Don Byers has already heard all the cinematic comparisons. About how his story is part-“Old School,” part-“Caddyshack,” and a whole lot of “Back to School.”
He insists, though, that there’s at least one minor difference between himself and the Rodney Dangerfield character from that last cult classic who left the business world to return to college and perform the triple lindy.
“I’m not a diver,” he deadpans, then offers his infectious laugh.
Byers is a golfer — and this spring, the 61-year-old will be a collegiate golfer, competing alongside teammates four decades younger than him at Bellevue University in Nebraska.
“People said there’s no way I can do it,” he said. “When you tell me I can’t do something, I’m going to try like hell to do it.”
Like so many innovative ideas, this one was induced by innocent banter.
As their foursome made the turn last autumn at Champions Run, a former Web.com Tour venue in Omaha, Nebraska, Byers was a few strokes under par, thanks to an early eagle and his usual steady play. That’s when Rob Brown, coach of the golf team at nearby Bellevue and one of his playing partners that day, turned to him and quipped, “Man, I wish you had some eligibility left.”
The two men laughed at the one-liner, hardly taking it at face value.
A few holes later, the idea was broached again. “You know,” Byers told Brown, “I do still have eligibility.”
They kept talking for a couple of weeks, the notion becoming a bit more serious every day.
“He kept bugging me,” Byers says of those conversations with the coach. “As I later found out, he was recruiting me.”
Byers wasn’t always destined to become a late-blooming golfer. More than 40 years ago, he attended the University of Nebraska-Omaha on a baseball scholarship, only to blow out his arm before ever playing. He lost the free ride and entered the workforce, often taking to the links in the afternoon but rarely breaking 120.
Over time, he started his own insurance agency and got more serious about the game. Custom-built clubs for his 6-foot-4 frame helped slash his scores, and the daily afternoon game at Champions Run honed his talents. This year, Byers whittled his handicap to scratch, enough to grab Brown’s attention when they played.
“He hits it a long way, and he’s athletic,” the coach says. “If he can handle our cross-fit training, he’ll be fine.”
In case you couldn’t tell, both Brown and Byers are still getting a kick out of watching their casual conversation come to fruition. But they also maintain that this is no gimmick or public relations stunt.
Bellevue has more than 12,000 students, but nearly 90 percent are enrolled only in online classes. Of course, Byers couldn’t simply join the team without also joining the student body. Despite having owned no aspirations of becoming a student again, his spring semester will be filled with courses in English, communications and history.
“My academic adviser is younger than my kids,” says Byers, who has three grown children and is a grandfather. “He said I ought to take recent history because I lived it.”
The school’s golf team, one of roughly 200 in the NAIA, was formed just seven years ago; by its second season, under the tutelage of Brown, the squad ascended to No. 1 in the nation.
Now its players will be joined by a Baby Boomer a few generations removed — not that they’re fazed by it.
“To be honest, I just see him the same as my other teammates,” says Fernando Arzate, the team’s top player. “He’s 61, but it doesn’t matter. My teammates and I have talked about it, and we’re going to treat him equally. He’s a good golfer, but more importantly a really good person.”
Those feelings are already mutual,
“I hope to learn something from these guys,” Byers explains. “That’s the beauty of this game. In what other sport can you do this in? I don’t know how I’ll do, but I hope I’ll do well.”
He’ll find out soon enough. The team’s first road trip will be to Las Vegas in March. The elder statesman on the roster is hoping his game holds up, but he isn’t worried about breaking curfew.
“At my age, I’m in bed by 8 or 9 anyway,” he says, laughing. “But my wife is coming on the trip, so I’m hoping for conjugal visits.”