Tour and News

Dewey Arnette, a Tour pro turned golf whisperer, commutes seven hours a day to his teaching job in Florida

Photo: Erica Lansner / SI

Arnette drives 208 miles (one way) to his job at Vero Beach.

His voice, friendly and young, floated over his quiet, dark Jacksonville street. Hi, I’m Dewey. His hand was like a baseball glove. At the PGA Tour stop in Flint, Mich., 25 years ago, Dewey Arnette made eight straight birdies. More recently he has helped Darren Clarke with his chipping and Padraig Harrington with his bunker play. He teaches golf and, along the way, some other things. He’s a legend, at least on certain practice tees. His rate starts at $300 an hour, and his dance card is full. There are people who talk about him every day who have never laid eyes on him. As it was 4:10 in the morning, I couldn’t exactly see him either. Dewey was about to start his 208-mile drive to work. I was along for the ride.

We were in front of his beautiful brick home, dating to 1932, in the San Marco section of Jacksonville. He works at a place called the Windsor Club in Vero Beach. He was wearing Chuck Taylors, flannel pants held up by a drawstring and a long-sleeved cotton T-shirt. O.K., yes: his pajamas.

We stopped at a Dunkin’ Donuts drive‑through near his house, and Dewey ordered a medium coffee in a large cup with four creams and seven Splendas. He stops there every morning, six days a week, seven months a year, always between 4:15 and 4:20 in the morning. It’s been part of his routine, and part of his 416-mile daily commute, for 12 years now. The short version is that he and his wife, Patti, like their lives in Jacksonville. That is, the schools their three children (now all twenty­somethings) attended, their church, their house, their friends, the proximity of their families. On the other side of the ledger, and more than halfway to Miami, is Dewey’s gig at Windsor, a job he could not possibly duplicate. Hence, the insanely long commute. He has clocked a million I-95 miles. Literally. He steers with his left knee.

He doesn’t seem to mind the drive, the sound track for which is the folkie Christian singer Keith Green, the same nine CDs, day after day. But he did tell me early on the drive south that if he won Lotto he’d quit his job, teach only his friends and play even more Ping-Pong. (He plays an hour a day as it is.) At Easter, when they are freshly hatched, he buys Brach’s Original Jelly Bird Eggs by the barrel but eats only the black, green and yellow ones. He’s the most childlike 53-year-old grandfather you’ll ever meet. I mean that as high praise.

The first hint of light came south of Daytona Beach, and we arrived at “the cave,” his name for the one-bedroom first-floor condo he keeps in Vero Beach, at 7:35 a.m. It looked as if the brothers from Animal Househad been camping in it since 1978. He took a quick bath and put on his golf duds. In the refrigerator were jars of Kraft mayonnaise and Jiffy peanut butter, Oscar Meyer bologna, various drinks. Dewey asked, “Have you had Tahitian Treat?” It’s a carbonated fruit-punch soda, heinously unnatural. “It’s very good.” There was only one emblem of golf in the cave, an old Bulls Eye putter.

The teaching pro, all cleaned up, put on his golf shoes—he had cut off the annoying top third of the tongues—and auto­piloted his way to Windsor, where he had various students on his docket, me among them.

The polo field at Windsor doubles as the driving range and is spectacular in its simplicity. The whole development is, really. I usually find these gated real estate communities, ghettos for the rich, appallingly sterile, but Windsor somehow is not. It’s charming. I was surprised to learn that Dewey is Windsor’s director of golf. Forty people report to him.

 

The first thing he did was go through my golf bag, inspecting all 14 clubs. He asked why I didn’t have a headcover on my driver and why I was wearing running shoes and not wearing a golf glove. As he talked and taught, he paced all around, backing far away from me at times and practically yelling. Ten minutes into our session, he drew an outline of a book in the perfect Dodger Blue sky and said, “In the book of Michael’s golf, I see a golfer who doesn’t use a headcover or wear golf shoes because he knows they don’t do anything, which I happen to agree with, and I see somebody who has a need to do things in a way that does not conform to convention.” I felt exposed.

He had me hit some nine-irons­ and six-irons­ and drives. He asked me to comment on the quality of my strikes. On some of them I said, “Pretty solid but pull-hooky­.”

My teacher said, “What you think is pretty solid, I think is thin.” I was floored. To me, the thin shot screams its arrival right up your arms, but Dewey saw something else. Robbie Burns, coming at ya: O would some Power the small gift give us/To see ourselves as others see us!

He liked my waggle. He said, “Only eight percent of all golfers have a good waggle.” If he liked anything else, he did not say. He had no use for my takeaway. I said, “I feel as if I’m trying to imitate Davis Love in the takeaway, low and long, no wrist break.” Dewey said, “You’re not.”

 

Marc Dewey Arnette is the son of an air-traffic­ controller (his father) and a devoted churchgoer­ and ­pumpkin-bread baker (his mother), who fixes stickers with Biblical passages on her loaves. Dewey’s first sport was baseball, and he learned golf for real in his 20s from three icons of the game, all now dead: Bert Yancey, Gardner Dickinson and Davis Love Jr. Davis III told me that his father regarded Dewey as one of the most inquisitive and passionate students he ever had. Mike Donald, who played the Tour in the 1980s and ’90s, views Dewey as a fundamentally strong, perceptive and exceedingly truthful teacher. Dermot Desmond, the Irish businessman who pointed Clarke and Harrington to Dewey, said the same thing in a different way. Both British Open winners, Desmond said, “got a great deal from Dewey, but the fact is professional golfers don’t want to hear hard truths. Dewey cannot tell a lie.” Desmond, who can shoot 73 on a difficult course, said that Dewey got him through the “psychological roadblocks” that were inhibiting his short game. I asked him how. “He taught me that the leading edge of the sand wedge is hell and its bounce is heaven.”

