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Thread: Don Villavaso - Rest in Peace

  1. #1

    Join Date
    Jul 2003

    Default Don Villavaso - Rest in Peace

    Me and my wife Lisa decided to have a really nice breakfast Saturday morning. We went to a great place in Uptown, New Orleans. While we were there I got the news that my long time mentor, fellow golf teacher, great pal and golfing buddy, Donald Paul Villavaso had passed way. Don was 83.

    It is never a good time to hear that a loved one has left this earth. But it was, in a way, apropos to find out while we ate a awesome meal in Big Don’s lifetime neighborhood. Donald loved to eat good food, and he loved it even more when he ate with his friends and family. I was lucky enough to have literally thousands of meals with him. Not one dull minute. Don was great company.

    He loved his family and friends, and he loved his city and neighborhood as well. The man of a 1000 famous quotes—yes, famous—even had one about Uptown. “America’s #1 neighborhood, babe ” he would say all the time. Of course Don would also tell you that “I’ve had my car stolen from in front of my house twice,” and that if it rained really hard, “I have to go park my cars on the ‘neutral ground’"(median of nearby major street Claiborne Avenue). Don was always real.

    The first time I can remember us talking was back in the early 80’s. We argued for a few weeks on the merits of the thumb and right forefinger’s distance from each other in the golf grip. “Honald Millet was the best player in the city of New Orleans and his thumb and right forefinger touched!,” said Don, confidently. I’d counter with pictures of Ben Hogan’s non-touching digits and the counter punch, “Wasn’t Freddie Haas—the man who stopped Byron Nelson’s streak, the first man to play on both the USA Walker & Ryder Cup teams, the man who won 5 times on THE Tour, the best player in New Orleans back in the day?” Don would calmly reply that “Honald could beat Freddie easy in New Orleans but his game just didn’t travel.” Don was never wrong. Really.

    Don had many jobs in his life. He sold insurance, he worked for NASA at Martin Marietta when they were building the Saturn 5 rocket, he fished where he got the nickname "The Hurricane" for his penchant for fishing during storm warnings, he gambled at golf, booked football cards, and he taught golf. Work was never a career for Donald, it was a means to an end. Enough money for his beloved wife Penny and daughter Doni, and enough to do what he liked to do with his free time. Don Villavaso probably spent less time in his life doing things he didn’t like vs. time spent doing things he did, then any non-millionaire in history. Since you’re only dealt so much time on this planet, that sounds like good advice. Don was very wise.

    My dad passed away in 1987 when he was only 59. I was 25, but I was still just as Donald like to say “a silly little kid.” A kid that already had made a few bad decisions and was going to make some more. A kid that needed someone to tell him what to do, and more importantly what not to do. A kid that needed someone to tell him a million and one times, “It’s going to be alright, babe. You’re still young.” Don did that for me, so many times I lost count, and he was really, really good at it.

    I literally might not be here writing this if Don hadn’t given me hope several times when I thought there was none, and by doing the #1 thing any pal can do when the other is hurting—just talk. Don could talk.

    He did some radio, going by the name “Don Power.” He worked with fellow radio man Keith Rush when Rush had figured out how much more money you could make with a DJ than a band. “We were making so much money that Keith turned down Elvis Presley’s offer to have Rush manage him.” He was the absolute best story teller and quipper of all time. No contest. Who else that was never famous, that traveled rarely, and mostly pre-dated the internet is quoted all over the world? In character as well, with voice and mannerisms included?

    Don Villavaso, that’s who.

    Here are a few unforgettable Don Villavaso quotes….

    On maybe not completing the PGA apprentice program: “It is still an 8-year free green fee.”

    On Lakewood Pro Palmer Proctor being mad at not playing in the PGA Tour event at English Turn: “Here is a midget, this tall (hand held mid stomach high), guarding Titleists, who thinks he should be playing with Nick-LOSS!”

    On how to make a backswing pivot: “Imagine an apple on your left shoulder and an orange on your right hip. Put the apple over the orange and make fruit salad.”

    His reaction to our getting a 8am tee time to play Cypress Point the next day: “You boys have fun, I’ll meet ya’ll for lunch.” (I screamed back, but Don, it’s CYPRESS friggin’ POINT!) Don continued, “That is a starving dog tee time. And since you guys are starving dogs, you go ahead and play. If you can change it to 11am or later, I’ll join ya.”

    “It’s not a shank, it’s a shove.”

    “If that kid (who was in the process of robbing him) had bent over to pick up my wallet, I’d have punted him into next week.”

    On me trying to get good stills and video of the beauty of the Monterey Penninsula, “You can’t capture this.”

