In other circumstances, Jay Lester’s runner-up finish — by one stroke — in the recent Fourth of July Classic at War Memorial Golf Course might be considered a heartbreaker.
But after what he’s gone through over the last three years, a more apt description might be heart-saver.
Since March 2010, Lester, just 52, has had two heart attacks and three strokes. There’s no family history; he’s been one of the state’s top amateur golfers for 30 years and appears to be in good physical shape.
At War Memorial, he shot 64-65-68—197, tied with two other golfers a stroke behind Stafford Gray of Sherwood. He made five birdies on the final nine.
“I’ve had no health issues (since the last small stroke in September 2011),” Lester said. “At my last checkup, all my numbers were wonderful. I’m healthy; I feel good; I play golf.
“I’m still not as good as I ought to be. My expectations are a lot higher than they should be, I guess, for my age.”
A six-month layoff following the second heart attack, in October 2010, has been by far the longest break from the sport he’s loved since he was 12. Before that, it was asking a lot to get him away for a week.
His recent return to contention in about the only individual tournament he plays each year is no surprise to those who’ve known him for years.
“Jay Lester has always been a gritty, determined competitor,” said Jay Fox, executive director of the Arkansas State Golf Association who has known him since Lester played for Hendrix and Fox for the University of Central Arkansas.
That grit and determination were instrumental for Lester in his biggest battles away from the golf course.
The first heart attack came three years ago last March. He and his family were at a spaghetti supper at Williams Magnet School in Little Rock, where his wife, Sandie, teaches.
“One of the teachers’ husbands was a country singer, and he was good,” Lester remembered. “We’re sitting at the table eating supper, and I just started bawling, for no reason whatsoever. I probably cried for 30 minutes. I could not stop.”
He said he feared he was having a nervous breakdown.
When he saw his doctor the next day, the nurse measured his blood pressure at 190 over 160. After reading his EKG results, the doctor told him, “You’ve had one heart attack, and you’re fixing to have a big one.”
She insisted he call someone to transport him to the emergency room. When he suggested he could drive himself, she told him he might not make it out of the exam room. When he and Sandie arrived at the ER, emergency personnel whisked him away.
“Two hours later I’m in surgery getting a stent,” he said. “I had another artery 50 percent blocked, but they said they would treat that with medication.”
A few months later, in October, he and his long-time best friend from their youth in Camden, Mike Crowder, celebrated turning 50 by realizing their bucket-list dream of playing golf at Pebble Beach and other celebrated courses in the San Diego area. Winding up the last night of their trip with a sumptuous meal at Morton’s The Steakhouse, they walked around the area before heading back the six blocks to their hotel.
“We make it two blocks,” Lester remembered. “We’re coming up to the trolley car tracks and I say, ‘Mike, my chest hurts,’ and I collapse right there.”
Luckily, Crowder is a doctor.
“I was three minutes from the ambulance and five from the hospital,” Lester said. “I had another heart attack right there with a stroke and ended up in intensive care for a week.”
Doctors at Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego opened the artery with another stent. The stroke left him with the loss of 30 percent of the vision in his right eye and no peripheral vision.
He got home in late October “and didn’t get out of bed until the first of December.”
“I was exhausted, tired, depressed, had no strength — you name it,” he said.
Two more mini strokes followed in 2011. One occurred between rounds at a tournament at Fianna Hills in Fort Smith and lasted 20 seconds; the other was scarier.
“My son came home from school and found me having a seizure on the couch,” Lester said. “He couldn’t revive me, so he went next door and they called the ambulance. But I had no lasting effects.”
He said doctors never determined the cause of either mini stroke.
But since September 2011, all has been well, and he’s continued to play the game he loves.
Lester grew up in Camden, but his parents were from the nearby smaller Ouachita County town of Stephens.
“My aunt lived in Stephens, and Stephens built a country club with a nine-hole golf course when I was 12, and my aunt joined for the express reason that I could go learn how to play golf,” he said. “I don’t think she ever went out there.”
Every weekend his parents went to Stephens to visit, and his aunt dropped him at the golf course.
“I was awful,” he remembered. “I had no lessons, and I went and bought an entire set of clubs at Camark Sporting Goods (known locally as Beck’s for its well-regarded owner, James Bechtelheimer), a little brown bag and a pull cart. I wore track shoes because they were the only spikes I had.”
No one in his family played golf, but his friend Crowder did, and he “wanted to be like Mike.”
