Jim Kaat reached the major leagues with the original Washington Senators at age 20. At 26, he dueled with Sandy Koufax three times in the 1965 World Series, allowing just two runs in the seventh game on two days’ rest. He pitched in the World Series again at 43, appearing in four games in relief for the St. Louis Cardinals, this time on the winning side. He won 283 games, 16 Gold Glove Awards, and was good enough at the plate to be used 24 times as a pinch-hitter.
Yet his most amazing athletic accomplishment may have come on the golf course.
With a round of 75 at his home course, McArthur Golf Club in Hobe Sound, Fla., Kaat became—as far as anyone can determine—the first person to shoot his age both left-handed and right-handed.
“I’ve shot my age left-handed a few times,” says the 76-year-old Kaat, a pure southpaw in everything but golf. “The first time was in Glens Falls, N.Y.—I shot 70 when I was 70. I broke my age a couple of times when I was 74, 75.” He likes to play matches against himself with two balls, one left-handed and one right-handed, walking the course with a caddie.
Then, in December 2013, “I just had this really solid round where everything was coming out of the same window, you know? I was hitting most of the greens, and I got to 18 and had about a 12-foot putt [for 75 right-handed], and the caddie read it for me and I knocked it in. I said, ‘Mike, do you know what I just did?’ He said, ‘Yeah, you shot your age.'”
He called his friend Lorne Rubenstein, the great Canadian golf writer, wondering how many other people had done it. Rubenstein contacted Cliff Schrock at Golf Digest.
“Schrock called me,” says Kaat, “and said, ‘I’ve scoured all of my records, I think you’re the only guy that’s ever done it.’ I said, ‘Cliff, let’s not get too excited about it, I think I’m the only guy that’s ever tried it.'”
Kaat took up golf when he was 31 or so, urged on by his friend Fred Cox of the Minnesota Vikings, one of the last straight-ahead placekickers. Left-handed clubs were hard to find in the early 1970s, so he played right-handed, his dominant arm forward. When he became a Florida snowbird in the late 1980s, he began playing and practicing in earnest.
“I played right-handed until almost 2000,” he says. “I started making the switch to left-handed in the late ’90s, and once I made the switch, I stayed pretty much left-handed for the next six or seven years. But I would always hit a few balls righthanded. My lower-body action is better left-handed, I have more power; my swing is shallow left-handed, I tend to come way from the inside and hook it. Right-handed I’m a little steeper, and my irons are more accurate.”
Today, he maintains separate handicaps for his rounds from each side. He recently concluded that he plays his best golf with right-handed clubs from 6-iron through the wedges, left-handed clubs for the longer shots. He plays in many member- guest events in Florida and Vermont, where he is a member at Ekwanok Country Club, and that’s the configuration he uses: “Switch-hitting,” he calls it.
For all the blessings his athletic gifts have given him—and that he has maximized through his attention to practice, training, and flexibility workouts—they also pose a conundrum. Most of us have difficulty managing a single swing. Imagine the complexity added when you have two different swings and vastly more options facing you before reaching the first tee.
Kaat, widely considered one of the nicest guys in sports, seems unfazed. “There’s an old saying that the most difficult thing to do in sports is to hit a major-league fastball. Well, I’ve hit plenty of major-league fastballs, and I think the most difficult thing in sports is for four days, both mentally and physically, to do what the guys on Tour do. But I’m not a tournament golfer. Golf is great therapy [for me]. I see people where I live, getting out for their power walk every morning; I get a five-and-a-half-mile walk every day and I get to have fun and exercise and the challenge of the game.”