Meet a golf threesome with combined 303 years behind them

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

COVINGTON -- Bo Cline’s golfing highlight stories span 78 years and then some, but don’t ask him what it was like hitting a rock with a crooked stick back when he started playing. He’s not that old, not quite.

There was the hole-in-one he had in 1941, when Cline worked the night shift as a machinist in Illinois, before he climbed into the belly of a bomber paying visits to Germany. He and a buddy would leave the plant, grab breakfast and go play 18 before getting some sleep. Priorities, you know. It was the dangdest thing he never saw. “We looked all around the green for that ball – and finally found it in the hole,” Cline recalled.

Then there was the snake of a putt he sank in 2019, on No. 18 at The Oaks Course in Covington, at the close of a charity scramble tournament. Right there by the clubhouse, in front of an audience of those who already had finished, Cline displayed an eccentric, yet effective, putting style.

“I closed my eyes, took a slow backswing, and I don’t think I opened them until I hit the ball,” he said. “And it went in the hole. Had an eagle with my putt.”

Accounts of the putt’s length vary. Some witnesses say 30 feet. Cline favors 50. “The older I get, the longer it gets,” he said. He gets the final say. He’s earned it. After all, he was 99 at the time.

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On Friday at the Oaks, at the 32nd playing of that same charity event, benefitting the Atlanta-based CURE Childhood Cancer, Cline was back at the scene of the epic eagle. COVID-19 denied the tournament last year, but now it had returned as robust as ever (it has raised more than $2.5 million for the cause). The very natural question: Would Bo Cline, having crossed over to official centenarian, make it back?

Hallelujah, there he was Friday. And the remarkable twist is that Cline wasn’t the oldest man at the course. Not even the second oldest, for that matter.

“Hey, how ya’ doin’, old man?” Cline said as he spotted James Watkins rolling into the clubhouse behind his walker. For those keeping score at home, Atlanta’s Watkins twins, both of whom kept their standing appointment with the tournament Friday, will turn 102 in December, a good month before Cline joins them at that age. And seeing how James left the womb 15 minutes before Jennings, that makes the eldest of the bunch.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

For Cline, the trip in from Chattanooga for this shindig is worth it just for the opportunity to greet anyone else in a room more senior than he. To which James responds, not without a touch of pride, “Well, I am old.”

The celebrities of this tournament are these three, who date to its first playing, and, of course, date much farther than that. What other golf gathering in all the land could feature a threesome with a combined age of 303-plus? Where else does a tee time come with the chance to encounter such a depth of life experience, all three of them World War II veterans, all of them survivors of the ultimate test called life?

At nearly 102, none of them get out and play like they used to. On a blue and perfect Friday, they were chauffeured around the course in separate carts – consider this their own personal rider cup – where they might selectively get out and hit a putt here and there. OK, really, who’s going to begrudge them the right to cherry-pick an occasional shot?

Golf advertises itself as the sport of a lifetime, but some lifetimes outlive golf. All three came to the game at different stages – Cline from a young age, the Watkins twins after they retired – and all came to love it equally.

“I do miss (playing),” James said. “After I retired, I played about every day except on weekends. I got to where I could shoot my age (the last time when he had just turned 80).”

“My biggest problem was finding people to play with me,” he added. “All my friends who played with me got bad health and passed away.”

Maybe it would have been easier to stay at home, to just acknowledge that, you know what, we weren’t playing very much, and it was getting increasingly hard to get around. But you don’t get this old by giving up everything. And this day and this event remain important to them. “I know Joe and I want to support his cause,” Jennings said. And it just helps to have something to look forward to the next year.

The tournament was founded three decades ago by Joe Coleman, shortly after his then-young daughter survived her fight with cancer. Separately, Cline and the Watkins brothers had gotten to know Coleman, and then through his tournament, they formed a bond. Now they are as much a part of the event as the raffle tickets and the closest-to-the-pin contest.

“It’s just inspiring to have them here,” Coleman said. “They’ve obviously been through some challenges, and it means a lot to everybody.”

For an event whose theme is survival, who better to be at its center than these three?

Unlike two others on the six-man crew of his B-26, Cline, a bombardier/navigator lived to tell about being shot down in 1944. There followed eight months in a German POW camp. “It was pretty tough. Cold. Wasn’t much to eat. But we were all young, so we survived,” he said.

The Watkins brothers served but never had to see battle, and now tell stories about getting through the trials of aging – no less a determined enemy. James came out the other side of his own conflict with cancer. Jennings this year fought off a January case of COVID and lingering issues with pneumonia and other lung problems.

They all were back for another year to offer testimony to being tough and stubborn and maybe a little bit lucky. Their secret to long life? Cline will joke that it’s chocolate-covered graham crackers – if only it was simple and sweet. “I think a lot of it was my diet, my exercise program. I always had an exercise program,” said James Watkins, who hoped to get in his steps Friday from cart to green.

And if they at all give a little credit to a long time playing a maddening game, that certainly would raise the hopes of a world of golfers.

But whatever else, take this message from them: Enjoy playing just so long as you can.