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Thread: After a seminal year (2014), How I got started and how I wound up here

  1. #1

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    Default After a seminal year (2014), How I got started and how I wound up here

    1987 was a very long time ago—27 years to be exact. That was the year that my Dad passed away at the way too young age of 59. It was my 6th year of teaching golf. It was the year I started to play golf 5 times a week with Big Don Villavaso. It was the year I took my first plane flight to see Ben Doyle for the first time. Lots of things have happened to me in those 27 years. Teaching all over the world, hundreds of hours working with the 40 million dollar man—David Toms, making the Golf Magazine Top 100 and Golf Digest Top 50. But without Don and Ben’s help, I don’t think I would have accomplished anywhere near what I have. Sadly, in 2014, we lost both Donald Villavaso and Bentley Doyle.

    The story of how I got started teaching and how I got here, has been told many times on this site over the years, but a fresh look is pertinent in light of the three important men in my life above and how they all had a lot to do with it.


    I grew up playing golf at New Orleans’ City Park. My 1st cousin Dino brought me out at age 10 to “The Park” to play the great Junior course for my first official round. I shot 79 for 9 holes. For a 75 cent green fee, you could play holes that Hogan and Snead and Nelson and Arnold Palmer walked in the days that the park’s #1 course hosted the PGA Tour event in the city.

    I got my first job right there at the “old clubhouse” that served the Junior and South courses. I got about $2.50 an hour “under the table” to park golf carts there. At 17 years old I worked as a range attendant at the 100-tee double-decker Driving Range across from the new clubhouse. By then the Junior course had closed, but City Park still had 72 holes. For $317 a year, you could play ALL of them 365 days a year and have a large locker in the spacious locker room. What a place to learn everything about golf!

    To me back then, the Henry Thomas Pro Shop was the greatest thing in the whole City Park complex. He was the #1 account in the USA for a couple of the major companies and that pro shop was THE place I wanted to work. I finally got my chance in 1982 at 20 years old.

    I had enrolled at The University of New Orleans after high school and to be honest, I didn’t know if going to college was what I wanted to do. I was only 17. I basically red-shirted myself that first year trying to figure out if I was going to, 1) Finish college and if I did, 2) Was I going to play golf or football. UNO was D1, but did not have a football team. So, at the beginning of my sophomore year in 1980, at 18 years old, I walked on and made the UNO golf team. I finished 7th out of about a dozen guys in the team qualifier, mostly played at City Park.

    I was playing in a band at the time, and one day practicing at my house, I dropped a small amplifier on my left thumb. Broke as a joke. It was a really small break, but I couldn’t lift a club with just my left hand. Around the same time I was considering transferring to Southeastern Louisiana University the next semester so I resigned from the UNO team.

    Off to Hammond, Louisiana for SLU in January, and now a few months had gone by without me playing any golf. I was doing a lot of running and working out and had put on a few pounds of muscle and dropped a tenth or two off my 40 time. I had to decide once and for all if I wanted to play football again. While trying to decide, I got talked into hitting some golf balls and within a day or two, I was more than hooked. A fortuitous find of a picture of my idol Johnny Miller at impact made the next week a period of rapid improvement as I copied Miller’s right arm under left impact position. I played in a lot of amateur events that summer and made the SLU team in the fall easily.

    I qualified for every tournament, but couldn’t play in them due to the one-year transfer rule. I played in a few matches and played great, one against UNO. I was undefeated in the Southeastern team match play championship and for whatever reason, couldn’t swing any scholarship money for that next semester from the SLU coach, Ken Kennelly. My dad wanted me to come home and finish college at UNO. I was ready to do just that. But, I had one more week of golf practice and school left at SLU, so I made a really interesting decision, I let the team’s other good players give me some lessons to teach me what their country club pros taught them that was different than my homemade swing.

    Back then, I set up tall and closed and came over it a bit and hit a pull draw. Sort of an exaggerated Snead move. They squared me up, weakened my grip and I literally lost 20 yards and had a two-way miss faster than you could say malpractice. I gave that experiment up as soon as that week was over, but it taught me a lot about golf lessons and what not to do.

    Back at UNO for just three days, I was hired right out of Will Peneguy’s Journalism class to become the assistant to the sports information director. While filling out my W2’s, UNO golf coach Bob Brown saw me and gave me a scholarship on the spot. I had to sit the whole year of 1982, but practicing with the team and playing in everything I could in the summer made me a much better player.

    That first semester back at UNO, I refinished my old MacGregor woods and I got hired on the spot to do that for pay at a place called ProTec Golf. I had gone there with my handiwork to get a re-whip, and then didn’t let me leave. I had a new job and got to learn the club repair trade from two of the best ever, Buddy Orange and Stan Stopa, and soon I had one super tricked out set of clubs.

    One day that summer at City Park, I helped straighten up the shoe display in Mr. Thomas’ shop. Larry Griffin, the irrepressible 1st assistant, after seeing me do my 1000th good deed in the pro shop, told Mr. Thomas that “we might as well hire him and pay him—he works here anyway.” So I finally had the job I always wanted.

