Every year a Christmas card from Fred Couples arrives at the Nieporte home in Boca Raton, Fla., and therein lies a story about the last club pro to win a PGA Tour event 50 years ago at the 1967 Bob Hope Desert Classic (now this week's CareerBuilder Challenge).
Couples was a hotshot Tour rookie when he arrived at the 1982 Hope where a big rope separated the pro section of the range from the amateurs. When he couldn't find an open spot, Couples noticed an older guy hitting striped range balls on the pro side — not the balatas the pros used — and he cockily sauntered over to him. "Excuse me, sir," Couples said. "This is where the pros hit balls. The amateur side is over there."
Tom Nieporte looked up from his bucket with his steely blue eyes and said, "Sonny, I am a pro. I won this tournament in 1967."
Nieporte's son John lets out a good laugh as he tells this story, which Couples relayed to him when they played together in the 2008 ADT Skills Challenge pro-am. "Freddie said he couldn't believe how small he felt," says John, the director of golf at Trump International in West Palm Beach, Fla. "From that day on, he would send my dad a Christmas card every year and they became good friends."
Couples could be forgiven for not knowing who Tom Nieporte was. After all, Nieporte wasn’t even a tour pro when he won the Hope at age 37. He was the head pro at Piping Rock Golf Club on Long Island when he outplayed the likes of Palmer, Nicklaus, and Floyd at La Quinta Country Club. After opening with a 76 that left him 10 shots off the lead, Nieporte carded three 68s to trail defending champ Doug Sanders by one shot heading into the fifth and final round. With an estimated 30,000 spectators on hand enjoying a perfect day in the desert, Sanders was still a stroke ahead after nine, but Nieporte’s 25-foot birdie putt on 11 pulled him even. Another birdie on 18 from 12 feet gave him a one-shot lead at 11 under par. Playing a hole behind Nieporte, Sanders had a chance to tie him on 18 and force a playoff, but his long birdie attempt just missed.
By all accounts, Nieporte is the last club pro to win a PGA Tour event. “To win on the PGA Tour while he was a club professional is just staggering, way beyond any of our imaginations today,” says Bob Ford, the head pro at Seminole who retired from Oakmont in 2016 after 37 years. “To compete against guys who are playing tournaments day-in and day-out while he’s teaching and running a shop and club events, it’s not a fair fight.”
It just goes to show you how good a player Nieporte was. Tall and slim, the Cincinnati native, who in his youth worked at the MacGregor factory in his hometown, was a terrific ball-striker with a swing ahead of its time, much more modern with a strong post-up on his left side, not the reverse C that many players had back then. He also possessed an imaginative short game and was a whiz out of the bunkers, which helped him win the 1951 NCAA individual championship while at Ohio State, as well as twice on Tour when he played it in the late '50s and early '60s.
But Nieporte, who passed away at 86 in December 2014 after battling Parkinson's, was also a dedicated family man. He told his wife, Joan, that he would give the Tour five years and if he wasn't in the top five on the money list by then, he'd get a club job. "They traveled around the country with the Boroses and the Caspers, all of them in their station wagons with their kids," John recalls. "Jack Nicklaus said my father would have been a household name if he was selfish and wasn't a family man and continued to play on the Tour. After the fifth year, I think he was 17th on the money list, he stuck to his word, got a club pro job, and just played in some winter tournaments."
When he arrived at the Hope with a mismatched pair of white golf shoes from packing in a hurry (one was a wingtip and the other was a flat tip), he was just hoping to make enough money to paint the winter home back in Boca Raton. But after winning the $17,600 first prize, he had enough money to add a second story onto the home for their growing brood (wife Joan was eight-months pregnant at the time with John, the eighth of their nine children), while tournament sponsor Chrysler, at Hope's suggestion, agreed to give him a station wagon in place of the sedan he also won.
President Eisenhower was on hand with his wife, Maime, to present the trophy and when Mrs. Eisenhower commented on Nieporte's odd choice in footwear, Nieporte quipped, "I have another pair just like them at home."
That was Nieporte.
"We all looked up to Tom, not only as a player but as a person," Ford says. "He was beloved by his members at Piping Rock and Winged Foot. He just had an endearing personality. He had no ego."
In 1978, Nieporte left Piping Rock for Winged Foot, where he succeeded Claude Harmon and worked until his retirement in 2006, with the family summering at their Long Island home. "I just remember him leaving early and coming home late, but when he had time to be with his family, he was with us 100 percent," recalls John, who has two siblings who are also teaching pros. "But in the wintertime, he was with us every single day and just worked around the house. We called him Mr. Green Jeans. He just loved being around the house because in the summer time he was never there."
Nieporte would arrive home in Boca on the first of every November with furniture strapped to the car after antiquing his way down the East Coast. "It looked like the Clampetts coming down the driveway," says John with a laugh. "He loved woodwork. One time, a piano fell off the back of his car and shattered into a thousand pieces. He picked it all up, brought it into our basement in New York, and glued it all back together again."
One of John's fondest family memories is a cross-country Christmas trip the clan took to California in 1986 in two rented Winnebagos—the boys in one and the girls in another. The stop in Palm Springs included a visit to La Quinta Country Club to show the family where he made his winning putt on the 18th green, as well as a visit to Hope's mountaintop estate for a day-long tour. They had to go through five gates just to reach the futuristic, mushroom-like mansion.
"I was just in awe sitting at the top of this mountain looking down on Palm Springs at Bob Hope's house," recalls John, 16 at the time. "He took us through the entire home. His closet was bigger than our house. He was just like you'd imagine—one liner after one liner. I remember a Nativity scene made of gold that some king had given them.
"He loved my father," John adds. "He kept telling us what a remarkable man he was for raising nine kids and competing at the level he competed at. He said he was a gentleman's professional and a quiet champion."
Indeed, while Nieporte's mark may never be matched, his family, which includes 28 grandchildren, is his greatest legacy.