Desmond has challenged Phil Mickelson to take on Dewey in a short-game contest and Ping‑Pong match. Desmond, with all due respect to the soon‑to‑be Hall of Famer, thinks Dewey can sweep the doubleheader, which might be held next week at the Players Championship. Last week Dewey was on Canouan Island, near Barbados, advising Desmond on how to improve a course he has bought there.

The starting point of Dewey’s advice for me was to begin the backswing more inside, with the toe fanning opening right from the start. He demonstrated by hitting some beautiful six-irons­. He made 64 Tour starts and can still play. When it was my turn to hit shots, Dewey was on his knees in the damp grass, rubbing his hands through the turf to remove spent grass. The tops of his hands are burned red from the sun. The bottoms are bleached white, I imagine, from years of running them over Windsor’s fertilized bermuda grass driving range. Before our session was over, he looked at my chipping, my bunker play and my putting. He liked my new-to-me lefty stroke and my Bulls Eye putter but not the fat K.J. Choi grip on it, a “trophy,” he said later, from my days as a righty yipper. He saw that my alignment was lousy and told me to square my head to my shoulders at address, as Tiger Woods does so well.

Before we left we played Ping-Pong on a clubhouse table. My father and I have played a fair amount of basement Ping-Pong, most of it in the 1970s, standing right at the edge of the table with hard cheapo paddles, winning points only when the other player made a mistake. Dewey’s game is nothing like that. He has one serve—the ­Tomahawk!—in which, at its start, the only part of his body you can see is his head. He got me to where I could actually get my borrowed, richly padded, ­leather-gripped paddle on the ball. He’s a good teacher.

On the long drive back to his house we never lacked for conversation. He’s intensely verbal. A couple of hours into the trip, we were talking about Hank Haney’s book on Tiger and whether it violated some unwritten ­teacher-student­ code. Dewey said, “You know how you told me how you and your father used the same three-star Halex Ping-Pong balls in your parents’ basement for 40 years? I consider that so personal that, if I was writing about you as my student, I wouldn’t even use that.” I was awed that he even remembered my telling him that.

Early in the drive he told Patti that he’d be home at 8:04 p.m. He stopped at a Dairy Queen for a predinner Oreo Blizzard, part of his daily routine. “Have you ever had a Blizzard?” he asked. “They’re excellent.” We arrived at his home at 8:06.

Patti, a former ballet dancer, came to the driveway. They met as seniors at Bishop Kenny High in Jacksonville in 1975. Dewey was in a basic English class, tailor-made to keep him eligible for baseball. Patti, having run through the entire English curriculum and looking for more, was in there too.

Our plan was to go out for dinner, but I could not find my car key. It was a single loose key, and Dewey and I turned his car inside out looking for it. My guess was that key was on the Windsor polo field or in the Dairy Queen parking lot. The Arnettes invited me to spend the night.

We went for dinner at The Loop in San Marco. As we left, I said, “Do you think we should try praying to St. Anthony?” What possessed me to say that I cannot imagine. St. Anthony, patron saint of lost items, is not part of my canon. I had only one experience with him, circa 1975, at my friend Paul Underwood’s house. I had lost something important, likely a key but maybe a mimeographed homework sheet or my ­MacGregor glove. Mrs. Underwood prayed to St. Anthony. Voilà.

 

On our way out Dewey and Patti said something. A minute later we were in Dewey’s Nissan. Dewey was behind the wheel, I was in the passenger seat, and Patti was behind me. Within seconds of sitting down Patti said, “What does it look like?” She had found my single silver Subaru key, stuck in an open seam of the passenger seat. Call it the power of prayer, the power of communal effort, whatever. She found it. One of the best birthday presents I had ever received. We returned to their home and had cake. By the end of this 18-hour day, I felt a closeness to Dewey I can hardly explain.

The next morning I paid my taxes, went to the range at TPC Sawgrass, and began my drive home, to Philadelphia. The following morning I stopped to hit balls at an old Donald Ross course that is trying to hang on, off I-95 in rural North Carolina. I tried to follow Dewey’s instruction, inside and open. I hit some beauties and some duffs. But almost nothing pull-hooky­. It was a different kind of swing. I called Dewey to tell him about my progress. I asked him what I could do to get the swing to repeat. I have never been able to make any swing I have tried repeat consistently.

Repeat is a word that shows up regularly in your speech,” Dewey said. “There’s a certain arrogance in the suggestion that your swing should repeat at this point. Hogan was the ultimate ­warrior-worker­. He spent hours on the range. Years. And he said, ‘I have a chance of hitting a reasonably reliable shot.’ ” I hadn’t put in the time, not even close. The next day I got a text from Dewey: Your waggle repeats.

A day after that I received a gift from Dewey, two of his old Ping-Pong paddles, with the rich padding and the leather grips, one for me, the other for my father. My wife saw the box, and I told her all about my day with Dewey. If I had to boil it down to a single thing, I’d say there’s something noble about trying to get better. Trying, truly trying? There’s a whole world in that.

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