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Amateur golfer, 70, overcomes heartbreaking adversity

Story highlights

  • World Amateur Handicap Championship brings together over 3,000 golfers
  • Bob Yelton has battled personal adversity to tee up for 29th straight time
  • His wife died before last year's tournament and he had heart attack this year
  • Baseball star Roger Clemens among competitors in 2012 tournament

If they were handing out awards for courage in the face of personal trauma, 70-year-old Bob Yelton would scoop the lot at this week's World Amateur Handicap Championships.

Yelton is one of just 13 golfers who have played in all 28 previous editions of the biggest tournament of its type in the world, which brings nearly 3,100 players from 25 countries and 49 states of the U.S. to the Myrtle Beach area of South Carolina.

His streak was nearly broken last year, and in the circumstances nobody would have held it against him if he had taken time out.

Just before the tournament, Martha, his wife of 22 years, was taken ill and passed away just a week later.

There had been no hint of a problem -- Martha taught at a community school in Shelby in North Carolina and played a bit of golf herself.

"She mostly just walked the course with me," recalled Bob.

    Her death hit him hard and he was left with the prospect of raising his then 15-year-old son Porter alone. In the circumstances, his annual pilgrimage to Myrtle was low priority. "I had no interest in playing golf."

    But with encouragement from his brother Don, who has also played in every World Am, and crucially an intervention from his son, Bob did indeed pitch up.

    "Dad, Mum would have wanted you to play," said Porter and he did, thinking about Martha just about every step of the way.

    In retrospect, the stress of dealing with his wife's premature death and continuing to practice as a business lawyer may well have taken a bigger toll on Bob than he was to realize.

    Back in April, he was playing Arrowhead, a course in North Carolina, when he collapsed with a heart attack.

    "I was on the second hole, felt real dizzy, next thing I know I woke up in the ambulance."

    Thankfully medical attention had arrived quickly.

    "They used CPR and got me back, and thankfully there was no permanent damage to my heart," said Bob in a matter of fact way that belies its seriousness.

    Brother Don had suffered a similar problem a few years ago and his advice has helped Bob to make a full recovery, but doctors have advised him against playing when the temperature gauge goes into the mid-90s.

    "The first time I went back on the course it was kind of scary," he admitted.

    In a hot summer in the Carolinas, this has restricted his practice opportunities, but nothing was going to stop Bob from competing in his 29th World Am.

    The tournament format sees golfers placed in "flights" of around 50, playing on 60 courses in the Myrtle Beach area (including TPC Myrtle Beach and the Dye Course at Barefoot Resort) over four days of competition.

    The top player in each group, after adjustments are made for handicap -- "They are very quick to weed out the cheaters," said Bob -- qualified for Friday's final 18-hole shootout from which the top prizes are decided.

    Remarkably, given the close nature of the competition, Bobby Perkinson, a 3.5 handicap player from Tennessee, has claimed the title for the past two years.

    Yelton's best result is eighth in a flight, but like many others he is there for the enjoyment of golf and the camaraderie, meeting other old friends who come back year after year.

    They might also get the chance to rub shoulders with celebrities, such as baseball star Roger Clemens who has returned for a second year, while eight golfers have qualified from a regional competition in China.

    The success of the World Am has led to a series of tournaments held under a similar format as the golfing industry looks to boost participation at all levels.

    Bob is a fully-fledged "Baby Boomer" and like so many others in the 1960s was inspired to take up golf by the exploits of Arnold Palmer -- a fellow former student of Wake Forest University.

    While not reaching professional standard, in his 20s Bob played to a challenging 5 or 6 handicap but is now an 18-handicapper.

    He has met his hero a couple of times at golf functions and like so many others was impressed by Palmer's friendliness and easy going manner. "He talks to you as if you were a next-door neighbor."

    Bob knew that his recent illness and lack of practice was going to limit his chances of progressing, and a net 96 round on the first day sunk his chances. His brother played better but could not qualify from his super senior division.

    Clemens did rather better. The former Yankees pitcher shot a final round 77 for a net 69 to win his flight and qualify for a shot at the top prizes.

    But given his dice with death, Bob was happy to just be teeing it up and meeting old friends, doubtless already planning his 30th straight appearance in a unique event.