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

Dewey and Patti
Erica Lansner / SI
Arnette and his wife, Patti, spend a few minutes together at the end of a crazy day.

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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