MADISON – With his long blond hair tied in a ponytail, his soul patch and his skin tanned reddish-brown, 57-year-old Joe Ignatius could pass for a surfer in search of gnarly waves or a reformed skateboarder or maybe even a one-time extra from “Baywatch” (Google it, kids).
What he is comes as a shock to nearly everyone:
A college golfer.
“I’m a different kind of dude, you know?” he says with a hearty laugh.
Yes, the father of seven daughters, a man old enough to be his teammates’ grandfather, is a member of the Madison College men’s golf team. The former semipro football player, who did not play golf in high school, is by no means a ringer – his tournament scores have ranged between 88 and 102 this season – but what he brings to the WolfPack with his gregarious personality, his zest for life and his wealth of real-world experience is immeasurable.
“What we didn’t realize was the glue piece Joe would become,” says assistant coach Adam Eichstedt, whose father, Glenn, is the head coach. “He is the age of a head coach but yet he’s out there with the guys. He can get to know them on a level that we as coaches can’t always do. He can tell us, ‘Hey, this is what the team is worried about. This is what we’re struggling with.’ Or vice versa, we can have conversations with him that we maybe wouldn’t have with another player.
“We’ve heard from some of the guys on the team, ‘Man, it’s really cool having Joe here.’ They appreciate him and I think that’s brought them along a little faster than some of them probably would have if he wasn’t here.”
You have to be comfortable in your own skin, unconcerned about what others think and most importantly young at heart to do what Ignatius is doing, and he checks those boxes. If he was the least bit self-conscious, it wouldn’t work.
“I don’t feel out of place,” he says. “Not one bit. Isn’t that silly?”
This all started in February, when Ignatius was on a golf trip with buddies in Arizona. He is in the toolmaking apprentice program at Madison College — he went back to school in his mid-50s even though he has worked in his family’s business, Barneveld-based Quantum Devices, for decades — and his friends were giving him some good-natured grief about his supposed good grades.
When Ignatius called up his transcript to prove that, yes, he was a serious student, someone noticed a message on the college website: the WolfPack golf team was looking for players.
“They were teasing me,” Ignatius says. “They were saying, ‘Go ahead, do it, do it.’”
So, of course, he did it. He sent an email to Glenn Eichstedt in which he expressed a desire to be involved in some capacity, even if it meant being the team manager. He’d drive the van. He’d even clean the players’ clubs.
“I got an email back, ‘Why don’t you come hit balls with us on Tuesday night?’” he says. “I was like, ‘Coach, I’m a 10-plus handicap. I’m 57 years old. You don’t want me.’ He said, ‘We don’t have enough players. Come hit balls with us.’”
Ignatius showed up at Vitense Golfland and initially got the cold shoulder from his future teammates.
“I saw some Madison (College) golf bags and I said, ‘You must be the team. I’m the new guy,’” he says. “They said, ‘Yeah, we heard.’ They weren’t thrilled.”
A few days later, the team left for its spring trip to Missouri and the van picked up Ignatius in Barneveld. He was the last player on, and there was one seat left — a small jump seat in the back.
“We’re going to drive for six hours, you know?” Ignatius says. “They’re like, ‘There’s your seat.’ I was like, ‘Come on.’ They’re like, ‘Last guy in the van gets that seat.’”
During one of the early practice rounds in Missouri, Ignatius hit a poor drive on one hole and a couple of his teammates stood in the middle of the fairway, oblivious to him, blasting music, laughing and carrying on as he prepared to hit his second shot.
“I got mad at them,” Ignatius says. “We got up to the green and I had a couple of choice words. I said, ‘Listen, there’s a thing called etiquette in this game and I’m going to teach it to you.’ Everything got quiet. The music went off. Everybody got serious again.”
But a funny thing happened as the weeks and months went on. Ignatius earned their respect with his passion for the game, his work ethic and his self-deprecating sense of humor. The players discovered they could zing him and he’d come right back with something even better. The old guy became a peer, then a teammate, then a friend.
“They’re a bunch of really fantastic guys,” Ignatius says. “They’ve been awesome. They’ve been supportive. The best thing has been getting to spend time with these young men and hearing their stories. I have seven daughters. I haven’t spent a lot of time with young men.”
Ignatius has gotten some funny looks from the parents of opposing teams’ players. Most of them assume he’s a coach until he plops down his bag on the first tee. More often than not, he wins them over within a hole or two.
“I’ve heard parents say, ‘What is that guy doing?’” he says. “Oh, I’ve heard that a lot. I played with a young man who is DuPage (College’s) sixth guy. He shot 82 and kicked my butt around the course. His dad is my age and walked around the course with us. I’m cheering him on: ‘Great putt, great birdie.’ His dad says, ‘That wouldn’t happen with the normal kid out here. Thanks for cheering my son on.’
“One kid said, ‘I asked to play with you today. I heard you were fun to play with.’ That’s the prize right there. Some kid says he wants to play with me. That put the icing on it for me.”
Ignatius isn’t fooling himself, or anybody else, about his skill level. His best-ever score is a 74, “and that was a lot of years ago.” He’s 57 and has had a knee replaced. He’s the sixth man on a six-man team, and is playing in tournaments only because nobody else went out for the team. His game is maybe a step up from what you’d find at your local muni on a Saturday morning.
“I don’t have the length anymore,” he says. “I have to play old man golf: get close to the green in two and chip close. I probably hit my driver 230, 240 yards. I hit my 3-wood more times than I can count these last few weeks.”
He has played as an individual in all but one tournament this fall — the Frank Wrigglesworth Blugold Invitational at Wild Ridge in Eau Claire, where he shot 92-92 and tied for 88th place. He shot his season-low 88 in the Region IV Classic at Prairieview Golf Club in Byron, Ill.
His other scores have been a 99 in the Texas Roadhouse Madison College Invitational, a 91 in the Midwest Elite Classic , rounds of 95-96 at the Illinois Valley Classic and a 102 at the College of DuPage Invitational. He has made one birdie this year.
The WolfPack concludes its fall season Thursday through Saturday at the NJCAA Region IV Tournament in Byron, Ill.
Ignatius will graduate in the spring, but he’s seriously thinking about taking a full class load next fall, just so he can stay eligible for golf. If Eichstedt is successful in finding more golfers, Ignatius may not have a spot on the team. But then he’d stick around as a volunteer assistant coach. That’s how much he loves it.
“Call me insane, but I can come back and take a full load of classes if they need me,” he says. “I’d do it. That’s how sick I am. You’re only as old as you feel. Yesterday, getting out of the truck I felt like I was 100. But I’m not going to give up golf until I can’t swing anymore. Some people say I can’t now.”
Oh, and there’s one more thing.
“Where last year my seat in the van was that little one in the back, this year I ride shotgun,” he says proudly. “When they come pick me up, that seat’s always empty.”