The golf course provided an escape from daily coronavirus anxiety for millions of Americans in 2020. And while the nationwide surges in play have been well-documented, nobody played more than Barry Gibbons.
The 61-year-old Gibbons, a former vice president of sales for IBM, completed a total of 1,235 18-hole rounds – unofficially the most ever by anyone in a calendar year. Gibbons averaged almost 3 ½ rounds per day, walking and carrying his clubs throughout his quest, and played all but three days in 2020, two of them in the final week of the year. He typically was on the course from 7 a.m. until darkness fell every day, often forgoing meals. When all was said and done, Gibbons walked a total of 8,377 miles – the equivalent of almost 320 marathons or crisscrossing the country from New York to Los Angeles three times.
Gibbons’ almost single-minded pursuit raises a number of questions. Perhaps most notably, why?
“A lot of people just think I’m crazy. They say, ‘Well, you must not be married,’” he says with a chuckle. “You can imagine the range of questions goes on and on. But once people (in my community) understood, it was like they kind of adopted me. Every time they saw me, it was, ‘Where are you now? How’s it going? How do you feel?’ All the interest and support was pretty fulfilling, satisfying and motivational.”
It’s important to note he didn’t dive into his record-setting attempt without previous experience. Goal-driven by nature, Gibbons in 2016 played 878 rounds, easily eclipsing the previous documented best of 611. His unofficial mark stood for three years, until he learned another golfer played 911 rounds in 2019. While Gibbons noted that man counted some partial rounds and played a shorter course than he had in 2016 – resulting in over 1,000 fewer holes and 1,000 fewer miles-walked — Gibbons had the inspiration he needed for a new goal.
The second question that Gibbons understandably gets is: how is this even possible? Often, it’s not even in the form of a question, but more of a dismissive, “That’s impossible. There’s no way.” Gibbons understands the doubt, but has plenty of evidence to support his unprecedented accomplishment.
Just ask his fellow members or staff at the Texas country club where he lives and plays. Gibbons was a permanent fixture, as he went off before the first official group each morning, and his starting times are on the club’s tee sheets. Ask Joy, his wife of 37 years, who supported his endeavor not only by accepting that she’d be the ultimate “golf widow,” but by taking on virtually all other household responsibilities – from yardwork and paying bills to taking the cars for inspection.
And while golf is the ultimate game of honor, one in which we’re asked to take participants at their word, Gibbons also has stronger proof thanks to technology. Gibbons not only kept a scorecard from every round and logged his quest in a spreadsheet, but he took daily screenshots on his phone of the data from his Fitbit tracker that details how many steps he took, how many miles he walked, and where he went. Often for more than 12 hours a day.
“I don’t know how much more you could verify it,” Gibbons said. “The screen shots show the dates, with how many steps and miles, so that’s more statistical, along with my tee times at the courses. But if you walked around the courses and asked people who work, live here or play here, or talk to the club pro, they say, ‘He’s out here every day from sun up to sun down.’ I didn’t do it to try to get a Guinness record. I know in my heart what I did and that’s really all that matters to me. If somebody doesn’t believe me, that’s their choice, their decision. I don’t really care. I did it to see if I could accomplish something. I’m not the kind of person that would cut corners to say I could do something I couldn’t do.”
FOUR COURSES AND COVID ADJUSTMENTS
Gibbons played all of his 2020 rounds at the Hills of Lakeway in Austin, which provides its members the use of four courses spread across two affiliated clubs. While Gibbons and his wife have a house in Connecticut and usually return to the Northeast each summer to escape the Texas heat, they opted to stay in one spot in 2020.
After playing more than 100 rounds each of the first two months of the year, Gibbons decided to set his target at a memorable number: 1,234. And then the pandemic struck. Gibbons had to adjust, like many in the golf world.
While he would always play the first round of the day solo – sometimes in under two hours – he’d frequently be paired up during other times of the day. That made tee times even harder to come by when only twosomes were permitted for a stretch. At another point in the spring, three of his club’s courses closed down due to local city rules, so he was limited solely to the fourth, which was technically in another part of the county and remained open. It actually worked in his favor, as the golf shop had to close for safety purposes, but the course remained open as an exercise outlet for residents. Because a lot of other retirees used carts, they opted not to play, leaving more times open for Gibbons and other walkers.
Gibbons lost 30 pounds over the first four months, skipping breakfast and often only snacking during the day instead of eating a meal. That’s when his wife stepped in, concerned for his wellbeing. As the summer heat hit, Joy would insist that he come home for a late lunch. Gibbons would also use the opportunity to change clothes as he’d usually be completely drenched in sweat.
