John Norkus, 90, stepped up to the tee box and took a few practice swings. He adjusted his straw hat, gripped his club and then swung his driver at the golf ball.
As the ball flew through the air, catcalls ensued from the crowd of men behind him.
“A birdie! You got a birdie!”
His buddies didn’t mean he had shot below par – he had almost hit an actual bird flying past the tee box.
After a few slaps on the back, the men got into their golf carts and headed down the fairway. Playful banter could be heard throughout the round.
“Are you going spend more time looking for your balls than playing like you did last week?”
“Your clothes actually match today. Did your wife dress you?”
The men even joked about their ages.
The Holy Hackers, named for their love of God and golf, meet every Thursday at a local golf course to play a round together and socialize. The men range in age from 56 to 90 with most in their late 70s and early 80s.
But before they hit a single shot, the good-natured banter comes to a stop while the men gather on the first tee, hold hands and pray. The Holy Hackers often say that they pray before they play.
“It’s a great sign of our faith that here we are a bunch of old men holding hands in a circle on a golf course,” said John Klotsko, Holy Hackers commissioner.
Many members said that amidst the joking and fun, praying together is one of their favorite parts of the outing.
“I have never prayed before I played golf before joining the Holy Hackers. The closeness of praying together always makes me feel really good,” said longtime Holy Hacker Gene Knight.
The group started 12 years ago when five guys who attended St. Raphael’s Church started playing golf together each week. Now the group has 32 members and a waiting list to join. Members attend six local Catholic parishes. They even designed a Holy Hackers logo and sport matching green and white shirts; white for purity of heart and green for the color of golf fairways.
“We are a group of committed Catholic Christian guys who live out our walk with the Lord and enjoy each other as a family of golfers. We really have a great time with each other every week,” said Jack Barry, 79, of Raleigh.
The group doesn’t play serious golf by any means. Members say their liberal interpretation of the rules would make professional golfers cringe. They give away putts that are as far as a club length away, never hit from behind a tree and have a rule that you don’t get a penalty shot for hitting a ball into the water.
But they are more than just a bunch of guys playing golf. The group gives back to the community by volunteering to drive cancer patients to their appointments.
Before a recent round of golf, the group held a birthday celebration for Norkus, the first member to turn 90. When a Hacker passes away, members of the group serve as honorary pall bearers. The group rallies to help those Hackers who have become sick by providing rides, helping around the house or anything else that they need.
When one of the original members, Dick Benton, 82, ended up in a wheelchair, the Holy Hackers began driving him to his doctor’s appointments and took his wife, Gladys, to the grocery store. When the Bentons retired, one of the main reasons they decided to stay in the Triangle was the friendship of the Holy Hackers.
“The Hackers have meant the world to us,” Gladys Benton said. “They have just been wonderful about providing us rides and coming to visit with treats – and really just being great friends to us.”
Each year the group holds a memorial tournament to honor the six members, called Heavenly Hackers, who have died. They spend the day going to Catholic mass, playing golf and honoring their friends at a luncheon with spouses.
“We began as a golf group, but we have really grown into something more than that,” Klotsko said. “Because none of us are from here, we have become an extended family to each other.”