    After a couple of weeks Mr. Thomas told me I couldn’t work for both him and ProTech so I picked the park. I worked hard and transformed the pro shop into something it had never been during my lifetime, a super clean, super organized, well displayed shop. I had a absolute blast doing it.

    Early in ’83, Thomas and Griffin were hired to run a teaching booth at the National Real Estate Convention at the downtown Marriott. They had to video the golfers, show them their swing, and give them a short lesson. They had no idea how to work the video cameras, but knew I did from using them often as I worked toward a communications degree at UNO. I went with them for the easiest “on the clock” hours ever.

    We ran dozens of golfers through the booth in the morning, and when there was crowd, Henry or Larry would do a little small clinic. When they went to lunch with all the conventioneers, they had me stay behind to teach anyone who might happen by. Sure enough, a lady came by and had a horrible right leg move on the backswing. Fixed. Next guy, a super bent left wrist at the top—done. A bunch of folks gather, so I started a clinic on chipping with multiple clubs. When the pros came back, I was holding a few dozen full bellied folks spellbound. I started picking off a couple golfers to do some lessons and lots of folks stayed and watched. When I tried to defer back to my bosses, they waved me off and I did practically all the teaching the rest of the 2 days. I had found a profession I could start somewhere in the middle.

    A couple of months later, on the second Tuesday of June, Mr. Thomas called me in his office and handed me his staff bag. “You have a clinic to do on 10 minutes.” I asked him what clinic, and he told me the City Park junior clinic, “You’ll meet with whoever comes by every Tuesday until school starts.”

    So, on the clock for $3.25 an hour, I started my teaching career with a dozen or so snotty nosed, very young kids, who got free help from a 21 year old with one and half days of “teaching experience” under his belt going in, while their mommies watched leaning on strollers.

    I had a chance to work with a young kid named Chad Bruno after the summer every week for a one-on-one lesson. I told the parents I couldn’t accept any money and I didn’t, but I learned a lot about the pacing and the flow of an hour lesson working with Chad those next 9 months of my senior season at UNO. I played #1 man a few times early in the year until freshman sensation Brad Sissons from British Columbia started shooting 66’s once an event. As the captain of the team, I ran practice, making the pairings and collected the scorecards. I also started to help a few guys on the team with their swings and that was invaluable as well, as I learned a lot about teaching better players.

    The spring season was over in mid-May of 1984, and my 5-to-play-4 eligibility was up, so I turned pro and was ready to start teaching for living. Only one little problem.

    The City Park Driving range had 14 independent contractor instructors. They had added two of them in March, Buddy Reno who was only 19 or 20 years old, and Don Villavaso, a regular gambler in the games on the East Course at City Park. Don was a huge guy, 6’4” and maybe 275, and had a big booming voice. My Dad like him a lot. Don and I had many pleasant arguments about the golf swing in the pro shop, and he was doing quite well in his new profession that he had started at in his 50’s. The 12 teachers that were there before Don and Buddy were added were not too happy with the competition. One of them was a bookie that Mr. Thomas was in deep to. So, there was now a “limit” to 14 teachers and I was out before I was in.

    Undaunted, I kept teaching little Chad and taking my $15 in the parking lot, and I took all the new students I was meeting as I worked in the pro shop to the wide open, perfectly grassed fields of UNO’s east campus where all the good players practiced with their own balls. It was lucky break looking back. I got to teach with all the room in the world and nobody trying to run me down. I built up quite a business and by the end of the summer. I was rolling.

    That summer was very odd, as my teaching had helped the junior program really take off. I was averaging 50 or so juniors every week and the old guard guys at the range didn’t like it one bit. I would talk to Big Don nightly and he would enlighten me on how everything went down at the range and how I might be better off shagging my own balls at UNO. It was one seedy operation with kickbacks and backstabbing that would make today’s internet wars look like Captain Kangaroo. But I wanted in.

    That October, I left the pro shop at the park to go back to work for Stan Stopa at the fancy new ProTech and the park’s golf chairman Garic Shoen lifted the ban that never was. I officially “on the board” at the City Park range where I was instantly persona non grata. I refused to pay off the cashiers for lessons, so I set up shop in “stall #2” right in front the doors to the range and right next to Jimmy Self, the top teacher in the Gulf South. Jimmy could teach, but he was even better at selling his services and piecing off the guys behind the counter. He literally taught all day, every day, and even though I knew I taught better than him, I was light years behind his operation and so I had to learn some slick marketing in those first few months at the range.

    more to come.....

  2. #2
    Senior Member BrendanC's Avatar
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    Great read.
    mjh116 likes this.
    Wittgenstein: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

    Hemingway: "The first draft of anything is shit"

  3. #3
    ZAP
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    Good stuff. I think we could all benefit from sitting down once in a while and looking at where we came from. Great quote from an E:60 video titled No Excuses "sometimes I focus on how far I have to go instead of seeing how far I have come"
    faux_maestro likes this.
    The easiest way to slay a dragon is to run up to it and shove a spear in it's throat.

  4. #4

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    Started working on an expanded version for the new site.

    Pretty cool.
    "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.

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