Sheppard Gives Himself a Fighter’s Chance in Match Play August 26, 2019 | Durham, N.C. By Stuart Hall

Tim Sheppard took up golf as a kid because he liked hitting hard objects. Now he's become a top senior player in Illinois. (USGA/Chris Keane)

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Tim Sheppard has always had an affinity for using brute force to hit objects, whether they be baseballs, softballs or even opponents while competing in a mid-1980s Toughman event.

In the late 1970s, Sheppard played on his high school baseball and golf teams. “Even though golf really wasn’t that cool, I just did because it was fun hitting something hard,” he said.

By his 20s and early 30s, Sheppard transitioned to playing high-level softball and  other athletic interests like boxing.

“I had been in a zillion fights,” he said. “I entered [a 1986 regional Toughman Contest] thinking I would enjoy it.”

He trained with a Professional Karate Association dojo in advance of the competition, and then easily won the Light Heavyweight division. Sheppard knocked out all but one of his opponents in the opening round.

While Sheppard, 58, of East Peoria, Ill., has aged since his pugilistic days as a boxer, he still has a fighter’s mentality that he hopes will serve him well in the match-play portion of the 65th U.S. Senior Amateur Championship at Old Chatham Golf Club. On Monday, he faced Southern Californian Craig Steinberg in the Round of 64.

“Match play doesn’t always give you the best player,” said the left-handed Sheppard, who has been defeated in the Round of 64 in each of his two previous U.S. Senior Amateur appearances: 2016 and 2018. “That’s just one of the game’s nuances. You have stroke-play champions and you have match-play champions. The match play people have to be grinders, which is what I consider myself. I love golf.”

That passion blossomed in 1994, when he qualified for his first USGA championship, the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship at Eagle Bend Golf Club in Bigfork, Mont. Though he missed the match-play cut, the experience transformed him.

“That’s really when I said I’m done with softball,” said Sheppard, who played seven years with the Peoria Merchants, a highly recognized team in the Midwest. “I was going to start playing golf because it’s way too cool. Naturally my game got a lot better.”

Going from playing about a dozen rounds a year to practicing and competing in the local and state level, Sheppard honed a game that was predicated on power. “Even in high school, when I was a 5-[foot]-8, 130-pound pipsqueak, I could still hit the ball a mile,” said Sheppard, who now stands under 6 feet and weighs a cut 190 pounds. In his 1990s heyday, Sheppard was hitting the new and clunky steel-headed drivers 320 yards and his 7- and 8-irons 200 and 215 yards, respectively.

After the turn of the century, Sheppard began finding USGA success, qualifying for the 2002, 2004 and 2009 U.S. Mid-Amateurs, along with the 2010 APL. Despite a couple of elbow surgeries in 2007 and 2017 – and the unforgiving nature of growing old – Sheppard might actually be hitting his golfing prime.

Back home in Illinois, Sheppard became the first player in the competitive Chicago District Golf Association to win each of the association’s three senior championships – the 2018 Illinois State Senior Amateur, CDGA Senior Amateur Championship and the CDGA Senior Amateur Championship, which he claimed in May. In preparation for this week, Sheppard won the Pekin (Ill.) Men’s City Tournament, a match-play event that he has won six times. 

But over the weekend, Sheppard made it 3-for-3 in qualifying for match play in the Senior Amateur, tying for ninth in stroke play with a 36-hole total of 1-over 145.

“Winning builds confidence, which is always important when you’re trying to win a tournament,” he said. “You try and keep these things simple. I won that city tournament last week, so I will try and treat this week like that tournament as opposed to some big national championship, which is what it is.”

Given his vast past experiences, one has to give Sheppard a fighting chance.

Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA digital channels.

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