July 18, 2013

All that she can be

Golf is latest challenge met by King

By Chris Whitfield

— Even if Sue King weren’t one of the area’s top female golfers at age 60, and even if she wasn’t recently in contention to win her flight at the Georgia State Golf Association’s Senior Women’s Match Play Championship, she would still need to have her story told.

But which story?

Hers is a story with many different beginnings, different challenges and different endings. It isn’t just the story of a woman who can blister a drive straight down the fairway and make a guy half her age hang his head in shame. It isn’t just the story of a golfer with a smooth putting stroke and a gentle touch around a sloping green. It isn’t just the story of a woman who walks out onto the tee box and can intimidate the male members of her foursome.

The Chatsworth resident is much more than just a golfer, much more than just a competitor and much more than just a solid player to have in your foursome with a scramble title on the line. She is more than just a teacher of the game to others who seek advice. And she’s more than a late bloomer who found a new athletic home on the fairways and greens.

Sue King’s story is all of those things, but it is so much more.

Her story is not just a sports story. It is the story of an extraordinary life. A driver and a putter and quite possibly the coolest golf bag in the nation are just a little part of it.

On the course

Before you get deeper into King’s story, know that she doesn’t know herself what all of the fuss is about. To her way of thinking there isn’t anything special about her.

“What can I help you with, Mr. Whitfield?” she asked when I contacted her on the phone a couple of weeks ago.

“I’d like to talk with you a little bit about some of the recent success you have had in some of the GSGA women’s events,” I said.

“Oh. Well, I play,” she said. “I got your message and wondered why in the world anyone from the newspaper would be calling me. I’m not very newsworthy.”

Let’s start with the golf and work from there.

King was 44 when she first put a tee in the ground in 1997. She has always been an athletic woman — she played competitive softball for years — but golf is a different beast. It can be a maddening game, forcing you to either give it up or find some way to overcome its challenges and demands. King doesn’t back down from many challenges — but more on that later.

On the course, it was slow going at first, but King kept at it. She needed some sort of athletic outlet after years of softball and the demands of her life’s career choice — the military — left her body beaten and battered. She found people who were willing to help her with her game and received her biggest encouragement and playing boost from Rochelle Weaver of Resaca, who is quite an accomplished senior women’s golfer as well. Weaver was the 2000 Senior Women’s champion and her name is prominent throughout the GSGA championship results archives.

“It wasn’t until 1999 or 2000 that I thought I was any good,” King said. “I met Rochelle, and she told me I could be a pretty good golfer. I respected her game and her opinion, and her respect meant a lot to me.”

King’s game has gotten better and better. Weaver encouraged King to play on the statewide level. That decision came back to haunt Weaver earlier this year when King won 1-up while the two played each other in the first flight bracket at the GSGA Senior Women’s Match Play Championship. King ended up losing in the semifinals in a 20-hole match against Sharpsburg’s Ellen Connors.

King routinely shoots in the mid-70s and carries a 6.1 United States Golf Association handicap rating. Only the elite amateur golfers in the nation can show up at a USGA qualifier and play for a chance to make any of their national competitions —U.S. Open, U.S. Amateur, U.S. Senior, etc. If a golfer wants to qualify to play in the U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur Championships, she must have a handicap below 18.4.

King is more than qualified on a golf course.

A different life

If King maintains a confident gait along the fairways, it has little to do with her abilities with a sand wedge out of a bunker. She earned her swagger in other bunkers.

This is a woman who can strip down an M-16A1 rifle just as easily as she can strip your wallet of money if you underestimate her off the tee box. She can tell a golf ball in flight to get down just as quickly as she told new recruits to drop in the mud during her stint as an instructor in Army basic training.

“When I was in the military, training troops, that was the most satisfying job I ever had,” King said during a recent round at Spring Lakes Golf Club. “It was also the toughest.”

After growing up in Murray County, King joined the Air Force but left after three years, transferring to the Army.

“I wanted a greater challenge,” she said. “I got it.”

She served with the 82nd Airborne Division, the storied military corps that fought on the fields of France against the Kaiser in World War I, at the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, across the desert in the Gulf War and also now in Afghanistan. King served in logistics and supplies and was part of the first wave during the invasion of Grenada in 1983.

“We thought it was just a drill,” King said about deploying out of Fort Bragg, N.C., when President Ronald Reagan ordered the invasion. “When they started handing out live ammo, we knew it was for real. But they pulled me and all of the other women off of the plane. We got locked in a hangar. It was a different time for women in the service.”

