FORT MILL -- Late Wednesday afternoon, Rick Cloninger, 51 years old and looking all of 40, was standing on the practice range at Springfield Golf Club talking about his game and how he shot a 67 last weekend at Pinewood Country Club in Asheboro, N.C., a round that punched his ticket to the United States Senior Open in Colorado at the end of this month.
With a swing as smooth as a baby's backside, he was dropping 8-iron shots onto a green about 155 yards away.
On his fourth, maybe fifth swing, the ball cut a soft arc into the bright blue sky, landing softly a couple of feet from the flag.
Bud Welch, head professional at Springfield and a longtime friend of Cloninger's, said, "That went in the hole."
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The two of them laughed, but neither seemed surprised.
Cloninger kept hitting 8-iron shots. A bedsheet would have covered most of the balls on the green.
"If I can control the ball like that," he said, "I'll be all right."
Cloninger's golf game has been "all right" for some time now, so much so that he's certainly one of the top amateurs in South Carolina and, given his track record, one of the best in the Southeast.
That he's off to Colorado for the Senior Open from July 31-Aug. 2 is just another reminder that playing competitive golf doesn't diminish because you crossed that 50-year threshold.
In the last few years, Cloninger has played well against a bunch of players half his age.
"Played a tournament not long ago," he joked, "and I looked around and realized I was the only player who had a mortgage."
And he's one of the few long-in-the-tooth players who can run with the young dogs.
Not bad for a guy who came to play competitive golf at, at least in golf terms, a relatively advanced age. He was in his 20s before he decided he could find a little more competition than the $5 Nassau at the local club.
He's found his game and in a few weeks will get to test it against players he's watched on TV.
The Senior Open field at the 7,200-yard, par-70 Broadmoor Country Club in Colorado Springs is expected to include Greg Norman, Ben Crenshaw, Mark O'Meara, Curtis Strange, Hal Sutton, Hale Irwin, Tom Kite, Tom Watson and Bernhard Langer.
"Being there with all those names," Cloninger said, "being inside the ropes, the thing I fear most is getting caught up in that."
But this is a chance he's been playing for all his life. He missed qualifying last year by a stroke, by a "missed 15-footer" at the 18th hole. He's been the first alternate for United States Golf Association events six times and never got in.
"There's nothing worse than that," he said.
So, when he was driving back from Asheboro last week, he dialed Welch on his cell phone.
"He said, 'Pro, think we made it this time,'" Welch said, with the knowing smile of a man who's made his living with golf and knows how hard the road can be.
But Cloninger said there wasn't much celebration when he got home.
"It'll hit me when I get to Colorado," he said.
Getting there's been quite the trip.
Cloninger was born in Charlotte and lived there until his family moved to Tega Cay when he was 15. He lived next door to Welch, who was the pro at Tega Cay Golf Club. Cloninger went to work for Welch running carts and picking up range balls.
And picking up the game. By 16 he had a 3.5 handicap.
He would have been a heck of a high school player.
"I grew up an extremely competitive person," Cloninger said. "Golf came naturally to me, but at the time I was into football and baseball. They could take me to college, and I wanted to do what I could to have them take me there."
Cloninger was a football and baseball star at Fort Mill High School in the mid-70s and played American Legion baseball with Rick Sanford, Jimmy Kiser, Randy Smith and most of the area's top athletes of the 70s. He threw a no-hitter in Legion ball.
He went to Wofford because the school would let him play both sports and was an all-Southern Conference quarterback in 1978 as a senior. He still ranks in the top 10 in several offensive categories on the school's all-time records list. As a pitcher, he didn't get drafted, but was good enough to get some feelers from a couple of major league teams.
"But," he said, "I threw an 89-90 mile-per-hour fastball and knew there were thousands of guys who could throw like that. I had a job offer when I got out of school and knew my days of playing quarterback we over. I thought, 'Here's the next thing to go on to.'"
It was on to real life, paying bills and raising a family.
But when you've been a top-flight athlete, turning off the competitive juices isn't easy. Golf kept them flowing.
Florida was his first stop, and if you want to play golf, there's no better place. And his playing partners started telling him he had a lot more potential than just playing weekend scrambles and club championships.
He took lessons from noted teacher Fred Griffin, who helped him with his body control and got him hitting the ball farther. When he won the Orlando City Open by 10 shots, he knew there might be more ahead.
He won the 1991 Florida Mid-Amateur and the '92 Match Play Championship.
After work took him to Georgia, he won the State Amateur (1999), the Mid-Amateur (2001, 2002) and the Match Play Championship (1999, 2001).
In 2003, after his job brought him back to Fort Mill, he won the Carolinas Mid-Amateur.
He may be the only player to represent three states -- Florida, Georgia and South Carolina -- in the USGA State Team Matches.
He's played in two United States Amateur Championships and two U.S. Mid-Amateur Championships.
Despite the successes, he's never given playing professionally much thought. He didn't much like the idea of giving up a job with a steady paycheck for the gamble of pro golf.
"I'm happy with the way I've done it and wouldn't change it," he said.
His job allows him enough freedom to play tournaments, but he's not playing every week. Usually when November rolls around, the clubs come out of the car trunk and into the garage. They stay there until March except when he hits balls into a net in his basement. Other than tournament golf, he says he probably plays 10 rounds a year.
Amateur golf is dominated by younger players, but going up against players young enough to be his son has helped stoke Cloninger's fire. He admits he's played in threesomes where the ages of the other two players added wouldn't equal his.
While he's not as long off the tee as most of them, he's played them head-to-head with arrow-straight tee shots that find fairways and a short game that makes up for a lot of mistakes. He has a low round of 63 twice, a couple of 64s and "a bunch of 65s."
When he'd pick up those range balls at Tega Cay, he usually had a pitching wedge in his hand.
"If I've got an 80- or 90-yard shot, I feel pretty good about my chances," he said.
He closed last week's qualifying 67 with a birdie-birdie finish.
He's not sure what his chances will be at the Senior Open, but he's not going there just to show up. He admits that making the field "proves to yourself that you belong."
"I hit the ball far enough to be competitive, hit it straight and I'm pretty good chipping and putting," he said. "But the only thing I can control is that."
He pointed at the ball sitting invitingly on the tee.
He made a smooth pass with his driver and ripped a 265-yard shot on a rope down the range.
"People ask, 'Can you win?'" he said. "You don't know until you get there, but I just hope I can keep hitting like this."