by Thad Mumau | Photography by Diana Matthews
Fayetteville’s Gary Robinson capped off his busiest and most productive season of golf as the 2015 Carolinas Golf Association Senior Player of the Year.
Growing up, Robinson was like lots of other boys, playing pickup basketball at outdoor hoops and throwing and hitting a baseball whenever he got the chance. He was good enough at both sports to play in high school.
Golf never entered his mind. There was neither money nor opportunity for that. He would have laughed had someone told him he would one day become one of the finest golfers in North Carolina and among the country’s very best senior amateurs. Yet, that is exactly what has happened.
Robinson, 57, is easy-going but fiercely competitive. He is one of the longest hitters on the senior tour and holds a golf club with a relaxed grip that fits his personality. Watching him amble up to the tee and unceremoniously smack his drive more than 300 yards straight down the middle, one might surmise that he is a natural.
But even though there is plenty of athletic ability at the core of that smooth, sweet swing, it was built, not born. Constructed with hundreds of hours of work. Hitting practice balls, watching video to break down mechanics and reading about how to tame the inner self, a feat that can mean the difference between good and great in a sport that is as much mental as physical.
A lifetime Fayetteville resident, Robinson played golf for the first time when he was 15 years old.
“I went with Rick and Ronnie Adams, twins who were good friends. I didn’t have any clubs; I would just use one of theirs when it was my time to hit. Their dad, Ray, played with us sometimes, and he taught me how to hold the club and things like that. Ray was, and still is, a very good golfer. He remains a good friend today.”
Robinson graduated from Reid Ross High School in 1976 and was married the following January. After working and taking some classes at Fayetteville Technical Community College, he enrolled at Fayetteville State University.
“When I did, I told the lady that I wanted to try out for the baseball team,” he says. “She told me that the school had discontinued that sport.
A man standing close by-he turned out to be the golf coach-asked if I would like to be on the golf team instead.”
So he did, and while his collegiate career was fairly forgettable, Robinson learned a lot. The Broncos’ team practiced at Fort Bragg’s Stryker Golf Course, where he met several Army retirees.
“I’d go back and play with some of those guys. They had games where there would be a little wager, and it helped me learn to play under pressure.
“Shoot, when you’re making 50 dollars a week, and a putt is worth two bucks, that’s a lot of money,” he says. “That was pressure.”
Robinson hung wallpaper for a living and earned a reputation as one of the best in the business. He enjoyed golf when he got the chance and was playing OK. Then he improved dramatically.
“There were two reasons I got better,” he says. “No. 1, I decided to get better. No. 2, I bought a video camera-they were big and bulky back then, and I’d put it on a tripod when I went out in a field to hit balls, and I’d film myself.
“Tom Watson was just coming into his own at that time, and he was my favorite. I tried to swing like him. I watched the TV with Watson hitting the ball, and I watched the videos with me hitting the ball, and I tried to make my swing more like his. I would watch videos over and over, and my wife, Audrey, asked, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘Just trying to learn.’”
Then came “The Book.”
“For Christmas in 1981, my wife gave me “The Inner Game of Golf” by Timothy Gallwey. It is about the mental aspects of golf and making things simple. In fact, SIMPLIFY is the big thing. I have read that book four or five times and parts of it, more than that. It has helped me so much.”
Robinson reaped dividends almost immediately. He won the Fayetteville-Cumberland County Championship, during which he posted his lowest-ever nine-hole score of 32, on the way to his best-ever round of 72. The next month, he won the local Gates Four Invitational, followed by a half-dozen other tournaments.
“I went from shooting 80-85 to consistently getting into the low 70s and even into the 60s. I was obviously practicing a lot, but the key was that I was practicing differently. Take the club back and swing, take the club back and swing … I broke it down to that. It all starts with preparation, and when you prepare well, you just do things naturally.”
Last year, Robinson was the medalist during qualifying for the U.S. Senior Amateur, which was played in California. He did not play well, and he knew why. “On the way home, I realized that I had not competed enough. I had been thinking about the others players’ accomplishments and didn’t have confidence in my own game.
“I was upset with myself. I don’t mind hitting a bad shot, but I do mind hitting one from a negative thought, and that’s what happened out there. It’s about preparation, and I had to get back to having the same preparation before every shot.”
Robinson was again the (co-) medalist this year in qualifying for the U.S. Senior Amateur. At the event, which was held in New Jersey, he finished fifth over two rounds, which qualified him for match play, where he lost in the quarterfinals. His performance guaranteed him a spot in next year’s Senior Amateur tournaments in the United States, Canada and Great Britain.
Robinson, who was inducted into the Fayetteville Sports Club Hall of Fame in 2014, has changed careers. After 25 years hanging wallpaper, he is a general contractor building houses. His daughters are involved, Lauren working with the company and Jennifer as a real estate agent.
Golf kept him on the go in 2015 as he played 16 tournaments. In addition to finishing on top of the CGA Senior points standings, he won his eighth Cumberland County Championship, extending his own record and giving him a title in four different decades. He also won the Durham Senior Amateur and the Eagle Point Senior Amateur in Wilmington.
Those were plums, but nothing was more special than teaming with Lauren to win the Carolinas Golf Association Parent-Child tournament for the third straight time. They have won three father-daughter events in Fayetteville as well.
“Golf has added so much to my life,” Robinson says, “but golf does not dictate who I am. If I shoot 75 or 65, it doesn’t change my life. My girls still love me, and I love them. That won’t change.
“But I sure have enjoyed playing.”
Mumau has been a writer for more than 48 years, covering some of the sports greats, including Michael Jordan, John Wooden, Jack Nicklaus and Dean Smith. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Mumau’s book, “Had ‘Em All the Way,” is available at www.amazon.com. It is his seventh book.