    After I climed down a cliff, jumped across some rocks in the Pacific, and climbed back up the cliff to retrieve our disposable 35 mm camera that a seagull had taken away: “That’s the only son-of-a-gun in the world that would have gotten that camera. That IS the camera?”

    On an LSU coach who was forced to play a prep super star that he hadn’t recruited and then buried on the depth chart, and then getting credit for playing the player who had awesome game: “Instead of the headline reading ‘Tinsley discovers defensive ace,’ it should have said ‘Idiot Coach keeps superstar on the bench for 3 and half years’. ”

    On Aaron Brooks (One-time Saints QB) having a chance to be good: “If they can get him to know what Archie taught Peyton by the 8th grade, we’ll be alright.”

    Don told us that we, his boys—Myself, Tom Bartlett, Mike Finney, and Chris Hamburger—would never get rich in the golf business. He told me that you’ll never make any money unless “Your daddy owned the Driving Range.” He told me that one day I’d have to get away from New Orleans for a while to make a name for myself. All true of course.

    He got me to make sense out of what I was trying to teach people to do in golf lessons. After he figured out I knew what I was talking about, and we were talking for hours daily, he asked me, "So babe, how do you teach golfers to make a backswing?”

    I'd respond with, "I make them lean their torsos 15° to the right, while their right hip socket moved slightly toward the target, maybe 2 inches."

    He replied with, "Now listen kid, I don't want to hear all of that nonsense. You need to explain it to me in CHILD-LIKE terms. If you can't, you really don't know it yourself, you are just reciting it."

    I'll never forget the advice he gave me the night before my big 18-hole stroke play match with my then heated rival Larry Griffin. The night before the match, looking for some advice, I called Big Don.

    "Babe, this is what you need to do. Don't watch him swing. That wild hard swing of his will screw you up, and he wants you to watch. Look at some birds in the trees. Make sure he knows you aren't looking at him. You'll be fine."

    I was, of course. By the time Don and his brother Hugh came out to watch, I was one or two under, and four shots in the clear. I won by 8.

    Don & I won a very big PGA Pro-Pro tournament in 1987 at our home City Park West course. The so-called pros in the know picked us to finish dead last. I never saw more of a ‘cat that swallowed the canary’ look on Don’s face then when walked into City Park Driving Range lobby right after we got our 1st place check, into a room of guys who didn’t like us and had all bet against us. Classic and Priceless.

    Don made the trip a few times to California to see and learn from my teacher Ben Doyle and play the great courses of Northern California with me, Tom Bartlett and Mike Finney.

    But, more importantly, Don Villavaso took the knowledge he gained from myself, Ben Doyle, Tom Bartlett, Mike Finney, and Chris Hamburger, and fashioned himself into a fine teacher. For $40 an hour, you get a guy that attended multiple PGA Teaching Summits, has world class teachers as friends, and can fix you. Ben Doyle got to watch him teach once and was quite impressed with his results. Sitting on his chained together 2 stack of milk crates, dispensing golf and life wisdom, Don was worth the money just to listen to him tell stories and tell you ahead of time—Nostradamus had nothing on him—what will and should happen.

    Back in the early 90's, Pete Finney, Mike's dad who is a local legend in Sports writing, was going to do a story on a big football game that Ole Miss was playing in that weekend, supposedly with a good chance to win. Mike told his dad that Don would have the scoop. "Ole Miss is a HIGH-school team," was Don's now infamous reply to Mike's question. Of course, the Rebels lost by 30+.

    Don was also the world’s smoothest operator. The real World’s Most Interesting Man.


    When he worked for NASA: “I just punched in at 8am and went straight to the race track to bet the horses, and then to the Park to play golf. My friend punched me out. They never knew anything about it. I knew about a 800 people working there, and none of them worked a lick. But they had 30,000 people working at the plant and the rocket got built."

    Don is the only known person that never paid to get on to 17-mile drive on the Monterey Peninsula. He would just flash his faded PGA Apprentice card from 1988, and say he was going up to "the club" (Cypress Point) to see Jim Langley."

    If I tried that, they handcuff me.

    After being right a thousand times in a row, he got one “wrong.” I was arguing with him about something else he would up being right about one day, and I brought up the one time he was wrong.

    After reading two columns in a row in the local paper about golf that seemed suspicious, I became convinced that Lakewood teacher Rob Noel was coming to City Park to be Director of Instruction. Don told me emphatically, "No WAY Mackel and Benandi (the Director of Golf and Head Pro at City Park in the 90's) are going to give up ANY stardom. He is NOT coming."

    So, I brought that little incorrect assumption up to Don during that little debate...

