Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, Bjorn Borg and Rocky Marciano are among the sports legends who packed most or all of their greatest professional years into their 20s.
Imagine just getting going at age 53.
That's the opportunity awaiting golfer Gibby Gilbert III, who will not go down as the greatest athlete in Chattanooga history but is certainly a candidate for the most persistent. Recognized most of his life as the son of 1980 Masters runner-up Gibby Gilbert II, the younger Gilbert turned pro in 1990 but never made a dent on the PGA Tour and didn't make much of one on the Web.com Tour.
Yet by winning a PGA Tour Champions qualifying event this past November in Florida, Gilbert III has earned a full exemption for the 2019 season.
"It's really crazy, because I think everything about my game at 53 is as good or better than it's ever been," he said. "I'm driving the ball well. I'm putting and chipping. Everything is really good, and I'm really looking forward to this year."
The PGA Tour Champions was formerly known as the Champions Tour and the Senior Tour before that, with Gilbert II having been a six-time winner on the Senior Tour after winning three PGA Tour events.
Gilbert III will begin his first full year on the PGA Tour Champions next Friday at the three-round Oasis Championship in Boca Raton, Florida. The 78-player field includes Mark O'Meara, Colin Montgomerie, John Daly and Bernhard Langer, the two-time Masters champion who has racked up 10 major championships since turning 50.
Given that he has waited so long for this weekly stage, Gilbert III isn't heading to the Sunshine State with thoughts of buckling under pressure.
"Last year, I played with Vijay (Singh) three times," he said. "Head to head, I beat him twice and he beat me once. I haven't played with Langer or Montgomerie, but I know them, so hopefully I won't be nervous. I don't think I will.
"If I'm in that last group playing with Langer, I don't think I will be intimidated."
Road to nowhere
The chance to challenge the likes of Daly, Langer and O'Meara was always a goal of Gilbert III, but those battles were supposed to occur on the PGA Tour.
A former Tyner High and University of Tennessee standout, Gilbert III turned pro having won the Tennessee Amateur Championship in 1988 and having the guidance of his father.
"He has been so supportive of me and my golf career," Gilbert III said. "He's had some of the same ups and downs that I've had, but obviously his ups have been way up there. He knows how the struggles can be, and he's always had the confidence in me.
"Growing up, there was definitely added pressure with who he was, but I just tried to embrace it."
Gilbert III had a couple of top-three finishes on the former NIKE Tour in 1999, when he earned $54,638, according to his profile page on PGATour.com. After finishing 48th among the money leaders that year, he dropped to 118th in 2000, when he earned just $26,658.
It was in 2000 when Gilbert III "basically gave up" and leased Valleybrook Golf Club. He was content for a few years but became antsy to return and by 2005 was competing again.
He became the top money winner on the 2006 U.S. Pro Golf Tour and played well enough in qualifying school to earn his card on the 2008 Web.com tour, but the frustration returned when he kept that card for only a year. He began working for Henry Luken at Eagle Bluff Golf Club, playing every so often until having some success several years ago on the Sunbelt Senior Tour.
"When you're playing well, it's the greatest game ever," he said, "but when you're struggling and your family's at home and you're having to pay for travel and hotels and stuff, that's when you dread it. When you're playing good, you don't ever think that you're going to play bad again, and when you're playing bad, you don't ever think that you're going to play good again."
Entering the final round of the PGA Tour Champions qualifying event last November at TPC Tampa Bay, Gilbert III was in a tie for 14th place at 1 over par. He was still at 1 over through the first nine holes of his last round before birdieing five holes on the back nine, which included a 70-foot putt on the 18th hole.
Gilbert III celebrated his achievement by driving back to Chattanooga, where he had a contingent staying up late for him that included wife Cindy, daughters Cooper and Hadley, son Carson and his fiancee, Michaela. His other daughter, Shelby, couldn't join the fun due to parenting duties at that hour.
"I've just always had the belief that I could play," Gilbert III said. "Golf is a game, especially at the highest levels, where you just have to play good at the right time. It seems like I would always play good at the wrong time, and when it mattered the most I kind of struggled a little bit.
"I kept going and just never quit. I really felt that I could play out there."
Gilbert III is not a total stranger to the PGA Tour Champions, having played well enough in qualifying school events to compete in 16 tournaments the last three years, including six last season. He had a top-25 finish at The Ally Challenge this past September in Grand Blanc, Michigan, and wound up 83rd on the money list with $94,046.
He also got to play with his father last August at the DICK'S Sporting Goods Open in Endicott, New York. Gilbert II had an exemption to that tournament due to past victories, and when Gilbert III earned a spot by qualifying, it marked the first father-son duo to compete in a PGA Tour Champions event.
"That was very special," Gilbert II said. "I finished second in the Masters, but a lot of guys are going to finish second in the Masters. There will be no other first in terms of a father-son. That's something that stands by itself, and it sort of put a finishing touch on things for me.
"There will be other father-son combinations, but we'll always be No. 1."
The Gilberts are the only Chattanoogans ever to play on the PGA Tour Champions.
While his father describes last summer as the finishing touch to a productive career, Gilbert III is preferring to look ahead. He is proving that athletic dreams are not required to die once a certain age has passed and that his best is yet to come.
"Honestly, to me, it's been a little disappointing when I look back," Gilbert III said. "I think I could have done a lot more. I think I've had the game. I understand that you need to get some breaks, but I think I could have done a lot more.
"At least at 53, I can turn this all around."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.