U.S. SENIOR AMATEUR
Doctor-Golfer's Talents Extend Far Beyond the Fairway
August 27, 2017 | Minneapolis, Minn.
By Dave Shedloski
If numbers tell the story in golf, then Reid Sheftall has numbers for you, numbers that will make you sit up and take notice, numbers beyond the impressive 2-over-par 74 he posted Saturday in his debut in the U.S. Senior Amateur Championship.
The soft-spoken, 60-year-old plastic surgeon from Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., might be the most intriguing player in the field, if you considered only the fact that he was introduced to golf at age 10, played four years and then didn’t pick up a club again seriously for 30 years.
“I had a terrible temper, and I was kind of a sensitive kid and didn’t want to embarrass my father, so I felt bad about it and found other things to do,” Sheftall explained.
In the intervening decades, Sheftall played three varsity sports at MIT, taught physics at USC at age 21, earned more than $100,000 counting blackjack cards in Reno and Las Vegas casinos to pay off his college and medical school loans, performed more than 1,300 free operations in Cambodia when one week of vacation turned into years of charitable dedication, and then played a dozen years on Asian mini-tours while still working as a full-time surgeon.
Oh, and he has lost almost all feeling in the last three fingers of his right hand from a neck injury, yet still plays golf at a high level and remains committed to helping children with specific medical needs.
Yes, quite the road less traveled. “It’s an unusual story for a golfer, I know,” Sheftall said with a shy grin.
Um, it’s quite the story, period.
Let’s pick it up at MIT, where Sheftall, who was a standout youth baseball and football player, lettered in three sports – tennis, lacrosse and crew. “The athletic thing, football quarterbacking was my best sport, with golf a close second,” he said. “I could have played college baseball. As a golfer, I’m lucky in that it does come fairly naturally, but I’m not a great golfer by any stretch. I can do OK. I played with [two-time Mid-Amateur champion] Tim Jackson today, and that’s a golfer.”
After MIT, Sheftall attended medical school at the University of South Florida. In between, he put his active mind to work at blackjack tables counting cards, which is not illegal but is disallowed by the casinos.
“I was poor then so I varied my bets from only $5 to $25 depending on the count of cards that remained in the deck [or multiple deck shoe],” he wrote in a follow-up email. “I won enough to pay off my MIT loans and medical school loans. Eventually, I tired of the card-counting life and stuck to surgery. The movie ‘21,’ which centers around the MIT blackjack team – which actually came after me and a fellow physics major in the late ’70s – is not very realistic; it is just a stylized version of the real thing.”
He not only stuck to surgery but started putting his skills to use for the betterment of mankind. A few years after his residency in Cleveland, a former colleague from Vietnam asked him to visit the country to assist with new equipment that was unfamiliar to doctors there. He stopped in Cambodia for a few days to see if he could help at a charity hospital.
Immediately, he was needed in surgery. Because of the reign of the Khmer Rouge, there were few trained doctors in the country. Recognizing a need, he set up a practice in Phnom Penh and established an informal charity called “Operation Kids,” using the funds to operate at no charge on children with acid burns who needed plastic surgery.
“After three months there, I just stayed. I just couldn’t leave, seeing the things I saw,” Sheftall said.
He also couldn’t play golf. Until one day he got the itch. He bought clubs off the rack and started playing at what he described as “one slip-shod paddy field golf course.” He hadn’t lost his touch. “I could always shoot around 75 playing barefoot with borrowed clubs at somebody’s wedding. That would be the extent of my golf. I could always do it. So I wasn’t surprised.”
What was surprising was coming home to Florida over Christmas time and practicing at TPC Sawgrass. Sheftall said that PGA Tour players Paul Azinger and Mark McCumber each complimented him on his smooth, rhythmic swing. A few days later, playing from the back tees with the two tour pros, Sheftall shot 71.
That spurred him to compete in professional events in Asia while still maintaining his practice, while devoting time to other pursuits such as painting and writing books.
“I’m lucky in that I don’t have to practice golf much,” said Sheftall, who qualified for this championship in Hattiesburg, Miss., after a six-month break from the game. “It’s not that I don’t practice, but I have a simple game, hit it fairly straight, and I do have a good short game.”
His goal, like any other player in the field, is to reach match play and then see how deep he can advance in the championship. He wears two gloves while he plays, the better to grip the club with his compromised right hand, and he has no illusions of grandeur. He begins his second round of stroke play at 12:20 CDT on Sunday.
“I just want to see how good I can be at my age,” he said.
Hours after he three-putted his last hole, the par-5 ninth, to settle for his 74, he wrote in an email, “Thank you for interviewing me today. You made me feel important.”
As if his work – and his story – weren’t already.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA websites.