Esco Harmon (2002)
Posted on Wed, Nov. 13, 2002, The State Newspaper
A RECORD FOR THE AGES
Esco Harmon, 65, recently concluded his Benedict golf career as possibly the oldest athlete in NCAA history
By BOB GILLESPIE
For three years, Herman Belton had a pretty good idea how Fritz Hollings felt about his junior U.S. Senator status in the shadow of colleague Strom Thurmond.
If you put that political relationship into a sports perspective, that is.
Starting in the spring of 1999, Belton, 35 and a U.S. Navy veteran, played three seasons as
No. 2 for the Benedict College golf team, ahead of players 15 years younger. But one player, Esco Harmon, he never could beat out.
Of course, Harmon had an edge on Belton in experience - 30 years' worth.
"It was very difficult, playing No. 2 and having a 60-something-year-old man at No. 1," said Belton, who graduated last year and became Benedict's golf coach. "At first, I'd look at him and think, What's he doing out here?'
"Then one day I realized: that's what all these 20-year-olds think of me.'"
Those days are gone. In December, Harmon, who turned 65 in August, will graduate from Benedict with a degree in community recreation. He's already putting his college experience to work as a part-time instructor at the City of Columbia Golf Center.
This fall, Harmon played his final semester of intercollegiate golf, competing in three tournaments - and, in the process, staking a claim to the title of oldest athlete in NCAA history.
Last spring, a story by The Associated Press stated that Judy Street, 61 and a member of the golf team at Barry University in Miami Shores, Fla., might be the oldest ever. NCAA officials said they kept no age records, but knew of no one as old as Street competing in a sport.
They obviously didn't know Esco Harmon.
A Columbia native and 1958 C.A. Johnson High graduate, Harmon was at a Christmas party in 1998 when he met then-coach Lucius Clark, who was forming the first Benedict team. When Clark learned Harmon didn't have a college degree, he offered the
61-year-old a scholarship.
"It was a challenge," said Harmon, married with three children and several grandchildren. "I never felt I'd given my golf game a chance to grow, to see where I could go with it. My ego drove me to see if I could compete with the younger fellows."
He soon learned he could. The following spring, at Columbia's Northwoods Golf Course, Harmon finished second in Benedict's first tournament - Belton, who'd joined the team a semester earlier, finished first - and later won in Richmond, Va., in a playoff.
Then he won again, in Charlotte, at a tournament hosted by Johnson C. Smith University. "That was an inspiration to me, knowing I could compete," Harmon said.
Belton calls that Harmon's "Tiger Woods start." Says Harmon with a laugh, "More like Earl Woods."
One of Harmon's best showings came this spring in the final round of the National Minority Golf Championship in Port St. Lucie, Fla. He shot a 78 to help Benedict finish third in NCAA Division II, despite a scorecard error in the second round that had disqualified him from the individual competition.
"I promised my teammates I'd come back and rectify what had happened," Harmon said.
Belton says he used Harmon as an example of dedication to his team. "Esco brings a lot of professionalism, wisdom and know-how," he said. "It's an honor to play with him."
Harmon was 17 when he was introduced to golf while caddying at Fort Jackson Golf Club. "At first it was a way to make money," he said. But soon he was competing in "caddie day" outings.
"The pro shop had rental clubs they let us use," he said. Soon he was shooting in the 80s, and eventually was a scratch golfer.
After high school, Harmon joined the exodus of young African-Americans who migrated north to New York City, settling in suburban Amityville. He took technical classes in electronics, then worked 12 years for Lafayette Radio and 20 years for the Department of Defense.
On Long Island, Harmon found friends who were golfers. "I played every weekend and afternoons after work," he said. "I'd look out the window at my job, look at the blue skies and green grass and think about golf."
In 1997 he retired and moved back to South Carolina, he said, "for the longer golf season and less crowds." In Columbia, he became a regular at Fort Jackson and Northwoods.
When he accepted Clark's offer at Benedict, Harmon says his main concern wasn't golf, but classwork. "There was a great amount of uncertainty," he said. "After 30-40 years out, could I still function as a student?" In fact, Harmon maintained a 3.0 grade-point average, even making the dean's list one semester.
Now Harmon is enjoying a budding second career. He and Belton also have discussed having him work with his former teammates as a volunteer coach.
"We've got some talent," Belton said, in particular new No. 1 Justin Johnson and Chris Cole, nephew of Senior PGA Tour regular Jim Dent. "If we can just get them to listen to us old guys."
Belton says Harmon could have applied for one more semester of eligibility this spring. Instead, he's focusing on graduation.
Harmon grins at Belton. "I decided," he said, "to give the young fellows a chance." This time.