For this golfer, will to win is par for the course

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comMarch 17, 2012 

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It certainly wasn't a country club upbringing that made Leo Luken a 93-year-old golf phenomenon.

That would be an easy assumption for a man who slowly cranks up his 6-foot-2 body to play golf three days a week at Palmetto Dunes Resort on Hilton Head Island.

Tales of his exploits fill a fat scrapbook, a picture of him kissing Nancy Lopez on the cover.

Sports Illustrated said he plays a "wrinkled skins game," GeezerJock magazine nominated him for GeezerJock of the Year, GolfWeek called him one for the ages, and last week he was on the sports front of the hometown Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette for shooting his age for the 900th time.

Shooting your age is a gold standard in golf, like shooting a 59. Leo did it first at age 71. The 530th time brought him fame. At age 87, he shot 81 to beat Arnold Palmer by three strokes to win The Villages Shoot Your Age Championship filmed by CBS Sports in Florida.

But this is a man whose hard-scrabble life didn't afford time for the game until he was 45.

He was raised in Covington, Ky., where his dad supported seven children by working seven days a week on the B&O Railroad.

At his parochial school, Leo didn't have the 15 cents for lunch.

"That's how poor we were," he said. "So I had to work in the cafeteria. At recess, they were all out playing ball and I never got to play."

In the afternoon he had a paper route, and an ice route, lugging heavy blocks of ice in a special wagon his father made, wrestling them by hand into wooden ice boxes, often on the second floor. Then it was three hours of homework, and up again at 6 o'clock to serve Mass before school.

WIN OR GO HOME

After high school, Leo watched a softball pitcher and tried it himself. Someone said he could throw it through the barn, but couldn't hit the barn.

He practiced two years on his control and ended up being invited to pitch for the Zollner Pistons in Fort Wayne, Ind. They were the Yankees of fast-pitch softball. The team won four consecutive world championships. Leo had a streak of 53 consecutive wins. He was 12-0 in World Series games. His fastball was clocked at 102 mph in 1945, a blur ripping 45 feet from the mound to the plate.

The players, all unpaid amateurs, rode six to a car for hundreds of miles, got out and played a double-header against the likes of Briggs Beauty Wear in Detroit, climbed back in the car and went to work the next morning.

Fred Zollner hired Leo to work in his piston plant for 80 cents an hour. Leo rose to be production supervisor when as many as 1,200 workers pumped out 3,000 pistons a day for Allied planes and trucks in World War II.

"We hired anybody who was warm," Leo says, holding an aluminum piston crafted for a B-29 bomber, now resting among plaques and certificates in his bedroom on Hilton Head.

Leo worked at Zollner for 41 years, but Fred Zollner really hired him to play ball. They called him "the Big Z." His Pistons basketball team was a forerunner to the National Basketball Association, which he helped form. The Big Z constantly scouted for better players, and Leo knew if he faltered even for an inning or two, he would be gone.

Leo played 14 years -- 1940 to 1954 -- while he watched 108 other guys come and go.

THE BIG DANCE

One night, third-baseman Tony Sparks got hurt and Leo went to see him in the hospital. He met a girl there who was in nursing training. They started dating. Leo had to get her home by 10 p.m., so sometimes he didn't take warm-ups between innings. Leo and Mickey have now been married 69 years.

After softball, Mickey convinced Leo to take up ballroom dancing. He didn't want to. He thought it was sissy. But it was something she loved, something she wanted to be the best in the world at, and something that glided into their lives. They taught dancing lessons for 23 years in their basement, five nights a week, three hours a night to make extra money for their six children.

Leo and Mickey now live with their daughter Rosalie "Rodey" and her husband David Wright in Palmetto Dunes. Another daughter, Pat McDougall, lives in Okatie.

Rodey says her dad is driven to continually shoot his age "because it's there. Because he can."

While others see golf as a social game, Leo says, "I play to win every time out. That's just the way it is for me. It's just the will to win, I guess."

He presses on, each round from the white tees at the Robert Trent Jones and Fazio courses in Palmetto Dunes a new challenge to beat his age, and to beat old age itself.

Leo doesn't know exactly where that inner drive came from.

But as age closes in on him, he needs it more than ever. He's having to watch Mickey go through the puzzling slow creep of dementia.

Their children hosted a party last November for her 91st birthday, and Leo beams beneath his full shock of white hair when he tells how she saved the last dance for him.

They did a waltz. Because it was there. Because they could.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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Age is just a number ... to shoot for

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