LINKS LETTER, 2009 ANNUAL EDITION

500 HUNDRED HOLES AT A TIME

By Jeff Hopper

So your pastor plays golf.

The golf course has long been a favorite place of respite for those in church leadership. It offers them a chance to enjoy the quiet with a little bit of athletic intrigue thrown in.

So take a guess: how many rounds will your pastor play this year? Fifteen? Twenty? More? If so, your congregation can be proud of allowing their leader the opportunity to get outdoors and relax like this.

But you’ve got nothing on the people of St. John’s Evangelical Protestant Church in Cullman, Alabama. This summer their pastor will play more than 27 rounds in a row. All day, all night, all day. Five hundred straight holes.

Go ahead and blink, but you read that right.

While he’s at it, “Golf’s Ironman,” Bob Kurtz, will likely raise more than $60,000 for children’s charities. Oh, and he’ll break his own Guinness World Record of 405 consecutive holes set just last year.

If there is such a thing as a typical pastor, Kurtz is not it. He started in broadcast journalism, a profession he enjoyed most when he was reporting on sports. But the job began to get to him when he neared the 20-year mark in the business.

“There is no business that is more secular than broadcast journalism,” Kurtz says. “It just is. It’s all about self, it’s all about money, power, all the stuff that Jesus was tempted with in the wilderness. It beats you down.”

So Kurtz approached his wife about making a change similar to the one his father before him had made. Chuck Kurtz was a Navy man, but when he retired from active service, he chose to go to college and work toward a seminary degree. While there, he played college golf alongside his son, Bob, and prepared for a second career in the ministry.

Bob Kurtz’s respect for his father and his observation of how much satisfaction his father received from his pastoral work, caused Bob to look in the same direction when he hit his mid-40s.

“I told Pat, my wife, ‘I’m 45. I’ve got another 20 years of active life and I’d like have 20 years of serving God.’ That’s a fair deal. We had fun for 20 years and now 20 years to serve, and actually had more fun in the 20 years of ministry.” Kurtz passed 20 years of ministry in 2008.

All the while, though, Kurtz’s love for golf was a thread of his life that did not fray or fade. He loves to practice and heads to the range like other men head to the gym. While his pastoral duties at 2,000-member St. John’s often make him too busy for a round of golf, he can squeeze in a practice session and keep his game in shape.

And at 68, with another golf marathon ahead of him, Kurtz finds that being in shape is not just a good idea—it’s a necessity.

In 2006, when Kurtz played his first marathon, he knew that 100 holes was the norm for such events. Kurtz said, “I can beat that!” So he went out and played 168 holes in a row, averaging 18 holes in less than an hour.

“We release the golf course for the whole event, so there’s nobody else on the golf course” Kurtz explains. “Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to do it at that kind of speed.”

Kurtz is assisted by volunteers who keep score and aid him in other ways. But his primary sidekick is his 12-year-old grandson, Dillon.

“We pull right up to the green and Dillon leaps off before the cart stops—we kind of use the momentum of the cart—and runs to the flag and tend the flag, and I putt and then when I have to make the second and/or third putt, as soon as I putt, I turn and run toward the next tee in the cart and go. Dillon retrieves the ball out of the hole, putts the flag back in, and then runs—by that time I’ve reached in my pocket, had the other ball, and hit it—and he’s in the cart and we’re off.”

Working with this system, Kurtz stepped up his effort in 2007 and notched the Alabama state record with 220 consecutive holes. And then he began looking into the world record. It had been set by in 1957 by a man named Ian Colston. His record: 401 straight holes. For 2008, Kurtz put that number in his sights. After 22 rounds, Kurtz could reach 396; with another nine, he’d bust the record with a few holes to spare.

But there was one key obstacle: the night. How would he keep playing through the night?

Glow balls work well enough on executive courses, but it is hard to track them on big courses and harder still to judge depth perception in your swing without any lighting.

“Actually two weeks before we tried two different times to play night time golf. It was so slow, it was exhausting,” Kurtz explained. “It took us about two and a half hours to play nine holes.”

That was when a local John Deere dealer stepped in by donating three Gator utility carts—all equipped with strong headlights—for the event.

“That worked great,” Kurtz said. “One person followed me the whole time and kept the headlights on the ball so I could see.”

Starting at 5 am, then, Kurtz played until 8 pm with a regulation ball, then played five full rounds through the night with the glow ball. He took a break for 20 minutes to let the sun come up again the next morning.

“The hardest part is staying awake,” Kurtz says. “The good thing is it got cool at night. That made it easier. When morning came, the adrenaline kicked in again and I was fine.”

Of course, Kurtz’s ability as a better-than-scratch player helps, as does the ballstriking stamina he has built up through the years as a self-described “range rat.” Four times he shot his age (67 at the time), and his final two rounds of the first day were consecutive 64s, the first time he has ever posted two such scores back-to-back (his all-time low is 63).

In fact, Kurtz is so accomplished and so focused when he plays that he lost a bit of perspective when he finished his nine to complete the 405th hole around noon the second day. Kurtz tells the story: “The ninth hole is a pretty good par-4, a bit over 400. I hit a good drive and a 7-iron right down the flag. It came up just short and I’ve got this simple chip up to the pin and I ran it about three feet by and I missed the putt. The two years before I’d birdied the last hole each time and was so pumped. But I missed that putt and I’m just so ticked off. I played 405 holes and shot back-to-back 64s, and I’m walking off that green, ‘Golly, gee whiz, I cannot believe it. I missed that little putt.’ Then I realized that people were applauding and everything, and I thought, You know, that’s the reason I can do this, because I stay interested.

So now Kurtz looks for more. On June 3-4, he will look to add five more rounds (and a little) to his record, reaching the magical mark of 500 holes. But he is not playing alone. He encourages anyone who has an interest in helping him raise funds for abused and orphaned children to step up with a pledge to donate. This desire to help children was spurred by his mother’s commitment to foster parenting and continues with Kurtz, as much as the tradition of golf goes forward with him ( his daughters are married to PGA club professionals).

If you would like to help, you can find out more about Bob Kurtz at www.golfsironman.com.

COPYRIGHT 2009 LINKS PLAYERS INTERNATIONAL

  • Bob Kurtz

    Bob Kurtz spent 20 years in television broadcasting and was the first man on-air for CNN, all the while dabbling on golf’s mini-tours. He retired from broadcasting in 1988 and entered the pastorate. But his passion for golf has never waned.