Leon Pagac is the ‘Ace’ of Nemacolin Country Club
The odds of making a hole-in-one in golf are about 13,000-to-1, unless you happen to be Leon Pagac.
Then, the odds drop to, oh, say 50-1.
When the longtime member of Nemacolin Country Club sent a 5-iron hybrid into the hole on the par-3, 212-yard No. 4 hole two weeks ago, Pagac had his 15th career hole-in-one.
That’s right, 15.
The 73-year-old Brownsville resident has been golfing for 42 years after a successful pro football career that included stops with the Washington Redskins for two years before jumping to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Canadian Football League in 1964.
“I started playing golf in 1972 when I got done with football. My buddies and friends got me interested,” said Pagac. “When I moved back here from Washington, D.C., I took it up. I was 32 years old. I started playing at Chippewa and Springdale in Uniontown. That was a long time ago.”
Now, his home course since 1974 is Nemacolin and all but three of his 15 holes-in-one have come at the course he knows so well.
“I caddied here as a kid. I got 75 cents a round. They had the old Kangaroo bags that were real heavy. They had two pairs of shoes in them, maybe 50 shag balls, and about 30 clubs. The bags were 20 pounds, pure leather. They would tell me not to drag the bag. Well, I was 12 years old. … I watched those guys and that’s how I learned.”
Pagac was not a natural golfer, but he was a good athlete. Tall and lean even to this day, he marveled not only at the way the game was played, but also the preparation.
“I would hit it, go find it and hit it again,” he said. “I never had lessons. I enjoyed practicing as much as playing. My shag bag has 500 balls. I’ll go hit a couple hundred shots. My handicap is 5 right now, but I was a scratch golfer for years.”
A rare feat
According to Golf Magazine, the odds of an amateur golfer making a hole-in-one are 13,000-to-1, a pro golfer 2,500-to-1 and a low handicap golfer 5,000-to-1.
On average, there are 150,000 holes-in-ones from about 490 million rounds of golf each year. In one 20-year period (1983-2003), there were 631 aces on the PGA tour.
The oldest woman on record to make a hole-in-one is Elsie McLean, who sank her tee shot on the on the par-3, 100-yard fourth hole at Bidwell Park in Chico, Calif., in April 2007.
She was 102 at the time.
It earned her a spot on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno.
“I said, ‘Oh, my Lord. It can’t be true. It can’t be true.’ I was so excited. And the girls were absolutely overcome,” McLean told the Associated Press.
It was McLean’s first ace.
The oldest man to record a hole-in-one was Harold Stilson of Boca Raton, Fla., who aced the 108-yard, No. 16 with a 4-iron at Deerfield County Club May 16, 2001.
Stilson was 101.
Pagac’s first ace came in 1980 at Springdale Golf Course in Uniontown, when he found the cup on the par-3, 210-yard No. 8, which is now No. 16.
“You couldn’t see the hole from the tee,” he said. “And there were guys who were yelling, ‘It went into the hole.’ The first one I ever had and I never saw it go in.”
No. 2 came at Stonewall Resort in Roanoke, W.Va., and the third at Oak Creek Golf Course in Oxin Hill, Md., which no longer exists.
The youngest person to get a hole-in-one, according to Titleist, was Soona Lee-Tolley of New York, who aced the 127-yard, No. 7 hole at the Manhattan Woods Golf Club in West Nyack, NY, at the age of 6.
Tiger Woods also was 6 when he got his first.
The latest hole-in-one for Pagac nearly didn’t happen.
“My wife had a hip operation and I was baby-sitting,” he said. “I hadn’t touched a club in a week. I was playing that Saturday with Dr. Dale DeConcilis and Andrew Synnott. I hit one on No. 4 and Dale said ‘It’s going in the hole.’ He said, ‘I have to get a picture of this, and he did.’”
What’s his secret?
Pagac knows exactly why he has been able to achieve the rare feat in a sport that others cherish and hope someday to accomplish.
“Luck,” he said. “You hit a shot and it’s close to the hole and goes in, that has to be luck. Dr. DeConcilis, who I was playing with for the 15th, said I got one and you have 15.”
But Rick Bisi, who has been head pro at Nemacolin for 26 years, disagrees.
“It’s not luck,” he said. “You have to be able to hit the ball well and at the hole. That’s what Leon can do.”
Sherm Fitch, a 76-year-old member of Nemacolin sides with Bisi.
“He’s aiming at the hole. That’s the difference,” Fitch said. “Everyone else is trying to get it on the short grass. That man is absolutely firing at the hole. He knows where it’s going.”
Fitch has one hole-in-one.
“It was No. 8 at Oglebay (in Wheeling),” he said. “I hit a grounder and it rolled the whole way up. Couldn’t find it. It was in the hole. Leon makes them because he is one of the top five golfers in this club.”
Interestingly, the new technology of the sport, which provided metal heads, graphite shafts and a larger sweet spot on clubs, doesn’t impress Pagac.
“When you get my age, technology doesn’t help,” he said. “I hit the ball farther with the persimmon heads and balata balls than I do with the new technology now. I used to hit it 230 with a balata ball and persimmon heads. I played in a tournament with the old clubs, persimmon head and balata balls. I use the interlock grip. The only thing I use is the oversized grips because of my hands.”
One look at his hands makes you understand why.
A couple fingers point in different directions, the result of playing on the offensive line throughout his football career. The 1958 graduate of Centerville High School always seemed to be undersized for the line, even back then. But it got him a scholarship to the University of Tulsa, where he stayed for five years and started for four, and two more with the Washington Redskins, where he made $6,000 as a rookie. While with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, he was coached by Bud Grant – yes, that Bud Grant – then moved back to the area in 1972. He worked at J&L Steel and a commercial roofing company in Ohio before retiring in 2010.
His brother, Fred, has carved out a wonderful coaching career first at Ohio State and now in the NFL. He is currently the linebackers coach in Buffalo.
Fourteen of Leon’s aces came with Titleist Pro V1 balls and one with Bridgestone – he said he simply picked the latter out of the bag and didn’t look – and all 15 were hit with Titleist irons.
While he plays nearly every day possible, he doesn’t attend many tournaments, even on the national level.
“I don’t like to watch (in person),” he said. “I’ll watch on television, but I’m no spectator. If I’m going to go somewhere, I’m going to play. I played almost all the clubs. I had a list of the 50 best clubs (in the country) and I played 20-some of them. Played Pebble and a lot of others.”
Pagac has birdied every hole at Nemacolin, eagled every one but No. 3 and has a double-eagle on No. 7.
“I don’t get real excited,” he said. “When the ball went into the hole (on the last hole-in-one), Dale and them were jumping up and down. I said, ‘Well, that’s 15.’ Dale said, ‘You (stinker). I don’t even have one yet.”