golf Digest's ranking of America's 100 Best Clubfitters, click here.
--Stina Sternberg (Photos by Michael Nemeth)