    Don finished me off with the classic rant, "If I'da known that Rob was a bald headed-tobacco chewing-cigar store Indian from Abbyville (Louisiana), and NO threat to Mackel, I'da said they'd go pick him up in a limo and drop him of at the Range.”

    Don was right even when he was wrong.

    I went out with my wife Lisa for the first time on a Tuesday. Sitting on her sofa at 9:15 pm on that Wednesday, Don calls. "Hey babe. You over by that girl's house? Ask her if she wants to come with you to meet Me and Penny and Tom (Bartlett) and Jennifer for dinner around the corner from her house at R & O's."

    Now I had waited basically 39 years to get on this sofa, and I wasn't leaving. But Lisa wanted to "meet my friends" and I didn't want to scare her off, so we went and had a nice quick meal with them. I dropped her off at the door, and went home to sleep. At 2 a.m., the phone rang. "Hey Babe," it was Donald, who at the time never went to bed until 4am, often playing Canasta with Tom and Jen. "So that's it?" Don continued. "What are you talking about Don?" I asked honestly. "Do you HEAR this guy Tom?" He asked Bartlett who was on the phone three-way. I repeated my claim of total confusion.

    "Listen kid, if you don't marry this girl, don't come crying to me with your problems."

    Don has never been more right, of course.

    Don is quoted and copied everyday by folks that never met him, and probably don’t remember or know where they learned “it” from. His influence on me is permanent ingrained. Just watch anyone of my 100+ videos on A lot of Donald Paul Villavaso in every explanation.

    Tom Bartlett’s brother Bob was trying to figure what Don would be most famous for (notice he didn’t say remembered) and came up with a few, but the best were how he served frozen ice cream by cutting through the block-style half gallon with an electric knife and the sheer amount of folks who do Don imitations and repeat Don quotes.

    I have personally been in a car with four people, all telling Big Don stories, all doing Big Don imitations. Trust me, no one runs out of material or laughs.

    And the stories and storytelling of Big Don Villavaso are so good, and repeated so often, that folks who didn’t know Don, knew Don.

    When I married Lisa in 2003, I had been living in Louisville with a buddy of ours named Rick Sarles. Rick was one of my ushers and walked my mom down the aisle at my wedding.

    He had never laid eyes on Don, never seen a picture of him, never watched a video with him in it.

    Wedding guests had started to arrive at the Hotel Montelone early, and Don and Penny were in that number. They went out to the deck on the upper floor pool area to sit and wait in the cool autumn breeze.

    As Donald told the story…”So I’m sitting outside on the pool deck enjoying the weather, and some guy spots me and runs across the whole deck and comes up and pats my back and shakes my hand like I’m his long lost friend and asks me, ‘H’ow ya doing, Don?’ I’m turning to the people standing behind me that I knew and I asked, who is this guy? The guy keeps shaking my hand and says, ‘Our boy Brian sure found him a good one, huh Don?’ I said, uh, yup, sure babe, and I turned around again and whispered, does anyone know who this is? And he keeps shaking my hand asking me how I’m hitting the ball. I tell him I'm hitting it pretty good, babe. I turn again asking WHO IS this crazy man?”

    I told the story, in full character of course, to Ricky when I saw him a few weeks later in Louisville. He laughed out loud.

    I asked him, “Rick, how in the world did you know that was Big Don?” He didn’t hesitate…

    “He’s the only person in the world that could have been Don Villavaso.”

    vjcapron likes this.
    "All you have is the HUB PATH and the force and torque you apply to the club—that's the whole swing."

    Brian Manzella is Golf Digest's 37th ranked teacher in the USA and is a three time Golf Magazine Top 100 Instructor.

  2. #2
    Senior Member
    Join Date
    Oct 2006
    Tulsa, Oklahoma


    Sorry to hear of your loss Brian. Big Don seemed like one of a kind, and I appreciated the read.
    Brian Manzella likes this.

  3. #3
    Senior Member
    Join Date
    Sep 2004
    Belleville, MI


    Condolences, Brian. That final wedding story made me smile. Having been on this site and having heard so many stories, I developed a mental picture of him. When I saw the picture in the post, I said, "Yup, that's him!"

    Sounded like a great guy and a great friend. Sorry for your loss.
    Brian Manzella likes this.

  4. #4

    Join Date
    Mar 2011
    Southern California


    May we all strive to have such reverence paid to us on our passing. Great man. Sorry for your loss.
    2011 Metro Chapter SCPGA Teacher of the Year
    2012 Horton Smith Award

  5. #5
    Senior Member Shot Limit's Avatar
    Join Date
    Apr 2009


    Sorry for your loss Brian.

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