Even when he was flying long-haul Delta Airlines routes from Atlanta to Dubai and back, Bob Mathers never wanted to be far from Niceville, Florida, on the western Panhandle of the Sunshine State.
Thirty years of “commuting” from Niceville to Atlanta for Delta was “easy” because the 64-year-old retired pilot asserts: “I was a beach boy, and I was always going to stay by the beach.”
The four-year golf letterwinner at the University of Alabama was born in Mobile, Alabama, but moved to Valparaiso, Florida, and then to nearby Niceville when he was 9. “Some people couldn’t wait to leave, but I couldn’t wait to stay here,” Mathers said. “Everything I love is by the water. I grew up down the street from the bayou.”
Mathers, who finished fourth in the 2021 Florida State Senior Amateur, maintains that all of his key decisions in life continually pointed him back to Niceville. But those decisions were guided by golf in the first place.
As a 12-year-old, Mathers began playing golf at a free summer clinic for kids at nearby Eglin Air Force Base, where the head professional was the legendary Bob Keller.
From modest means, Mathers “fell hard” for golf despite early desires to play baseball.
“I had a great childhood, but we didn’t have a lot,” Mathers said. “Bob Keller had the greatest impact on me besides my father. Everybody learned to play golf from Mr. Keller, who finished second at the 1967 Pensacola Open. He was a great short-game guy and putter. He worked with the kids not just seeing how hard you could hit it but also course management and short game.”
Using a women’s starter set of clubs purchased by his father at the local Gibson’s Discount Store, Mathers honed his game by hitting stray range balls back to where they could be collected in return for a free bucket of balls, a deal that he worked with Daniel Hogan, who ran the range.
“My dad thought spending 25 cents on a bucket of balls was ridiculous, so I spent a lot of my time chipping and putting,” Mathers said. “I would curve it around trees, under things and was just having fun. I became a real shot maker, and so there was nowhere I could be where I could be in trouble.”
Mathers moved onto Niceville High School, where he played for a team that advanced to the state championship for three straight years and was, thanks to the teaching skills of Keller, a pipeline to college golf. “Nobody went out on tour,” Mathers said, “but there were a lot of Division I players.”
Late in his high school career, Mathers had to find a way to be a known commodity because his family could not afford to send him to competitive tournaments. Through a letter to Alabama head coach Conrad Rehling, also known for a trademark hat – straw not houndstooth in his case – Mathers arranged to meet the coach where Jerry Pate, a PGA Tour star who played for four years at Alabama, was hitting balls. While the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open champion practiced, Mathers sidled up in a stall nearby and got his “look,” which resulted in a half scholarship for the Tide.
The next decision by Mathers also proved to be critical. A self-described “wild child” and youngest of four, he chose to “settle down” and attend Alabama and study engineering. He was the captain of the 1979 ’Bama squad that won the school’s first SEC golf title and earned four letters. His older brother, a future Air Force pilot, was attending the school on an ROTC scholarship, which made the decision easier on the family.
“If you want to stay (in Niceville), you have to figure out what you can become,” Mathers said. “I could study engineering and come back and live here and make a good living as an engineer at Eglin because the Panhandle was heavy military back then.”
(Mathers) found competition in the Miller Lite Scratch Tour, an amateur circuit founded by Junior Ingram and continued to this day by Mike Riley. In 2004, Mathers won the tour’s Player of the Year award.
Degree in hand, Mathers found an engineering job that included “backseat flying” F4s that tested infrared weapons. For three years, he heard all the test pilots tell him to try flying, but the transient and worldwide life of a military pilot was not for him. “I did not want to leave home,” Mathers said flatly.
Continued conversations with the test pilots revealed that he could learn to fly by joining the reserves and taking pilot training, which he did from late 1983 to early 1985. His reserve duty allowed “for a lot of flying from 1985 through 1988 and until after the Gulf War.” He flew AC-130A gunships for the 919th Special Operations Group during that time.
“That’s where I accumulated all my flying time as a pilot,” he said.
He was almost called to duty in the Gulf, but his younger son, Tucker, was born with Down syndrome and a weakened heart, and Mathers was not called up.
Soon after, he heard that his engineering job at Eglin was being moved to Edwards Air Force Base in California. Not wanting to leave the Panhandle, he found another solution from his flying pals, some of whom were Delta pilots, “and Delta was hiring like crazy at the time,” he said.
His 30-plus year career with Delta began in November of 1988. The flying career and raising two boys with his wife, Kim, left little time for the reserves and for golf, both of which he abandoned.
Mathers’ older son, Jordan (now 34), was a good baseball player and played collegiately at Troy. Mathers’ off-work hours were consumed by coaching and baseball games and family pursuits.
But by 2004, the love of golf instilled by Bob Keller came back, and Mathers purchased new equipment, practiced and found the solution to his “yips” with a long putter. He found competition in the Miller Lite Scratch Tour, an amateur circuit founded by Junior Ingram and continued to this day by Mike Riley. In 2004, Mathers won the tour’s Player of the Year award.
“I have to shout out to Mike because the Scratch Tour gave us competition, so we didn’t have to drive seven to 10 hours to play in FSGA (Florida State Golf Association) events,” Mathers said. His game improved, and Mathers qualified for the U.S. Mid-Amateur in 2011 and was the first alternate (on-site but did not start) at the U.S. Amateur at Erin Hills.
Mathers has April’s Florida State Senior Open and Florida State Senior Amateur in his calendar, as well as qualifying attempts for four USGA championships: the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Senior Amateur, U.S. Mid-Amateur and U.S. Senior Open. He also tries for the Senior Open Championship and remembers playing with Isao Aoki in historically bad U.K. weather in front of 1,500 spectators. Aoki won the sole qualifying spot.
And he never misses a chance to reconnect with his Alabama teammates (his email includes 4thetide in the address).
“Coach (Jay) Seawell does a great job of keeping us old guys involved with the program,” Mathers said. To wit: in 2019, Seawell brought back the 1979 SEC title team to be honored 40 years later, at halftime of a basketball game. And in 2008, Seawell organized a match pitting ’Bama’s 2008 SEC title team against Mathers and his 1979 team. It ended in a tie, and the “old” guys presented the young guns with their SEC championship rings at halftime of a home football game.
For the man with two granddaughters, and a grandson due on his 65th birthday on June 11, it wasn’t much to drive over and watch Alabama play in the Watersound Invitational in Panama City, where the Tide’s Canon Claycomb won medalist honors and the team finished second.
Just guessing that it was something about staying close to his roots.
Top: Bob Mathers (second from right) and his Alabama golf teammates reunite 40 years after their 1979 Southeastern Conference title, the school’s first SEC golf championship. They were honored in 2019 at an Alabama basketball game. From left, current Alabama coach Jay Seawell, Kevin Canada, Steve Hudson, Cecil Ingram, Mathers and Gary Trivisonno. The only player missing from the photo was Barry Harwell.