October 17, 2016

850 rounds of golf in one year?! Our day with the world's most avid golfer

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The first thing I noticed when I met Barry Gibbons was his tan. He glowed with a skin hue that would make George Clooney jealous. Of course, it helps to have a schedule that would make any golfer jealous.

The retired Gibbons, 57, hasn’t just played more rounds of golf in 2016 than anyone in the world. He’s on pace to play more rounds of golf than anyone in the world has EVER played in a year.

Gibbons is in the process of obliterating the record of walking rounds (611) set by Richard Lewis of Texas in 2010. What’s Gibbons' target? 850. Yes, that’s eight HUNDRED and fifty. Think about that for a minute. That’s the equivalent of playing more than 40 times a year for 20 years. Or, playing 20 times a year for 40 years. That's a lifetime worth of golf in ONE year. And you thought you loved playing the game.

“People are either envious or they think I'm nuts,” Gibbons says.

I'm in the envious camp. When Gibbons, who also plans to break the Guinness World Record of rounds in a cart (812), set by Chris Adam in 2012, talks, it's clear he's enjoyed this year of essentially living on a golf course. He loves golf (obviously), and he loves meeting people on the course (he usually goes out as a single). But it’s not easy to play 800-plus rounds of golf in a year -- especially when you're not using a cart.

“The golf isn’t the hardest part,” Gibbons says, “It’s the walking.”

And the carrying. Gibbons doesn’t do himself any favors by lugging around a full bag of clubs that’s packed with golf balls he’s found. I learn that when one of his friends urges me to pick it up before we tee off. It’s the third bag he’s used this year and judging by one of the legs being completely taped up, he’s probably due for No. 4 pretty soon. He’s also gone through 11 pairs of shoes, which is what happens when you walk nearly 5,000 miles in nine months.

And now he’s about to walk some more. Recently, I joined Barry for one of his rounds. We head to the first tee at Ridgefield (Conn.) Golf Club, where he’s played nearly all of his rounds since returning to his nearby summer home in Connecticut in June after racking up the first 350 rounds in Austin, Texas. This will be round No. 603 for Barry, who has already played No. 602 that morning and who plans on playing No. 604 after we’re done. What an animal.

We’re met by one of Barry’s friends, Andy Inman, who played in the U.S. Senior Open this summer. “Is this No. 2 today?” Inman asks, getting a nod of confirmation from Gibbons. “Good. I don’t want to see you slacking!” Our fourth is a random single, who doesn’t wait until we get to the first green to say, “So you’re the famous Barry.” Gibbons has been surprised by all the attention, and frankly, seems a bit uncomfortable by it. But there’s no debating who the biggest star at Ridgefield Golf Club is -- even with a fellow member who is fresh off playing in a senior major championship.

“He’s here every day, and everybody’s loving it,” Ridgefield employee Jane Kenny said of Gibbons. “It’s a cool thing to know this guy is here. It’s really become a big thing and it’s been fun to track.”

Kenny says people are excited to get paired with Gibbons, and I can certainly see why. It’s not often you get a chance to be part of golf history. A small/miniscule/microscopic part (my 18 holes will be one-tenth of one percent of Barry’s 15,000 holes played in 2016), that is.

Gibbons isn’t Champions Tour ready, but he has some game -- again, it helps when you’re playing almost two-and-a-half rounds a day. At one point during the year, he improved his handicap index from an 8.0 to a 1.2. Keep in mind the USGA calculates handicaps every two weeks based on a golfer’s past 20 scores. That can change rather quickly when you play that much each week, meaning about half of Gibbons' rounds aren't even in the system long enough to register.

But wear and tear on his body has him struggling a bit of late, and again on the front nine. During his “trial” year of 2015, he played about 400 rounds, but some of those were with a cart and now he’s showing a bit of a limp. He presses on, though, and a chip-in for par on No. 4 helps. As we walk to the fifth tee, he brings up a possible future challenge.

“Maybe the year after next, I’ll see how many courses I can play,” he says. “I think I'd need a motor home. Haven't convinced my wife of that yet!”

