Playing golf for long enough is bound to yield some good luck every once in a while.
“It was just my day,” John Caruso said of winning last summer’s Chestnut Ridge club championship.
That’s also what he said about winning a U.S. Senior Open qualifier or several other tournaments over the years, a way to chalk up his success to good fortune or random draw.
But there’s a more to it that just luck for Caruso, 75, of Blairsville, a self-taught golfer who will be inducted into the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame on Sunday.
Caruso is a six-time champion at Chestnut Ridge and a two-time Indiana VFW champion. He won the first three Indiana County Senior Championships and two pro-am tournaments.
And in 1988 he had one particularly good day that put him right up with the greats of the game.
“When I turned 50 I just decided I was going to give it a shot,” Caruso said of playing in the U.S. Senior Open qualifier at Pittsburgh’s South Hills Country Club that year.
More accurately, he gave it 69 shots, and out of relative obscurity, earned the one Senior Open spot up for grabs at the tournament.
“Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “I went down and I just decided I was going to give it a shot. I was coming to the last hole and someone told me that I was leading. I had a two-shot lead going into the last hole, and I said, ‘Uh-oh.’ But I was able to par the last hole.”
“My wife was up around the scoring tent, and they were saying, ‘ There’s a guy out there who still has a chance.
Who is it?
Who’s John Caruso?’
“And then when I won. None of them had heard of me.”
Caruso had already won a few Indiana County-based tournaments at that point, but it’s not as though even those that knew him expected him to play in the U.S. Senior Open.
“What was funny, two weeks prior to that I was signing report cards,” said Caruso, who taught 37 years, the first five in the Chestnut Ridge School District, in Bedford County, and the last 32 at Greater Latrobe. “Two weeks later, I’m signing autographs. It was totally unexpected, to be honest. I just wanted to try it. I entered the qualifier, I don’t recall what I thought. I don’t know whether I had a chance, didn’t have a chance, I had no idea. I thought I was pretty good. I figured I was pretty good for 50 years old, and it just so happened that I won it. I played well that day.”
“It really wasn’t until I started trying to do some of that qualifying stuff myself that I realized what a one-in-a-million shot he had,” John Patrick Caruso, one of John’s 37-year-old twin sons, said. “His qualifier, you had to win it to get in. It was one spot. Just looking back on it, that makes it even more amazing to think about what he did.”
The Senior Open was held at Medinah Country Club, near Chicago, that year.
“It was a little overwhelming, to be honest,” Caruso said. “It was the first thing I ever tried to qualify for, and then you’re out there playing against Arnold Palmer and Gary Player.”
Caruso shot in the 80s both days, though, and missed the cut.
“I actually hit it down the middle, and I hit it closer than (playing partners and PGA Tour winners Butch Baird and Don Bies) did on their first hole to the pin,” he said. “I had about 15 feet for birdie and left it about five feet short. … But it was an experience. It was different. Honestly, right now it’s almost a blur. I can remember the first hole, the second hole, either the ninth or the 18th hole, and I can remember a couple shots that I hit, but as far as remembering the whole thing or describing each hole, I can’t do it. I remember a few swings, a couple of shots that I made. That’s about it.”
But it left an impression, for sure, especially for a player who didn’t take up the game until he was in his 20s.
“When I think about his career, that’s the first thing I think about, that experience,” his son said. “Being in the game myself, I realized for someone to be kind of self-taught, starting a little bit later in life, and to get good enough to play on a professional level, even though it was just one tournament, was very impressive.”
Beyond the bright lights and one wild couple weeks in 1988, Caruso put together an impressive golfing record in Indiana County. He picked up the game in his early 20s — he was a baseball player and a wrestler growing up — but won his first Chestnut Ridge title in 1965, at age 27. Last summer, 47 years later, he won his sixth championship at the Blairsville course.
“Are there a lot of other guys that do that? Probably not,” he said. “Are you going to have other 74-year-olds winning the club championship around here? Probably not. It was just one of those things. I’ve competed over the years. I like to compete. I’ve kept in fairly decent shape … and I guess there might be a little bit of talent involved.”
“You put him on a golf course, he doesn’t care who he’s playing with, whether they’re a 90-handicapper or Tiger Woods, he’s trying to play the golf course,” said Bernie DiLoreto, of Blairsville, a past Chestnut Ridge champion and “the best player” Caruso said he has played with.
“His competition is the shot in front of him,” DiLoreto continued. “That’s the sign of a fantastic player, that the only thing that matters is the next shot. The golf course is the thing that matters. It isn’t the people he’s with or the tournament he’s in. … He’s a hell of a competitor as far as wanting to shoot the best shot he possibly can.”
In addition to two VFW club championships, Caruso also won the 1980 Tex’s Open and 1984 September Festival of Champions, both pro-ams held at the Indiana VFW course. He also shot his age beginning at 67, and has done so more than 100 times since.
“I remember growing up and going and watching him play in some local club championship events and things around,” said John’s other son, Matt. “It was always kind of cool to hear how people would talk about him. They would always tell us that he’s the king. That was always kind of cool. He had a good reputation and, more importantly, it was just really great to see that he was well-respected.”
Caruso’s mark has been as a feel player, working the irons and the putter well. While he’s made his share of adjustments over the years, the overall style has held up over time.
“He’s got a pair of hands on him like nobody’s ever seen,” DiLoreto said. “They’re soft. He’s got such a good feel for the game. He’s one of the best I’ve ever played with, too. Anybody that can go out there at 74 years old and walk 18 holes and break par, they’ve got my respect big time. I respect him so much as a player and as a human being. He’s a good guy.”
“I was always physically in pretty good shape,” Caruso said. “I wrestled. In wrestling you have to be in tremendous shape, but it never seemed to bother me. I never got tired or winded. I must have had good lungs or whatever. But my philosophy as far as golf, even when I was in my 40s or whatever, some of these kids are 20, 21, 22 years old and they’re riding a cart, and I always felt the longer I walked, my longevity would increase to a greater degree. So I still walk.”
Caruso's game got to his sons as well. The twins, 1994 Blairsville High School graduates, went on to golf at Division III Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C. They have stayed in North Carolina, settling in the Raleigh area and working in sales.
“He put the club in our hands and taught us,” John Patrick said of his father. “I know his putting and chipping, growing up, was the strength of his game, and I have to think that any level of confidence that I have in my short game is obviously due to him. … One thing that I don’t really ever truly remember is my dad practicing his own game. It seemed like he was always helping us more so than working on his own game.”
“Looking at golf particularly, it really shaped my demeanor,” Matt said. “We played basketball, too, and one thing that I always noticed in basketball is I was always really steady and calm. Even in pressure situations or when things were going bad or good, it was really the same outlook, and I really attribute that to golf, because with golf, you had to be. It was about controlling your emotions, controlling your thoughts, so it really impacted and was a big part in developing my athletic profile.
“And it wasn’t just athletically, because I noticed after I got into school and even into business … I see the same mentality where I never get too over-reactive.”
• EDITOR’S NOTE: This the third of an eight-part series profiling the individuals who will be
inducted into the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame. Tomorrow: Dave Fairman.