ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — There might not be anyone around who has a greater zest for his weekly golf outing than Earl Richards, a legally blind, soon-to-be 90-year-old former World War II Navy pilot who settled in Albuquerque in the late 1980s.
Thursdays are his big day.
He begins planning 72 hours ahead of time. At 8 a.m. sharp on Mondays, he calls Sun Van to arrange for a ride to and from his home to Los Altos Golf Course. There, he’ll play nine holes with three regular partners before catching a late-morning return shuttle.
It’s that way most every week, drizzle or shine, cold or hot, windy or calm – although he does shudder at the thought of windy and cold. Then, “I’ll be there, but I might play only one hole,” he said.
The one thing that gets him more excited than the thought of his next nine holes, though, is his 90th birthday, on July 19.
“It’s the first time in my life I’m really looking forward to celebrating a birthday,” the effervescent Richards said during his latest outing at Los Altos.
What has Richards bubbling is that at age 90, he gets to play golf for free the rest of his life on weekdays at any of four Duke City municipal golf courses – Los Altos, Ladera, Arroyo Del Oso and Puerto del Sol. (For women, the age plateau is 80.)
Money is not an issue, Richards said; it’s just the satisfaction of reaching such a milestone and reaping the benefits. According to the city’s Golf Management Department, 40 women and 19 men are signed up for free play.
Not your typical golfer
Richards was in his late 60s when he shot the best score of his golfing life, which began in the 1950s in San Marco, Fla.
“It was a 79, and it was at Los Altos, too,” he said.
But playing these days has its hardships. In addition to having a degeneration of his left shoulder blade and a hip replacement, he’s been legally blind since 2005.
“I was driving my car on Juan Tabo heading north and I hit Constitution,” he said. “But then all of a sudden I couldn’t see the (traffic) light. So, I’m sitting there and a guy came up and said, ‘Sir, have you got a problem?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve got a problem. I’ve got a bad problem. I can’t see.’ It happened just like that.”
The good Samaritan and his friend ferried Richards and his car back to his home. His doctor said Richards suffered from macular degeneration.
“Before that I figured something was happening,” he said. “But I could see enough to get by.”
Richards still can see the ball on the tee and can make out shapes and light-colored objects from relatively close range. But he otherwise relies on the aid of playing partners.
“I used to have a 14 handicap,” Richards said. “Now I don’t even keep score.”
On the course
Over the past three to four months, Richards has played with brothers Dan and John Garton, along with John’s son-in-law, Colton Troop. Richards rides in a cart.
The three are Richards’ eyes. They take turns teeing the ball at the white stakes and placing a plastic pipe about the length of a club about foot or so across from the ball that serves as his directional guide. On the putting surface, a yellow plastic jug, which serves as a hazy beacon, is placed behind the hole.
Richards’ partners said they had no reservations about playing with a legally blind golfer.
“None,” Dan Garton said. “We were actually worried we wouldn’t do the right things. He’s pretty easygoing and said ‘if you can just give me the distance and point me in the direction’ …
“As we played together, we kind of learned his swing and things like that. When he tees off, it’s usually straight down the middle.”
On the tee box, Richards will stand behind the ball as if looking down the fairway. “No, I can’t see anything when I do that,” he said. “It’s just a ritual.”
Then comes exactly one practice swing before setting his feet and hitting. His shots typically go 90 to 120 yards.
Sometimes, Dan said he’ll overlook the obvious when offering instruction, such as when Richards’ midrange putt zoomed past the hole on No. 1.
“I forgot that I should have said ‘downhill,’ ” Dan said.
By time the sixth hole came around, Richards needed a break and didn’t hit until well up the fairway. He skipped No. 8 before playing the home hole.
“I didn’t do as good as I wanted to,” Richards laughed afterward, “but hell, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson don’t always do too good, either.”
Although Richards had completed his round, his day wasn’t over. He wouldn’t dare miss being at the bar at the Sheraton on Louisiana and Menaul during Happy Hour. It’s a location that has a special place in his heart.
“In 2002, I had one of my Navy reunions right here,” said Richards, who was personnel officer of his squadron. “We had about 47 people attend. That was nice.”
Last Thursday, he received hearty greetings from Southwest pilots Roy Millwood and David Childs. Millwood also is a former Navy aviator. Bartender Eric Beach and lounge assistant Mariah Gouch are used to seeing guests mingle with Richards.
“It’s like this every week, absolutely,” Beach said. “Earl draws attention for sure. He kind of has a seat at the bar and enjoys talking to the guests, enjoys talking about Albuquerque, his life and about the time he was a pilot in World War II.”
Richards was born in Dallas in 1924 and moved to Chicago at age 9, and joined the Navy at age 17. He soon was off to flight school after barely passing his physical.
“I was 5-foot-6 and just made it – I kind of stretched a little bit,” he said. “At 5-5, forget it.”
He said he flew Lockheed PV 1 Venturas, a picture of which he carries in his wallet. His squadron eventually got stationed at Midway in the Johnson Islands and was in Hawaii when the war ended.
After leaving the service in 1947, he pursued a girl he had dated in Chicago before joining the Navy six years earlier. About six months later, Earl and Shirley were married, and later operated a catering business.
“They were the happiest days of my life,” he said. “Boy, did we have fun.”
But 26 years of marriage ended in 1973 when Shirley and daughter Dawn died in a plane crash. “I was devastated. I don’t like to talk about it,” he said.
He eventually sold his business and took an RV around the country before landing in the Duke City. Today he lives alone.
Alas, when you’re pushing 90, many of your friends and family are gone.
“A lot of times I hate for the phone to ring because it’s usually someone telling me that so-and-so has passed away,” Richards said. “Some friends I’d call on the phone and they wouldn’t even know who I was until I explained it to them.”
Richards occasionally is somewhat forgetful, too.
“A guy once told me, ‘Earl, if you want to improve your memory, eat a lot of blueberry muffins.’ Well, I do. But I can’t remember who told me that.”
Richards is only five weeks from his first free Thursday morning of golf. It’ll be a day he won’t have to pay the $13.50 fee for nine holes.
“I’m just happy I can go to Los Altos and that they let me play,” he said. “They’re pretty nice there.”
Not that Richards is totally satisfied.
“I think the cart should be free, too,” he laughed.