Her time as a drill sergeant still holds a special place in her heart, and that’s one of the reasons why she is always willing to help out younger golfers who might need a little help.

“People say golf is a life sport,” King said. “You have to keep learning and teaching if you can. When I was a drill sergeant, I had parents come up to me and ask me how I was able to do in six to eight weeks what they have tried all of their lives to do.”

By the time she was medically discharged in the mid-1990s, Sgt. 1st Class Sue King’s body had given out on her in many ways. All throughout her service in the military — through three different tours of duty in Germany and tours in both Panama and South Korea — she played competitive softball for the Army.

“By the time I got home, I was busted up,” she said. “I took up golf because I needed the exercise, and I developed my softball swing into a golf swing.”

Her body is still beaten and battered, and sometimes it looks to be a labor for her to climb the slopes of the greens with knees seemingly rustier than the hinges on a ‘55 Chevy. But she is still out there chasing birdies and overcoming challenges.

Earning respect

By the turn of the millennium, King was becoming competitive in statewide events, going up against a field of players who were “youngsters.” But she was finding a lot of acceptance and friends at the events.

By the time she was old enough for senior events — both in GSGA competition and at her home course — her game was really rounding into shape.

She was getting better, but she was meeting some resistance as well. There are some men who aren’t accepting of a woman on the golf course, especially when she is better than they are and can hit it farther than they can. But for a woman like King who had already faced what military service had thrown at her, it wasn’t a big challenge.

“I had a few people when I first came out here that didn’t know how to react to a female who could play with them and in some cases could beat them,” she said. “But over the years, they have accepted me.”

Spring Lakes professional Lonnie Reese has been happy to have her at the course.

“She is great,” he said. “We love having her out here. She loves to compete and play the game, and we all do, too.”

But Reese acknowledged that even he had concerns when she asked to play in Senior Association events at the club.

“I was a little worried about that because the Senior Association was men only, and here comes Sue,” Reese said. “They could have very easily said no, but they accepted her because she earned their respect. And she opened up some doors. We probably have seven or eight women who play with the senior association here.”

After having conquered a man’s world by serving more than 25 years in the military, King still has to put up with ribbing from most of the other golfers she plays with — mostly men. But she is used to facing uphill battles and conquering them.

“All of the time,” she said when asked if she had to exchange verbal jabs with her playing partners. “This is mild compared to what I faced in the military.”

Still training others

King mixes golf with reminders of her military service while on the course. She plays out of a camouflage bag, has U.S. Army headcovers for her clubs, and had some of her service patches sewn on the bag as a present from her sister-in-law. Even on the golf course, she is still a sergeant giving orders, this time to her shots.

Most of the time, they listen and obey. Just like a good soldier.

Others are listening, too, and King is more than happy to share her love of the game with them. She is still an instructor, but it is a kinder, gentler one than the Sgt. King who laid down the law and drove fear into the hearts of her recruits.

“You would not think that she was ever a drill sergeant,” said Sherrie Wells, 58, who has been playing for the last two years. “I am bad, and anyone else would have given up on me a long time ago. But Sue has a lot of patience, and she is a good coach and teacher and she doesn’t want anything for it. She is that kind of person.”

She likes to help. Likes to pass things on.

“She doesn’t know a stranger,” Reese said. “She will help other golfers and she will go out and help and give them the knowledge. She loves it that much. She loves to get people involved in a game that she loves. She gets excited trying to get people involved in the game.”

She particularly enjoys working with youth. She has become a staple at Bagley Middle School golf matches with coach Bob Campbell, and she really enjoys walking a couple of holes with a younger golfer and offering tips, praising accomplishments and sharing her knowledge and passion for something she didn’t discover until later in life.

“I enjoy the game, and something that I love and believe in is helping people get better,” she said. “One of the girls I have worked with keeps me paid off with some outstanding (home-baked) muffins. ... I just like seeing people get better at anything they are doing, and I am way ahead in the muffin tradeoff.”

That love of helping others be their best is nothing new.

“I had a recruit tell me after she graduated basic training that when she first saw me with my hat pulled down low over my eyes on the first day that she was terrified of me,” King said. “But she said she learned so much from me. Then she said that in the end I was just a big marshmallow.”

Believe that if you want to about Sue King.

Just don’t bet any money on it if you are playing against her.

Chris Whitfield is a sports writer for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at chriswhitfield@daltoncitizen.com.