"Leo the Lion-Hearted" Embodied the Palmetto Dunes Spirit
In Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort’s 50 years of rich and storied history, many memorable personalities have passed through the gates and graced us with their presence.
But perhaps no character has ever exemplified the spirit of Palmetto Dunes more than Leo Luken.
Leo, who passed away in 2014 at the age of 96, resided in Palmetto Dunes for decades with his wife, Mickey.
In September 2013, Leo made national headlines when he shot or bettered his age for the 1,000th time.
About Leo’s historic feat, Palmetto Dunes Director of Golf Clark Sinclair said: “While there are a couple of gold standards in golf and sports, shooting your age surely must rank among the most coveted and enviable goals of all. It means two important things. One has lived a relatively long life. And they are still a good golfer, with enough athleticism left to skillfully navigate their way around 18 holes.”
Leo carried a handicap in the low 20s late in life and typically played as a part of a group every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday — alternating between the George Fazio and the Robert Trent Jones Courses. Described by his regular playing companions as “humble, gracious and fiercely competitive,” the seemingly indefatigable “Pride of Palmetto Dunes” typically shot his age or better about two out of three times.
Yet, what would seem like an amazing accomplishment for most anyone else simply represented another notch in the belt for Leo, who didn’t take up golf until he was 45 years old and first shot his age at the age of 71.
At one point in his life, Leo was arguably the world’s best fast-pitch softball hurler, using a pitch clocked at more than 100 miles per hour to help win 53 straight games from 1944-46 for the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Zollner Pistons.
Nicknamed “Leo the Lion-Hearted,” his 511 total wins helped earn him a spot in both the Kentucky and Indiana Sports Halls of Fame.
In 2005, when Leo shot his age for the 530th time, he picked a particularly sporty time to do it — the final round of the inaugural “Shoot Your Age Championship” at The Villages, Florida. This novel event brought together 58 amateurs and two legendary professionals ranging in age from 67 to 96.
Competing in front of 8,300 spectators — with cameras whirling for a CBS tape-delayed national broadcast the following afternoon — Leo, who was 87 years old at the time, took a 6-under 81 to the clubhouse, where he anxiously waited for everyone else to finish.
In the end, Leo finished a whopping three shots ahead of a trio of players, which included a 76-year-old by the name of Arnold Palmer. Meanwhile, another guy who enjoyed a pretty good playing career, Gary Player, had been eliminated on the 17th green.
“Yeah, Gary Player thought I was lying,” Leo said at the time. “Before we teed off the first day down at the championship, (Player) was walking around introducing himself and asking guys how many times they’d shot their age. One guy said 12 and another said 30. When he got to me, I said 529, which was the number at that time. Player threw up arms and said, ‘Get outta here!’”
Then, with a grin, Leo added, “The next day I made it 530 and won the tournament.”
Leo, none of us at Palmetto Dunes whose lives you touched will ever forget you!