Joe Hillman seems to have a knack for getting a ball into a round hole, no matter the size. Whether it was on a basketball court, where he helped Indiana University to a national title in 1987, or in his newfound competitive arena on a golf course, the Zionsville, Ind., resident excels.
With his basketball days well in the rearview mirror, Hillman, who turned 57 on Aug. 12, now puts a 1.68-inch ball into a 4¼-inch hole instead of a 22-ounce basketball through an 18-inch hoop.
“I used to make more shots than I do putts, that’s for sure,” said Hillman not long after qualifying for the 68th U.S. Senior Amateur at Martis Camp in Truckee, Calif.
This will be the ex-basketball star’s second USGA championship, having qualified for the 2004 U.S. Mid-Amateur at Sea Island Golf Club in Georgia. When his basketball and baseball careers – he was a 25th-round pick for the Oakland A’s in 1988 and played two seasons of minor-league ball – ended in 1992, Hillman, who once averaged 41 points per game as a senior at Hoover High in Glendale, Calif., needed an endeavor to fuel his competitive juices. So, he did what so many other ex-athletes do: fall in love with golf.
Hillman briefly dabbled in the game as a high school senior, when his dad joined Oakmont Country Club in Glendale, but he didn’t start taking the game seriously until he was playing professionally in Australia. With practices and games at night, Hillman and another American teammate often hit the golf course after morning workouts. When he settled down in suburban Indianapolis in 1993 after playing one pro season in England, Hillman joined Wolf Run Golf Club in Zionsville.
But in 1999, Hillman’s golf career nearly came to a screeching halt following a bizarre accident at an industrial plant. A 60-ton hydraulic press crushed his right hand. Several surgeries later, Hillman had lost his index finger and tendons in his middle finger. A year later, however, he was back to hitting golf balls, but with a baseball grip. A good friend and former IU golf standout, Jeff Cook, who has won four Indiana State Opens and a Korn Ferry Tour title, showed him how to pitch balls cross-handed to ease the pain.
“It hasn’t changed my life at all,” said Hillman of the accident. “I chip cross-handed because I needed a pressure point to hold the golf club.
“I basically use a baseball grip, but I am only holding the club with my pinky and ring finger on my right hand. There’s a huge gap between my middle finger up to my thumb.”
Anyone who has known Hillman – from his high school teammates to those he played with at IU – shouldn’t be shocked that he’s overcome this unfortunate accident. His uber-competitive nature doesn’t allow him to quit.
“Joe is a winner, you can see that on the golf course,” Keith Kinsel, a past four-ball partner and fellow Glendale native, told the Glendale News-Press in 2002. “He’s still a good ball-striker [despite the accident].”
When he qualified for his first U.S. Senior Amateur in Grand Rapids, Mich., on July 24, Hillman found himself in a playoff for the last spot after carding a 1-over-par 72 with five birdies and six bogeys. When his opponent, James Barnes, failed to get up and down for par, a two-putt from 10 feet was good enough to advance.
Before he turned 55, Hillman’s competitive golf had slowed a bit. A father of two, he began following his now-22-year-old son Jack’s exploits on the ice and raising his now-23-year-old-daughter Kara.
The co-owner of TrustWealth Strategies, a financial services firm, was an All-CIF-Southern Section performer in both baseball and basketball at Hoover, leading the Tornadoes to the 3A basketball title game as a sophomore on a team that featured two other Division I players, Ron Young (USC), Bill Carr (San Francisco) and another athlete who would play quarterback at Cal-Berkeley (Kevin Brown). By the time he was a senior on the basketball team, Hillman was basically the team, often scoring 80 to 90 percent of his team’s points.
That caught the attention of legendary Cal coach Pete Newell, a friend of Hillman’s father, Pete, as well as a mentor of Indiana coach Bob Knight. At the time, IU rarely recruited from the West Coast, but upon the suggestion of Newell, Knight decided to go after one of California’s blue-chip recruits. Back then, UCLA and USC were playing in front of sparse crowds, and Hillman wanted a shot at winning an NCAA title.
