Cumberland Times-News

Columns

April 27, 2013

The one, the only Charley Miller

Thousands of golfers have teed it up at the local country clubs and golf courses over the years.

But there was only one Charley Miller.

From the early days as a Cumberland Country Club caddy to the days of dominance at Maplehurst Country Club and the seasons he defied his age by shooting it or lower, even well into his 90s, Charley Miller was nothing short of amazing.

“His whole life was golf. It was his destiny,’’ said longtime friend Lou Klepitch, who played golf with Miller for more than 25 years. “He was amazing.”

Miller had a quick, strong right-handed swing. But what many did not know, Klepitch said, was that Miller was a natural left-hander.

“He started playing golf when he was young, as a caddy at the Cumberland Country Club. But he couldn’t find any left-handed clubs back then so he started swinging right-handed ones.”

His granddaughter, Vickie Killingbeck of Winchester, Va., confirmed Miller’s natural left-handedness. She saw him as ambidextrous in a number of ways. Miller lived with his granddaughter and family during his final years. He died March 21 at age 98.

“Down here, we played at Bowling Green in Front Royal and also at Cacapon in Berkeley Springs,” said Killingbeck. “When he was 96 he played the whole year, and then a little bit when he was 97. He shot his age or lower all the time. He was scoring in the upper 80s when he stopped playing, at age 97.”

Miller, like many of his generation, kept detailed handwritten notes, and Killingbeck recently helped preserve an immense collection of local golf history in a scrapbook featuring photos, notes and newspaper clippings.

Miller kept track of his golf game, from becoming the first caddy to hit a hole-in-one at Cumberland (old No. 11, Nov. 9, 1931) and winning the CCC caddy tournament in 1932, to the times and places he shot his age or lower.

To shoot one’s age is a rare accomplishment in golf, a feat much more difficult than a hole-in-one, although Miller had four of those, too. A hole-in-one is one swing, with a good bit of luck. Shooting one’s age is a 3 1/2- to 4-hour test with little room for error.

Miller shot his age or lower “hundreds of times,” his granddaughter and a host of friends and playing partners said. Exactly how many times?

How about 1,599 documented times, from age 70 to 95.

One thousand five hundred ninety-nine?!

Actually, the number is even a little higher than that. The list, as Killingbeck says, doesn’t include the times her grandfather shot his age numerous times with her at age 96 and 97, nor does it include when he first shot his age at Maplehurst, in 1984 at age 69 when he was a 4 handicap.

He shot or beat his age 141 times in 2002 at age 87, and in the seven-year span from 2000 to 2006, did it 886 times.

According to Golf Digest, the record for most times shooting one’s age belongs to the late T. Edison Smith, of Moorhead, Minn., who did it 3,359 times.

The record for most strokes under one’s age is 21, set by Canadian Ed Ervasti who, in 2007 at age 93, shot a 72 at Sunningdale Golf and Country Club in London, Ontario. The oldest to shoot his age was Arthur Thompson, of Victoria, British Columbia, at age 103, in 1972 at the Uplands Golf Club in Victoria.

Miller had tied the former national record of 16 strokes under his age when he posted a 73 at Bedford Elks at age 89 in 2004. Three years later, at 92, he shot a 2-over par 72 from the senior tees at Bowling Green.

Miller also shot his age or lower at Cumberland, Oakland, Alpine Lake, Polish Pines, Down River, Valley View, Bedford Elks, Bedford Springs, Mountain View in Morgantown, Stonebridge in Martinsburg and the former Mountain Club, now Fore Sisters.

“He was never a real long hitter but he always hit the ball straight down the middle,” Klepitch said. “He quit golfing for a while after he was a caddy, to go to work at the Celanese, and I think he was 43 when he began playing at Maplehurst. He became a legend up there.”

Miller wrote, in his personal “golf diary,” that he played very little from 1932 until joining Maplehurst in 1957.

A charter member of the Frostburg country club, Miller dominated the fall championship there, winning it from 1957 through 1963 on the strength of 31 consecutive matches without a defeat, which he called his greatest accomplishment. His string was finally stopped by Jake Michaels, on the 36th hole, in 1964.

But Miller won it again in 1967 and 1973, as well as the spring handicap championship in 1958 and 1961. In 2006 Maplehurst held a tournament celebrating its 50th anniversary. Miller, at age 90, won the senior championship with a 78.

Miller won nine fall championships and two spring titles at MCC and was runnerup 13 other times.

“He had a very short swing but he’d hit it right down the middle, every time, and it would roll and roll and roll,’’ Michaels said. “He won everything and had trophies galore. He played in a lot of tournaments and probably won or was on the winning team in 90 percent of them. He was that good.”

Michaels and Miller were neighbors growing up, Michaels living on Reynolds Street and Miller on Pine Avenue in Cumberland. The former Allegany County sheriff said he played golf with Miller for probably 40 years.

 “Just when you thought you might have him beat, he’d knock in a 35-foot putt or something. He could really pull out the shots.

“But more than that, he was such a fine person. I admired the guy so much. I never heard a bad word come out of his mouth. I never saw Charley move a ball. He was a stickler for the rules and he played it down all the time. I never saw him throw a club in anger.

“He was a credit to the game, a real gentleman, and would always help other golfers with their game. He taught me a lot about golf and a lot about life ... just a marvelous guy with a memory you couldn’t believe.”

Rick Harris, the former high school basketball coach at Bishop Walsh and Fort Hill, got to know Miller well at Maplehurst. Their team won the Vicki Via Dotson Leukemia Tournament in 1988.

“I always said if they had a national tournament for 90 year olds, Charley would win it hands down,’’ Harris said. “He was an amazing person, and on top of that a great golfer.

“I thought he was an unorthodox golfer in the way he used clubs in certain situations that no one else did. In the sand trap he would chip out with a 4-iron or sometimes with a putter, but he would get it close all the time.

“He shot his age, or lower, about every time we played,” Harris said. “He was amazing. And he was well-liked and respected by everybody. It was always a privilege to play with him.”

There’s more than one way to get around a golf course, and Miller was proof of that.

“He was very good with his irons,’’ Klepitch said. “He’d use that 4-iron anytime he was around 20 yards from the green and he’d always get it up there four or five feet from the hole. And he very seldom missed a putt of 10 feet or less. He was a deadly putter.

“He had a terrific memory of the game and of the courses he played,’’ Klepitch added. “He wouldn’t have to squat down and try to read a green. He could remember, in his mind, the breaks in the green from the previous times he had played.”

When Slug Armstrong began playing at Maplehurst, Miller seemed larger than life to him. He was already a legend.

“The more I played and the more I got to see him play, the more I got to appreciate his golf skills,’’ he said. “Charley’s ability to get the ball into the cup was uncanny. Although he and I had vastly different swings, I learned so much about the short game and putting by playing and talking with Charley. I also learned a lot about knowing the rules through Charley. He was a stickler for playing by the rules.

“After discussing a round of golf, I also learned of one of his pet peeves in golf: making mental errors. He didn’t get too mad at himself for a bad swing or a mis-hit. But if he missed a green on the wrong side or used the wrong club in playing a shot, it would really eat at him. Of all that I personally learned from Charley, that mental approach to the game was the most valuable.

“His name was synonymous with golfing excellence and he was one of the best ball strikers to ever play in this area,” Armstrong added. “He won more championships at Maplehurst than anyone, and in his prime contended annually for the championship at the Western Maryland Amateur. Our area lost a true golfing legend.”

And there won’t be another like him. Ever.

Mike Mathews is a Cumberland Times-News sportswriter. Write to him at mmathews@times-news.com

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