Did you say wife? Yes, Barry is happily married with four grown kids. Actually, his wife, Joy, has been instrumental in helping to set up this round. A 6 a.m. tee time was briefly confused with Barry’s 600th round, but we figured it out. Barry is tough to get a hold of these days and he acknowledges, “There’s tons of stuff I’ve been putting off that I need to take care of next year.” It's difficult to have a to-do list for anything else when you basically spend every hour of daylight on a golf course.

“I married an exceptional woman,” he adds. You sure did.

And although Joy is referred to at Ridgefield as “The Golf Widow,” she’s very much a part of her husband’s quest. Joy has played about 50 rounds with Barry so far this year, and she created a website, breakthegolfrecord.com, that follows his accomplishment, with posts, pictures and a tracker that not only counts the number of rounds he’s played, but how many miles he’s walked. So why does her husband do it?

“He has always been driven, but his love of golf has only become greater over the years,” says Joy, who has helped Barry document every round for the paperwork necessary to make the record(s) official. “I think working and traveling caused huge pent-up demand to play. A good friend of ours died at age 57 last year, before he had a chance to retire and enjoy life. That was a perspective builder, and Barry has enjoyed almost every shot of working toward this goal. He appreciates the freedom to reap the benefits of all of our hard work and saving, while getting fit and challenging himself.”

Speaking of getting fit, Gibbons says he’s down more than 30 pounds from his heaviest while employed at IBM for 30 years. And that’s despite the fact he rewards himself for all the walking on the course each day with a quart of ice cream every night. Golf by day and ice cream by night? What a life.

One number that seems remarkably low is how many different courses he’s played to break the record: 10. Almost all of Gibbons’ rounds have been played at The Hills (his club in Austin, Texas, which features four courses) and Ridgefield.

“You'd go broke playing this much, so I have a season pass, and I think I'm down to about $5 a round,” says Gibbons. “They're not making any money off me.”

They’re not making any money off him at the snack bar, either. Gibbons rarely stops at the turn between nines or in between rounds. On this day, a pretty hot and humid one at that, I need to get a drink as we walk off No. 9. Barry declines when I offer him anything -- not even an Arnold Palmer?! Who turns down an Arnold Palmer?! After I get mine, I see him sitting on a bench by the 10th tee and a brief panic sets in. I’m holding him up!, I think as I start running to the tee. I have a similar thought a little later when Barry helps me search for an errant tee shot, only this time I worry about sapping his energy as well. But Barry, who has walked 90 holes in a day, is happy to help, even moving my bag for me on one hole when I've left it in an awkward spot to get to the next tee. My panic is quickly replaced by wonderment. How does this guy have so much energy?

We've been blessed with a beautiful day, but you can’t play 800-plus rounds in a year without playing through some bad weather. Gibbons says he hasn't let rain kept him from the course yet in 2016 and that the worst conditions he’s played in this year were 50-mph winds in Houston. But "that was great, because no one else was out there.” OK, now I’m starting to think this guy might be nuts.

“I'm not doing this again,” he says a little later to explain why he’s trying to run up his total number of rounds so high. "When this year is over, I’m going to sit in a beach chair for a month.”

OK, that sounds more reasonable. Maybe Barry isn’t nuts. Then I ask him how many rounds he plans to play next year. He says he'll take it easy. “Probably 400.” Nope, he’s nuts.

As we approach the 18th green, it suddenly gets dark and the sky begins to break open. “Perfect timing!” I exclaim with a smile before realizing it’s not. Our group will finish, but Barry still has another round to play and it’s an important one because he’s trying to time it so that the record-breaking round will be with his dad in Colorado the following week (Don't worry, he pulled it off). We visit the pro shop, where a concerned Gibbons goes behind the counter to check the weather radar.

Satisfied by what he sees, he makes his way back to the first tee for the third time that day and about the 250th time in the past three months. And yet, it doesn't seem to get old for him. I watch Barry tee off, shake his hand one last time and retreat to my car. Ridgefield isn’t the easiest walk, and I’m exhausted. But Barry keeps going, disappearing into the gloaming, a man on a mission quite unlike anything I've -- or anyone else has -- ever seen.


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