His mother told him when he got to high school, the family would join Camden Country Club so he could play there. As a freshman at Camden High, he decided he was going to be a member of the golf team.
“I’d been playing a year and a half by myself, and the first qualifying came along,” he recalled. “I’m playing with Mark Bradshaw, Madison Pope, Larry Killough, Jim Black and David Shirey — they’d won state three years in a row at least. They were incredibly good.”
He shot 116 for the qualifying — 60 on the front side, 56 on the back.
“I still remember it vividly,” he said. “The football coach, David Bryant, was our golf daddy, and he said, ‘I know your mom; I’ll take you to every match, and as long as you break 100 I’ll let you play.’
“Then he winked and said, ‘You can cheat if you want to.’ I can’t tell you how many 99s I shot that year.”
The Panthers won another state championship that year — 1975.
“They would let me tag along, so I went to all the matches and I was, quote, unquote, part of a state championship,” he said. “That summer all I did was play golf, and my handicap dropped from 32 to 3.
“It was a very homemade swing and ugly, a low running hook, but I learned how to control it. I could chip and putt.”
As a sophomore, he played third in the Panthers’ lineup, and Camden finished runner-up in the ‘76 state tournament.
His junior year, there was a new coach, and he and Lester didn’t get along. The coach kicked him off the team on the eve of the district tournament — which the Panthers lost.
“The next year I don’t say a word to him the entire year,” Lester said. “We just stared at each other. We won district that year (‘78) and state by two shots.”
Still playing No. 3 in the lineup, Lester finished second in the district tournament, “starting a long pattern of finishing runner-up,” he said wryly.
He went on to Hendrix College, becoming the third generation of his family to do so. Crowder went there as well, and they joined Jay Kutchka, who earned NAIA All-America honors for the Warriors. Lester made the all-district team as a senior.
Fox remembers him from the days of their Hendrix-UCA battles.
“We had lots of rounds together,” he said. “Jay has one of the best short games of all time. He’s maybe the best pure chipper you will ever seen — not only does he try to make chip shots, he thinks he can make them. Most of us are just hoping to get our chip shots close enough to make putts, but not Jay. He wants to make the chip shot.”
Lester graduated with a degree in economics/business with an emphasis in accounting in 1982. He has owned Little Rock Golf, a club repair business, since 1999, and he also works part-time at the Country Club of Arkansas.
He played his first Fourth of July Classic at War Memorial in 1983 and has played it every year except one since then, he said.
“For years, Dick Jenkins (father of Rick, Tim and Chris) had the record for the longest streak, but I may have it now since I’m so damn old,” he joked.
He has never won the Fourth of July but has finished second at least four times, he said, including more than once by a single stroke.
From 1988-98, he was a regular on the Arkansas State Golf Association designated circuit and earned a spot on the Arkansas Cup team most of those years. His first designated win came in 1991 in the old Riverfest tournament at Rebsamen when he shot what was then a course record 67-68.
He won the Ouachita Valley Invitational at Camden Country Club, for so long his home course, in 1997 and ‘98.
Fox remembers that accomplishment well.
“After college we continued to compete in ASGA tournaments, and I was playing with him when he won the 50th OVI,” Fox said.
Lester’s first son, Ben, was born in 1996; Jack followed in ‘98.
“Ben slowed down my golf, and after Jack it was cut down to tournaments at Hindman, War Memorial and Camden, and the Hindman tournament discontinued in ‘02, so I just played those other two,” he said. “And my parents moved up here in ‘06, and so War Memorial has been the only individual tournament I play. The people are so nice out there, and I’ve known Bobby Baker, the facilities manager there, since I was growing up in Camden and he was in Fordyce.”
Jack Lester plays golf; Ben plays saxophone.
“I told them to find some hobby they like and do it,” Lester said.
That’s what their father has done. Golf has been a constant through the good and bad times.
And he — and his game — have survived it all.
“I’m competitive again anyway,” Lester said. “That’s what I was planning to do this summer, to see if I can still play and still compete. Last summer I played War Memorial and finished sixth (68-65-62). This year I’m getting very close.
“I still have problems putting. I don’t know if it’s medication, an age thing or just because I can’t putt. That’s about the only thing that’s not back to where it was. I’m hitting it as well as ever. My ball-striking is as good as I can do.”
He hit 15 greens in regulation over his last round at War Memorial.
All that has him considering returning to Camden for the OVI this weekend (July 20-21). At press time, he said he was leaning toward playing.
“I’m getting the urge and desire to play again,” he said.
And that is good for his body and his soul.