Jim Last swept the amateur division of the 61st annual Professional Putters Association championships at Putt-Putt at Main Beach Sept. 14-18, and he did it left-handed.
He started playing in the Fright night doubles tournaments at the Main Beach course in 2006.
“I had a four handicap in high school, but I was a horrible putter, just a terrible putter,” said the 74-year-old. “After a couple of months, I realized I was a terrible putter for the amount of time I was practicing. Just like in high school.”
So, he decided to become a left-handed putter.
“I only see out of one eye, so I switched to left-handed, so I could look at the ball better,” Last said. “My right eye is the only eye my brain sees out of when both of my eyes are open. I get a little bit of peripheral vision from my left eye, but it was always so much weaker, and the brain just ignored it.
“It is terrible on depth perception, especially for baseball, basketball and pickleball. It is a handicap. When a ball is coming right at you, it’s hard to pick up how fast it’s moving.
“By putting my good eye towards the hole, I just left my right hand down low. That’s good for getting rid of your wrist in putting.”
The adjustment paid off for Last, who swept all five amateur events, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished but twice in 31 years.
“There were only four events that year,” Last said. “So, I’m the first guy to sweep a five-event week. He swept everything that was available, but they just didn’t have doubles back then.”
At 74, Last is the oldest putter to ever win the national title. He won the tournament of champions, edging his opponent by seven strokes after an 18-hole playoff; he won the national doubles title with teammate Dave Myers by four strokes; he won the Hall of Fame Classic by two strokes; he won the senior national title by 19 strokes; and he captured the national crown by eight strokes.
The national doubles tournament boasted a pair of previous national title-holders, and the last two senior national champs were beaten by Last.
Last said the event found a new spot on the tour when former owner Aaron Bean competed in a tournament in Orange Lake in 2009.
“He went down there to play in it, so he could meet the people and talk about putting us on the tour,” Last said. “They came by and looked at the course on their way back to North Carolina.”
Fernandina Beach was added to the PPA’s southern tour in 2010.
“All of these pros and professionals from all over the South started coming to Fernandina Beach,” Last said. “I really learned how to putt just from those guys.”
In his first season, he also competed in a tournament in Augusta, Ga. The next season, he added two more tournament.
“I just kind of slowly added places on the tour until I was doing the whole tour,” he said.
Last had to undergo a hip replacement and his athletic activities had to be altered.
“I was sports crazy my whole life, and I was always playing competitive sports,” he said. “Once I got my hip replacement, I couldn’t run anymore, and I knew I had to give up tennis.
“I quit playing golf, because when my first child was born, I didn’t have as much time. So, I dropped golf and fishing and kept up tennis and basketball.”
He started playing pickleball and continued to play basketball. But, miniature golf took a backseat.
“I had no one to practice with, so I quit playing the tour last year,” Last said.
That changed last October when professional putter Rick Culverhouse moved to Yulee.
“I started practicing again in December,” Last said. “That month, they announced the nationals were going to be here. Home course advantage is a pretty big deal. So, I thought, ‘I’m going to go for it this year.’
“The last time nationals were here, I was in really bad physical shape. I faded in the last round, and let another guy catch me, and I lost the playoff.
“So, I practiced with Rick and did what I could on the tour. It was a real abbreviated tour because of COVID-19. In one tournament, I just had good rounds every day. The guy in the hall of fame tournament shot a pretty good round, but I shot a better round that day.”
Last is still an amateur.
“Eventually you lose your hands,” he said. “This year, I’ve lost my ability to handle heat as well as I used to be able to. That doesn’t sound like a big deal with putting, but you’re out there in the sun all day long. So, it is a factor. You practice all day in the sun. You have to be in peak performance.
“A couple of times this year, it go so hot, it affected my putting the next morning. I just slowly got better.”
He credits weekly play with the Pickleball Pirates for building his endurance. He also credits the players for helping him during the PPA tournament.
“I’m kind of a showoff, so they helped me,” Last said. “They are all watching, so I am concentrating. At least 30 watching throughout the week. I was pretty impressed.”
He credits Myers for the doubles win.
“He shot a 21 the third round of the national championship, which was the best amateur score and probably tied the best pro score for the whole tournament,” Last said. “That’s tough to do. I’ve done it just once during practice, and I’ve played that course a thousand times at least.”
The hardware he collected locally isn’t alone.
“I’ve actually gotten a couple of crystals for national events in the past because I won the Hall of Fame Classic in Memphis four or five years ago,” Last said.” I picked up five more crystals last week.”
More amateur events on the tour are in Last’s future.
“A lot of people want me to go pro, but I don’t think I’m going to,” he said. “I really like just playing as an amateur. I’ll be 75 next year. If I can keep playing pickleball and concentrating on that, it’s better for you health wise.”
Last still plays pickleball right-handed. Normally.
“I tore some tendons and had to play left-handed,” he said. “It was play left-handed or don’t play. You kind of learn to be ambidextrous somewhat. I had no choice. Pickleball is really addicting. There was no way I was going to quit playing.”