Willie Burtonthe Initials Game

MIRAMAR BEACH, Fla. – Bob Mathers is the only player in the Golfweek Sandestin Amateur field marking his Titleist 6 with his grandkid’s initials. The event at Sandestin’s Raven Golf Club drew in a field of mostly college players looking for tournament starts in a fall season marred by COVID.

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Mathers lives 20 miles up the road in Niceville, Florida. He retired on Sept. 1 after 32 years as a pilot for Delta Airlines. When a friend told him about the event, he assumed it was only for college teams. He googled it and determined he was eligible.

There’s at least a 40-year age difference between Mathers and most of the other players in the field, but he lands squarely in the middle of the pack – T-24 in a field off 55 players after opening rounds of 75-73.

A group of players who heard his name mentioned in scoring knew Mathers immediately. This 63-year-old has game, and a reputation for that in the Florida panhandle on up north into Alabama.

Leaderboard: Golfweek Sandestin Amateur

“I like watching good guys as much as I like playing,” Mathers said of why he entered this event. And as a recent retiree, expect to see his name in more tournaments. He already played the U.S. Mid-Amateur in 2011, his first USGA start, and was the first alternate for the U.S. Amateur that same year at Erin Hills.

Mathers knows the college golf setting, even if it may look a little different these days. He played on the University of Alabama team from 1975-79 and captained the first Tide men’s golf team to win the SEC title in ’79.

That team was honored at halftime of last year’s Alabama basketball game against Ole Miss. A few years ago, current Alabama head coach Jay Seawell pulled together an informal match between the 1979 SEC title team and the 2008 SEC title team. A team of freshman also competed.

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Mathers found himself paired with Bud Cauley and Michael Thompson.

“Coach Seawell does a great job of keeping the old guys and the young guys together,” Mathers said.

At Sandestin, Mathers has kept the big numbers to a minimum. The Raven course, formerly the host of the Boeing Classic on the PGA Tour Champions, is a Robert Trent Jones Jr. design that Mathers feels levels the playing field.

“He does a really, really nice job of making hard holes where it fits a bomber’s eye but then he always throws holes in there that are just placement-type holes, like 15, the short par 4 over there,” Mathers said. “He always does a good job of just place the ball in the right place. Even tee shots, at the landing area he’ll have downhills and they’ll run out and end up in the same place like No. 11, the par 5.”

Mathers does something else that no other player in the field is doing: plays with a broomstick putter. Mathers left the game in 1991 and came back in 2005, at which point he picked up a short putter and “couldn’t hit the hole from 18 inches.”

He was inspired by watching another player with a long putter, but Mathers never anchored.

“All I did in my mind was pin the end of the putter in space and just use it like that,” he said. “…I moved it away from my body and just pinned the end of the putter in space. It kind of made sense to me.”

In the opening round at the Raven, Mathers teed it up alongside his second cousin, Drew Mathers. Bob’s first cousin, Terry, is Drew’s dad. Needless to say, the name “Mathers” is trending in golf right now.

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Drew is a fifth-year senior on the Alabama-Birmingham team. The 22-year-old was the No. 2-ranked Division II player in the nation at the end of his senior season at Huntingdon, an NCAA Division III school in Mobile, Alabama, and transferred to UAB.

The Blazers won all three of their fall events but now the season is over. So Drew came back to a place he played three times with his old Huntingdon team. After rounds of 74-67, Drew is tied for seventh at 1 under, and only five shots off the lead.

Before playing together in the first round at Sandestin, Mathers and Mathers first competed against each other three years ago in an annual match pitting top amateurs in Florida against those from Alabama. In a pairings party the night before the first round, someone joked that the Mathers men should play against each other.

Bob had only ever seen Drew’s game on the driving range.

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“I said I don’t know if I want any part of that at all,” Bob joked.

It wasn’t just that Drew and Bob hadn’t connected on a golf course until those matches. They had never met at all.

“I actually have heard of his name,” Drew said. “I asked my dad, he’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s your second cousin.’ I’m like why haven’t I met him?”

Having played with Drew, Bob is now convinced he’ll be watching him on TV someday.

Forty years ago, when Bob’s college career was over and it was time to make a decision about playing professionally, the resources just weren’t there. Drew will get that chance. Before he gained another year of college eligibility because of COVID, Drew was set to attempt qualifying for the PGA Tour Canada. He’s working on his game another year while completing a Masters degree in marketing.

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With Mathers genes, he’ll have longevity no matter where he takes his game.

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“I can tell you I hope by the time I’m his age,” Drew said, “I hope I’m playing like him.”