FRAMINGHAM — Judy Peters was having fun playing in a women’s league at Millwood Farms Golf Course, a 14-hole gem. Her husband, Don, thought he should find a league for himself, acknowledging that “Judy’s a better player than me,” said the Southborough resident.
Judy suggested he join the Phil Ernst Senior Men’s League, which also calls Millwood home.
“I called Don Lawson, the president of the league and said, ‘I need to join a league to get better,’ and he said, ‘That’s what they all say,’ ” recalled Peters, who signed up anyway.
It was 1999. Peters is still pursuing the game at age 72, which in this league makes him a mere babe in the woods — and that’s where a lot of tee shots wind up. As for his game: “My handicap hasn’t changed. But there’s always hope,” he said.
Marshall Williams, a 77-year-old Framingham resident, has been teeing it up in the league since 1996.
“That’s the hook to this league, it’s guys from all walks of life,” said Williams, a retired banker.
“It’s competitive, but it’s a friendly bunch of guys. Some of us have medical problems, but we can still swing a club.”
That includes 89-year-old Frank Donahue of Framingham.
“Everyone’s trying to improve their game, but it doesn’t work,” he said.
Very few give it up, though. Tuesday mornings at Millwood have become one of life’s remaining pleasures for the league’s players, whether they’re 72 or 90.
“This is their one time out a week,” said Jerry Wheeler, a Waltham resident who has run Millwood’s pro shop for nine years. “They play through the aches and pains.”
The league plays just nine of Millwood’s 14 holes (the course added the extra five back in 1976, when it acquired an adjacent parcel). A few of the players still walk the course.
The older players limp and grimace. Knee braces are common. But there’s no place these guys would rather be. At 80, Framingham resident Jim Palmer is a 15-year veteran of the league.
Even more impressive: He’s been an umpire in the Framingham Slo-Pitch men’s softball league since 1963. The key to the golf league is “not to take yourself too seriously,” said Palmer. “Either you swear or laugh at yourself.” Then move on to the next shot.
Framingham’s Bill Chignola, 80, started playing in his 40s. “I’m a hacker,” he concedes. “I never took lessons.”
When he retired from Raytheon — after working in Marlborough, Sudbury, and Wayland — “I was looking for an old man’s league,” Chignola said. He served as its president for five years, but the position became too burdensome.
“If I was going to enjoy this game I had to stop the pressure of being president,” he said. “So I quit and my handicap went down. You look forward to the competition. We’re not out to win tournaments. There isn’t $25,000 riding on a putt. The most nervous I got was having to make a 15-foot putt to keep my team in first place.”
He made it.
The league has 64 players, fielding eight teams of eight in four divisions, A through D.
“I’m a D now,” said the 89-year-old Donahue. “I don’t hit the ball as far any more.”
Current president Jim Doucette thought Donahue was the league’s oldest player. But on the first week of play this month, he learned that another Framingham resident, David McCaffrey, who missed last season due to injury, holds the honor.
“I’ll be 90 May 28,” said McCaffrey, who was league treasurer for 12 years.
McCaffrey grew up in Waltham and rose to captain in the Watertown Fire Department, where he worked for 32 years.
“I’ve been playing golf since I retired,” he said.
How does he keep up? “I don’t know, I stay active. I go to the Y three times a week. I’m just lucky.”
Doucette, a 65-year-old graduate of Framingham North High who now lives in Newton, said the league tries to emphasize that matches should be “mildly competitive,” but he noted that as soon as you start keeping score, “it’s competitive. The guys want to win. Most of them will tell you they can’t wait for Tuesday morning.”
Natick’s Jerry Precious, league vice president and handicapper, said, “You’re inside all winter with your wife — of course you want to get out. Some of the guys moan, but they love it. They wouldn’t miss it. It gives them something to do.”
“It makes me get out of bed early,” said Tom Cain, a Natick resident whose wife, Linda, plays at the same time but at Westborough’s Indian Meadows Golf Club.
“We swap stories. We usually complain about missed shots.” The Cains also play together at Natick’s Sassamon Trace Golf Course.
Playing slowly or not very well is no scarlet letter in the Phil Ernst Senior League.
“Most of the guys understand,” said Donahue. “You’re tolerated on the course. It’s a great place for guys starting out in golf.”
His partner on opening day, Art Chaisson, yelled to Donahue, “Hey Frankie, you never taught me how to keep score!”
Donahue handed him a card and a pencil.
“Frankie’s unbelieveable,” said Chaisson. “I didn’t believe him when he said he was 89. I hope I look like him in 10 years.” Chiasson is 78.
Mark Licht, a 68-year-old Framingham resident, spends winters in Florida and jumps right into the senior league at Millwood. “It’s all about the camaraderie,” he said.
Sometimes a new season is met with sad news. “You find out one of the players died over the winter,” said Wheeler.
That was the case this year.
But the most enduring and empowering element of the league is its rebirth each spring. It’s about getting out after winter exits and getting together again for 19 Tuesdays. It’s about catching up, swapping stories, being grateful for life itself. It’s where slices and missed putts are the norm, but so what?
If this is the twilight of their days, you’d never know it.