83-year-old Charlotte man shot a 69 over 18 holes. Has he figured out golf’s secrets?

Scott Fowler

Unless you’ve met him on a golf course, you’ve probably never heard of David Fairley.

And even if you did, Fairley probably didn’t make much of an impression at first.

Fairley is 83 years old. He is 5-foot-8. He weighs 148 pounds, which is exactly what he weighed in 10th grade.

It would only be after you saw Fairley play a little while that you would realize that he has nearly perfected golf — or at least amateur golf played from the senior tees. Almost every hole plays out the same way for a man who has lived within a 3-mile section of south Charlotte his entire life:

Fairway, green and 1-2 putts.

In a moment, we will get to Fairley’s four secrets for playing good golf at any age. You may be more willing to try a couple of them when I tell you he shot a 69 earlier this month — 14 strokes under his age — and walked the course while doing so. Or that he shot a 67 this summer.

But first, a bit of perspective.

Most senior golfers strive to shoot their age or better once or twice in their lifetime. It is one of the final mountains to climb for those in the twilight of their golfing careers. Shooting, say, a 74 when you are 75 years old is rare enough to be a cause for celebration. How many times has Fairley shot his age or better?

“I’m going to be conservative,” Fairley said, “and say at least 700.”

‘I’m sort of a freak’

Most recently, Fairley shot that 69 in November at his par-72 home club — the Fort Mill Golf Club in South Carolina — while playing from the senior tees (slightly less than 6,000 yards).

“I have been playing pretty good lately,” he allowed.

“For his age, without a doubt, David Fairley is the best I’ve ever seen,” said David Gies, who has worked at several Charlotte-area golf courses and is now the general manager at Fort Mill Golf Club. “And it’s not even close.”

At an age where many of his longtime golf buddies are either deceased, home-bound or have trouble reaching down to tee up a golf ball, Fairley plays about three times a week — often with men 20 years younger who out-drive him by 70 yards. He walks all 18 holes on cool days, because it helps him keep his feet warm and his body flexible. He tends to stiffen up in a golf cart.

Although Fairley has always stayed active, he knows also that some of all this comes down to good genetics and great luck.

“I’ve had no back, knee or shoulder problems,” Fairley said. “I take no medicine. I’m sort of a freak.”

‘The antithesis of DeChambeau’

Now I don’t want to oversell this. Fairley is not Tiger Woods. He didn’t hit the ball long enough off the tee to ever consider a pro career, and the only money he’s won in golf comes from side bets with friends on the course. He’s never worked as a golf pro, either.

Instead, Fairley worked more than 40 years as a traveling salesman in the clothing business back when every small town had a women’s dress shop on Main Street. He would drive all over the Carolinas in a motorhome that was decorated to display his wares.

Fairley played golf since he was 8 years old, growing up near the 10th fairway at Myers Park Country Club. But he improved once he retired at the age of 64 and started playing more often, mostly in Fort Mill where he also worked as a starter for years.

“Dad is a small guy who never hit it very far,” said Alex Fairley, one of David’s three sons. “Growing up, he was a 4-handicap. He’s really better now than he was then. Of course, he’s also got more time to play. But it’s rare that he shoots out of the low 70s.”

While astounding, Fairley’s talent for golf at an advanced age isn’t unheard of. There are documented cases of golfers shooting as many as 22 strokes under their age in tournament competition. Fairley’s best is 12-under in that situation, when he shot a 69 in a 65-and-over tournament at age 81 (he won the tournament). And there are a few golfers around the world who have shot under their age several thousand times, compared to Fairley’s 700-plus.

David Fairley, an 83-year-old amateur golfer from Charlotte, holds a scorecard from a day in which he shot a 67 over 18 holes earlier in 2020.
David Fairley, an 83-year-old amateur golfer from Charlotte, holds a scorecard from a day in which he shot a 67 over 18 holes earlier in 2020.

There are also thousands of golfers who have also had more holes-in-one in their lifetime than Fairley; he’s only had two in 75 years of playing the game.

Fairley loses maybe two golf balls a year, usually wearing them out before he hits them somewhere he can’t find them. His style is “straight-straight-straight,” as Gies said. “He gets out-driven by 50-70 yards on many holes — he’s the antithesis of Bryson DeChambeau. But what a short game he has.”

I asked Fairley about his secrets for playing good golf. Maybe one of these four can help you:

Find the right grip and stick to it

Fairley is old enough that, as a teenager, he saw Ben Hogan win the 1951 and 1953 Masters in person, walking the grounds at Augusta National behind Hogan and marveling at the way he could manipulate a golf ball.

“The most important thing in golf is having a good grip, and I always copied Hogan’s after seeing him play in person,” Fairley said. “His hands fit in there like a puzzle.

“The trouble with a lot of these young kids today is that they move their left hand too far over, and a strong left hand may give you more power, but you’ll lose control.”

Work on your short game

“Don’t go to the driving range and hit drivers,” Fairley said. “A lot of people, all they want is to hit it 350 yards. And those same people are just pitiful from 100 yards and in, which is where you score. You have to know the mechanics of hitting shots onto the green, and of bunker shots. I have a 7-iron I’ve just about worn the face off of because I’ve hit it so much. Same with my pitching wedge.”

Lose some weight

Fairley isn’t your doctor, but sometimes he sounds like he is. However much you’re exercising, he said to ask yourself if you can do a little more.

“If you get a big stomach, that’s a problem — in golf and in life,” Fairley said. “Weight problems cause a lot of issues. I’ve stayed as flexible as I am at 83 because I’ve weighed about the same for the last 65 years or so.”

Ask for help

Despite shooting a number of rounds in the 60s since he’s turned 80, Fairley occasionally hits a rough patch, too. That’s when he turns to a couple of local pros he trusts to diagnose what’s wrong with his game.

“You can’t keep doing the same thing, making the same mistake, and expect a different result,” Fairley said. “Everybody needs help sometimes.”