Brian Duffy holds the unofficial record for the longest putt ever. In 1996, during NASA mission STS-72 aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour, Duffy putted a ball that covered 20 miles.
“The ball traveled for four seconds from the putterface to the hole [the interior cardboard ring of a duct-tape roll], which was four feet away,” explained Duffy, the mission’s commander. “Since the shuttle orbits at 5 miles a second, the ball traveled 20 miles.”
With his zero-gravity stroke Duffy became just the second person to play golf in space, 25 years after Alan Shepard made two one-handed swings on the moon with a modified 6-iron during the Apollo 14 lunar mission in 1971. Both Shepard’s club and Duffy’s “Shuttle Putter” are on display at the USGA Museum.
While Shepard plotted his golf outing prior to liftoff and had to smuggle into his space suit the balls and 6-iron clubhead, which he jury-rigged onto a lunar sample scoop that served as the shaft, Duffy didn’t know he would be making golf history when he stepped aboard Endeavour for his third shuttle mission, his first as commander.
Duffy’s friend and frequent golf partner Tim Terry, a space-flight-training instructor, had enlisted Houston clubmaker Mike Gibson to build the putter, which has a mallet head and a shaft that separates into three pieces so it could fit into the locker of the Endeavour’s pilot, Brent Jett. Several days into the mission, Jett surprised Duffy by retrieving a black cloth bag that held the putter parts and a ball.
“I had no idea what it was,” recalled Duffy. “I heard tinkling sounds in the bag before I opened it up and looked inside. I saw some silver pieces, then what looked like a putterhead and grip.
“I put the club together, but I still didn’t know where it came from. Then I looked at the ball and saw the initials imprinted on it: TJT.”
Duffy, who started playing golf in his native Massachusetts when he was 10, quickly found out about the difficulties of putting in space. “You’re putting in three dimensions instead of two. You not only miss a putt left or right or long or short, but you can miss one up or down.”
In addition to playing golf during his mission, Duffy enjoyed looking for his favorite courses from an altitude of 200 miles. “Pebble Beach is very easy to see,” Duffy said. “Other famous courses like Augusta National are tough to identify.”
Several days after Endeavour touched down, NASA returned the putter to Duffy, who kept the club in his office. He was never tempted to use it on Earth, and eventually wrote a letter to the USGA, resulting in its donation to the Museum.
Duffy commanded another mission in 2000, and the former astronaut, now 58, lives in Houston and works for ATK, an aerospace company that is working on successors to the space shuttle program, which will come to a close following the touchdown of Atlantis on July 21.
“Personally, it’s sad to see the shuttle program end,” said Duffy, a former Air Force pilot who was selected as an astronaut in 1985. “I absolutely loved it. It was a chance to live out boyhood dreams, be part of a great effort that’s so much larger than any single person, and to represent the Air Force and the country to the rest of the world.”
Although Duffy’s place in golf history is secure, he expects others eventually to join the exclusive club of extraterrestrial golfers. “All programs have starts and ends,” he said. “The plan is for the human exploration of space to continue.”