When Nick Karnazes, then age 72, told his cardiologist about his plan to play 96 rounds of golf over 96 days across the 48 contiguous United States, he was warned that he might be coming home in a pine box.
“No one lives forever,” Karnazes, now 82, told his doctor at the time, fully aware that he was a candidate for heart surgery. “I have a daughter in heaven, so if something happened to me, I’d be with her. I had already mailed out letters to all the courses. I love golf. I’m going on the trip.”
At Karnazes’ going-away party, his son Kraig pulled him aside.
“Dad, you’ve been a good father,” he said. “I might not see you again.”
Kraig gave his dad a phone so that he could check in every morning, and on March 22, 2009, Karnazes began his journey at Cerbat Cliffs Golf Course in Kingman, Ariz.
The San Clemente, Calif., resident was inspired to take the trip by his other son, Dean, an ultramarathoner who ran a marathon in each of the 50 United States over 50 consecutive days in 2006. That Christmas, Dean told his dad he should have brought his clubs and played everywhere he ran.
His interest piqued, the elder Karnazes began doing some research and found that 18 people had played 48 rounds in 48 states, but no one had played two rounds in each state over 96 days. While others had circuited the country in small planes, Karnazes drove – mostly by himself – from one tee time to the next in an RV.
Karnazes, dubbed “The Happy Golfer” by Callaway, which supplied him with clubs, balls and apparel, drove from his home in Orange County to Arizona, then headed east to Kentucky, where it snowed for two straight days. From there, he headed south to Florida and then up the East Coast, celebrating his 73rd birthday in Connecticut.
Karnazes said his favorite destination of the entire trip was the Pete Dye River Course of Virginia Tech, in Radford, Va. In fact, it was the only course he played twice. The Happy Golfer actually exceeded his goal, playing 108 rounds on 107 courses. He did that by playing 36 holes in a single day 20 times. By doing so, Karnazes created 20 days off for himself, but he played 12 rounds on his “off days” anyway.
The obsession with golf began when Karnazes was a 16-year-old growing up in Inglewood, Calif. His father, a Greek immigrant and restaurateur named Constantine, got him a set of used Bobby Jones clubs stored in a leather bag.
“He told me this is a sport he thought I might do well in,” recalled the Happy Golfer. “That’s the only time in his life my father lied to me.”
The truth is Karnazes got as low as a 4 handicap and played in college. He’s up to a 17.9 these days, but continues to play in the same foursome he’s been a part of for the past 54 years.
Karnazes’ wife has been with him for a lifetime, but Mary Fran didn’t join him on his odyssey until Billings, Mont. Married for nearly six decades, the couple were together for the final five states, concluding the journey in Redding, Calif., on June 25, 2009.
Two weeks later, Karnazes underwent successful quadruple bypass surgery.
“I should not have gone on the trip,” he admitted, explaining that doctors found during surgery that four of his arteries were 99 percent clogged.
An incredible love of golf propelled the longtime USGA member on his historic adventure.
“There are 18 holes, so there are 18 chances to be a hero,” he said. “Every round is a challenge.”
The Happy Golfer is always trying to get better. After each shot, he writes down the club he used and assigns the stroke a letter grade. The very meticulous Karnazes is offended when playing partners don’t keep a scorecard.
“I like to keep track of things and put things away in their proper place,” he said. “I enjoy keeping stats and reviewing them later.”
Karnazes still plays Monday through Friday at his home course in San Clemente, but his wife persuaded him to stop carrying his bag six months ago. He has no plans to give up the game.
“Bing Crosby died on a golf course in Spain,” Karnazes said. “I’d like to be around a golf course when that happens to me.”
Jordan Schwartz is the creative and content lead for the USGA Foundation. Email him at email@example.com.