No Team Mom: Varsity Golfer Enjoys Challenges of Competing at age 54

     From Focus magazine, Spring 2010 >>

By Kathy Gierer

When Leslie Hatcher’s eligibility ends and she leaves Columbus State’s women’s golf program this month, she’ll miss the cameraderie of her teammates and the chance to compete at the college level – but not the toll that sometimes takes on her 54-year-old body.

Yes, 54.

“Recovery from a tournament takes longer for me than the others,” said Hatcher, who easily holds the seniority record for Columbus State athletes. “We play three days in a row. I carry my bag and walk 18 holes each day. Carrying my bag is my weight-bearing exercise to prevent osteoporosis.”

Even before Hatcher teed up the historic first tournament shot for CSU’s women’s team in January, she expressed needless concern that her age would be intimidating or uncomfortable for younger teammates.

“We have truly been a team, and my age has not made a difference,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. My teammates have been great. I’ve tried very hard not to be their mother.”

Coach Brian Padgett, left in photo at left, previously an assistant coach on CSU’s men’s golf team, occasionally sought her opinion on issues unrelated to playing golf.

“I found out that coaching women was a whole lot different than coaching guys,” he said. “You can’t treat ladies the same way. I’ve gone to her for advice. I picked her brain.”

Hatcher grew up around golf, but tennis was her sport of choice. When her son, Sam, learned to play golf in elementary school, he developed a passion for the sport that rivaled that of his dad, Sam Sr.

That helped Hatcher decide to try golf and started her down the path to walkon status as a varsity athlete at CSU.

When her family relocated from Atlanta to Columbus in 2005, she decided to move beyond the country club tournaments she had been in while teaching herself golf and “focus on learning to play consistently.” Private lessons soon followed with Mark Immelman, men’s golf coach at CSU.

Simultaneously, an itch to return to work developed for the former paralegal who had been a stayathome mom for 14 years after the birth of her son.

“I was restless and wanted to try something different,” Hatcher said. “I’ve always been interested in health care, but not nursing. I did some research and came up with the field of health care administration. Working with electronic records seemed to mesh with my paralegal training.”

About the time she decided to pursue a Master of Public Administration in the area of Health Services Administration at CSU, she noticed in the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer that CSU was starting a ladies golf team.

Hatcher met with Athletic Director Jay Sparks and Mike Peacock, assistant athletic director for communication and compliance, to determine her college eligibility and found that, according to NCAA Division II rules, she still had two semesters of eligibility left. (Hatcher spent eight semesters at the University of Georgia as a non-athlete.)

Padgett, left, still had some walk-on slots available and warmed to the idea of coaching a more mature player.

“My first reaction was, “Wow,’” he said. “It caught me off-guard a little. But giving somebody the opportunity to fulfill a dream was great. I’d already met Leslie and knew she was a good person.

The team began practicing last fall for its inaugural season.

Hatcher has been surprised at the interest her age has generated. “Because of the age of my teammates and opponents, they all want to introduce me to their moms,” Hatcher said with a laugh. “My icebreaker is always: I’m old and, yes, I’m playing golf.”

Hatcher, who attended classes three nights a week during the spring semester, expressed relief that it’s drawing to a close. “I love my classes and, though I’m at the top of the age spectrum, there aren’t huge gaps,” she said. “It took me a while to get used to writing term papers again.”

Hatcher said she’s developed the “utmost respect for student athletes” as a result of her experiences. “It’s not easy,” she said. “You’re missing class for travel. With each tournament, you’re gone three days. I’m lucky because my classes are on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, so it’s not as tough for me.”

When Hatcher first met her teammates, she had reservations related to the age difference. “I didn’t know if they were told or if they thought I was somebody’s mother,” she said.

Hatcher’s fears were unfounded. “We had a lot of fun. They are bright, cute girls and far better athletes,” she said. “Right away, they were accepting of me. I wanted them to experience college. I didn’t want to be a downer or a buzz-kill. I didn’t want them thinking they were playing golf with their mother.”

The team itself has had a tough rookie season. “We’ve played in brutal weather conditions. We’ve had rain and wind and not a round over 50 degrees,” Hatcher said in March. “I’ve always been a fair weather golfer, so I don’t deal with that as well. We once teed off when it was 33 degrees.”

Injuries have also plagued the founding squad. “You play five golfers and count the four best scores,” she said. “I got to play more than I ever thought I would, and it counts.”

Hatcher said she believes the growing pains will eventually help CSU develop a program with depth and experience.

“We’ve faced schools with a real deep lineup, where their numbers three, four and five were shooting as well as numbers one and two,” she said. “We don’t have that yet, but we will. I’ve enjoyed watching them as a team grow and get better. It’s very competitive out there and tough recruiting.”

The Cougars have players on the inaugural roster from as far away as Antigua, Nebraska and Tennessee. Most are homegrown products from Georgia. Hatcher has enjoyed the experience.

“Being at tournaments is great,” she said. “It’s very serious at times and sometimes frustrating. But when the round is over and we go to dinner, it’s such fun to leave the frustration behind. We laugh and joke. There are lots of little moments I’ll miss, but mainly it’ll be the camaraderie.”

Hatcher will take at least one more year to complete her degree program if she continues to go fulltime. She’s considering cutting her classes back to two nights a week.

“My family has totally supported this,” she said. “My husband said, ‘Who gets a chance to do this?’ He has to do a lot when I’m out of town, like picking Sam up from school.”

Hatcher had to make adjustments to her game for tournament play. “When I was playing for fun, I played from the ladies’ tees, which is a distance of 4,700 yards. The tournaments are 5,900 to 6,000 yards, which for me is almost another shot a hole. That’s been the hardest struggle for me.”

Hatcher is grateful for Padgett’s support as she adjusted to the longer distances. “Brian knew that going in, and he’s been so welcoming and so open and respectful. I told him he’s dealt with the whole spectrum of females. Some are just through puberty, and one is through menopause.”

Hatcher has taken a peek at life beyond collegiate competition. “We play golf as a family once a week and travel to play golf,” she said. “I’ll go back to the ladies’ tees and playing in clubs and scrambles.”

Hatcher would like to remain involved with CSU’s golf program. “I’ve had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play a NCAA Division II sport at the age of 54,” she said. “I’ve gotten this attention because of my age, but the girls on the team are its future. They’re the ones scoring and moving us forward, competing against the other schools’ best players. They deserve the spotlight.”