“I can’t really express how big a part of this Joy was, even if she wasn’t on the course with me that often,” Gibbons said. “She freed me up to be able to chase a goal. She knows that once I get my mind on something, it’s going to take a lot to stop me and she did whatever she could to help me make it happen. It wouldn’t have happened without her.”
After recharging, Gibbons would go back out and, with more mid-year sun, often play until 8 p.m. If he knew he wouldn’t be able to get in a full nine holes because of dwindling daylight, he’d call it a day rather than play a few extra holes here and there.
Gibbons logged rounds every single day until September, when he was prevented from even getting in nine holes one day due to lightning storms that pulled golfers from the course repeatedly.
REACHING THE GOAL
As the year wore on and the days got shorter, Gibbons remained on pace. Although he played fewer rounds in December than any other month because of the weather – most notably frost delays that prevented him from getting that daily early start – he ended up taking Christmas Day off completely with family in town. After surpassing his goal and getting in a 1,235th round on the next-to-last day of the year, Gibbons also stayed away from the course on Dec. 31 because of poor weather.
While golf’s popularity amid the pandemic was a challenge, the biggest concern for Gibbons throughout his quest was staying healthy. “My biggest fear was physical breakdown,” he says. “My biggest hope was whatever hurt would be different tomorrow than it was today.”
Keeping his legs and feet in good shape were his biggest concern, and he had support from two different companies: FootJoy, which provided him with dozens of shoes to test, and Kentwool, a maker of wool golf socks. Not unlike many long-distance runners, Gibbons lost five toenails along the way and had some chronic leg issues flare up late in the year. Knee problems run in his family and, after giving up golf cold turkey at the start of 2021, he ended up spending almost a week on crutches in January after his right knee swelled up significantly.
It’s not as though Gibbons was missing being out on the golf course though, not after his breakneck pace of play in 2020, and gave him more time to reflect on a special accomplishment.
“When you’re out there that much by yourself, you have a tremendous amount of time to think about things. That’s probably the only way you can keep going, by keeping your mind busy. Not necessarily about golf, but about life, things you want to do, people in your life that truly matter,” he said. “So, when I did have the chance to play with people more important in my life, that was a very enjoyable thing. Whether it was my wife, friends I’ve had for years, people coming into town, those were the moments I remember – being able to share what I was doing with people who mean the most to me.”
Gibbons can say one thing with certainty; he won’t try anything like that again. He promised his wife as much and knows there are potential long-term physical consequences.
That said, whether it’s trying to play in every U.S. state, at every course where the U.S. Open has been held, or participating in some kind of fundraising effort that raises big money for charity, Gibbons is already thinking about what might be next. Like any hard-core golfer.
Did you know FootJoy has a “Wear Test” team with a database of more than 2,200 golfers — both men and women of all ages?
All golfers are interviewed before being included, with selection criteria that includes number of rounds played per year, handicap, age, geographic location and willingness to complete a brief survey. These results are closely monitored and testers with low response rates are removed from the database. The company has recently added a significant number of females and college players, and has a current focus of increasing the number of players in its 20-45 age group.
FootJoy’s Director of Footwear Product Management Mike Foley weighs in on the FJ Wear Test team and Gibbons’ accomplishment:
“Typically, when we have a new shoe planned to launch, we make a number of wear-test samples to send out around the country (primarily Sunbelt states for year-round golf). We will send a pair to each player in the program along with a questionnaire that they will fill out throughout the testing process. They comment on comfort, durability, traction, waterproofness, and a few other asks. At the end of the process – usually a predetermined amount of rounds, the tester will pack the shoes up and ship them back to FootJoy for careful observation. Barry’s situation was slightly different – due to the sheer number of rounds he was tallying, we had to mix in current stock shoes intermittently – but it was helpful for us to get his feedback on these products as well.”
“We met Barry back in 2016 during his quest for the world record of rounds played in a year. Barry had retired from IBM in 2014 after a 34-year career and decided to set a new goal around fitness and his love of golf. As soon as we found out his goal for rounds played, walking – we jumped at the opportunity to help him with a key element that he would need to achieve the World Record: comfortable and durable footwear.”
“At FootJoy, we wake up every day focused on golf and golf alone – we don’t make running shoes or tennis shoes – we pride ourselves in making the #1 Shoe in Golf. Despite this commitment to the game, even we were floored by Barry’s accomplishment! His dedication reminded us of the scene from Forrest Gump – we expected to see a long beard and weary look from Barry at the end of this journey – but no, that big bright smile was there and if given his choice on how to celebrate this feat, Barry would probably choose to play a celebratory round of golf!”
Erik is the Editorial Director for the NGF. Before joining the National Golf Foundation, he spent more than two decades with Bloomberg News, both as a writer and editor, with a focus on sports business and the golf industry. The New Jersey resident has also written about golf for outlets that include Forbes, LINKS and the Met Golfer.