Their first meeting took place at, of all places, Santa Anita Racetrack in Arcadia with the San Gabriel Mountains serving as a backdrop. Knight told Hillman that Bloomington would not be like Los Angeles, but urged him to not sign anywhere before coming to Assembly Hall for a game. Hillman loved everything about IU upon his visit, especially the energetic fanbase.
“Knight asked me, ‘Are you coming or aren’t you?’” said Hillman. “I told him I had to talk to my dad. Then he says, ‘This isn’t your dad’s decision, this is yours.’ I told him this is where I need to be, and then he says, ‘I’ll talk to you later,’ and walked away.”
Hillman didn’t play a ton the first few seasons, but in the 1987 title game in New Orleans’ Superdome against Syracuse, he played the final 17 minutes as IU went to a three-guard alignment with Hillman, who had a game-high six assists, Steve Alford and championship-game hero Keith Smart, whose 3-pointer from the left baseline gave IU a thrilling 74-73 victory.
By his senior season in 1988-89, Hillman was a team captain and in the discussion for Big Ten Player of the Year. That didn’t materialize, despite emphatic pleas from Knight. Playing under Coach Knight was not easy, but Hillman had an intrinsic fortitude and the proper disposition to handle the old-school directives. He understood there was a method to his perceived madness.
“I didn’t like practices,” said Hillman, who also played on two Big Ten title teams. “They were harder than games.
“But I would do it all over again in a second. The best thing about Coach Knight is every single day you had a chance to get playing time. We had seven guys in red and eight guys in white. If you were in the red [jerseys] by gametime, you were playing. We had no set starting lineups. I think in the 1986-87 season, we had 18 or 19 [different] starting lineups. Nobody could complain about being screwed over for playing time.”
Hillman, who had a brief cameo playing an Indiana player in the movie “Blue Chips” starring Nick Nolte, managed to play both basketball and baseball at IU, although the latter was limited to the last six to seven weeks of the season. An outfielder/first baseman, he played on the A’s’ short-season Pioneer League team in 1988 between his junior and senior seasons, then again in 1989 before deciding he had no chance of advancing far in the organization. The Utah Jazz signed him as an undrafted free agent, but he was cut two days before the 1989-90 season began. A year in Australia and another in England was the extent of Hillman’s pro basketball career.
“I was probably a better baseball player, but I just liked basketball better,” said Hillman. “Practice was easier. I could always go shoot on my own. I loved that. It’s like golf where I can go to the range and hit balls.”
Hillman’s residence is a short walk from the west end of Wolf Run’s range, and once the golf bug hit him hard, he spent hours perfecting his craft. Since turning 55, he’s been invited to several prestigious events, including the Trans-Miss and Lupton Invitational at The Honors Course in Ooltewah, Tenn.
“I always tell my buddies I was good at everything, but great at nothing,” he said.
Nineteen years ago, he did get his first crack at a USGA championship by qualifying for the U.S. Mid-Amateur. Too anxious and probably a tad nervous, Hillman remembered being 10 over through the first nine holes before settling down. That proved to be a learning experience he hopes will pay off in his trip to Martis Camp.
“In basketball, I just ran faster and jumped higher,” he said. “That doesn’t work in golf.
“Fuzzy Zoeller (the 1984 U.S. Open champion and Indiana native) talked to us once at Indiana about choking. He said the only time you can choke is if you put yourself in position to choke. Get into enough positions to choke and you are doing just fine. Guys who don’t want any part of it, just don’t get themselves into that position. Don’t be afraid to fail.”
Hillman isn’t going into his first U.S. Senior Amateur with any delusions of grandeur. Making the match-play cut is his goal, and then he’ll see where that takes him. He is looking forward to returning to California – albeit the northern part of the state – for this competition. And he’s heard about the beauty of Martis Camp. The tough part is facing the world’s best 55 and older amateurs.
“I didn’t beat these guys at 35,” he said, “I didn’t beat them at 45, so I’m not going to beat them at 55 either.”
Who knows, a hot putter at Martis Camp just might carry Hillman to another national title, this one on a course instead of a court.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.