Burlington's Estby turns 100 and still swinging
By Craig Smith
Seattle Times staff reporter
BURLINGTON — The man Golf Digest honored two years ago as having the best swing in the nation for golfers over age 90 celebrated his 100th birthday this month by shooting 98.
That was no surprise for Walter Estby, who first shot his age when he was 69 and says he has "no idea" how many times he has done it since.
What was a surprise occurred two days after his birthday when more than 200 members and guests of the Skagit Golf and Country Club threw a party for him. He was stunned because he thought he was just headed out for a dinner with friends.
"I was surprised," he said. "If I'd had a heart condition, I would have had an attack."
Surprising is an apt word for Estby — a remarkable, independent man who makes an annual road pilgrimage in his 2001 Mercury Grand Marquis to Mesa, Ariz., for the winter.
"Walter has a swing that most 48-year-olds would envy," Golf Digest wrote in 2003. "He's blessed with great flexibility, much like Sam Snead was.... In all, it's a phenomenal swing."
Craig Welty, assistant pro at Skagit, put the swing age even lower. He said someone who watched Estby swing from afar "might think he is a very limber 30-year-old."
Estby said he learned his swing "by imitating the best golfers when I was caddying at Earlington," a long-closed course near Renton, where he grew up.
Estby is sharp mentally as well as physically.
"He's amazing," said Welty's mother, Lori McNett, who has known him for more than 30 years. "He's totally there."
A reporter tried to list all the U.S. presidents who have held office during the golfer's life. Estby listened to the recitation and said, "You forgot Coolidge."
He also is quick with a joke about being old:
"Remember what [comedian] George Burns used to say when he was almost 100? 'I never buy green bananas.' "
His secret for a long life?
"I've always managed to keep my weight down," he said. "I think that makes a big difference. ... Actually, I'd like to gain a little weight."
He is 5 feet 8, 145 pounds.
Estby's wife, Viola, died 12 years ago. He still covers his driver with a knitted headcover she made for him. The couple didn't have children, and the Skagit club members are among the people closest to him.
Viola also got him started on vitamins, which are the only thing approaching medication he routinely takes.
She also played a role in his stopping smoking when he was 45 after an early-winter illness. She told him that his quitting smoking "was the best Christmas present I ever got."
Estby's life has routines. On Tuesdays, he goes to Safeway for the week's shopping, lured by "Senior Day" complimentary pastries and decaf coffee.
On Wednesdays, he plays golf, usually teeing off with friends shortly after noon and using a motorized cart to get around the course. He admits he has lost some depth perception and said he judges distances better on his home course than elsewhere.
On Thursdays, he drives to Eaglemont Golf Course outside Mount Vernon to have coffee and talk to friends.
"He's an incredible bird," said Eaglemont pro Mike O'Laughlin. "It's like clockwork — he comes into the pro shop and says, 'What's new?' "
After looking at some clubs and shirts and talking to O'Laughlin, Estby adjourns to the course restaurant for coffee, sometimes breakfast, and talks to friends there. Then he swings back through the pro shop and his final words to O'Laughlin always are, "Hope to see you next week."
Estby makes almost a daily appearance in the pro shop at Skagit, which is only about 250 yards from his condo on the ninth hole. For his 100th birthday, the club gave him a free lifetime membership.
At home, he reads and watches sports on television. He says he is more interested in local high-school teams than pro teams with their annual offseason uniform exchanges.
"One night a guy can be a hero for you, and then he's off playing for another team at the other end of the country," he complained.
In his prime, Estby played in Pacific Northwest Golf Association events. His handicap index was as low as 4. He has made two career holes-in-one.
Estby has lived in Skagit County since 1965. Born in Minnesota, his family moved to Renton, where he played baseball and basketball for Renton High School and graduated in a class of about 20 in 1922. He attended the University of Washington for two years while paying his way, then went to work full time.
The business major went on to hold three office jobs — with the Northern Pacific Railroad, a butter-and-egg company and Nakat Packing Corp., a salmon company.
His legacy will be that of a golfer who played into his second century. A lot of frustrated golfers could use an attitude implant from Estby, who just enjoys the game and doesn't worry about the score.
"I just like to get out there and hit some good shots," he said. "If I hit some bad ones, then I hit some bad ones."