In the author’s quest to play better golf, a swing whisperer emerges from an unlikely place

May 5, 2017

This is a follow-up report on the one-week anniversary of my first TrackMan lesson, given to me by Mark Anderson of the Philadelphia Cricket Club. Mark is a Renaissance man, or he is a PGA pro who knows some pop music, anyhow. While reconfiguring my swing from crazy-flat to appropriately upright, we discussed, as a visual, DL3 in the late 1980s. Writing about the lesson, I borrowed this lyric from yesteryear: Dig if you will the picture: Davis Love III, circa 1988. RIP, AFKAP. Those five letters flummoxed some but not Mark. (Artist Formerly Known as Prince.) Prince and Hogan both put dig to good use. Two little men loaded with game.

Life, I find, is one big diversion, or my life is, and this report must begin with two diversions, a literal one leading to a figurative one. Because of the NFL draft, my wife and I, recently driving home from downtown, were diverted away from the Philadelphia Museum of Art through the city’s Strawberry Mansion section on the north side of town. There we came upon a driving range called Long Knockers, which I last visited in the late 1980s. I stopped to hit a small bucket. Crab grass, weeds, some patches of rye, balls in all the popular colors, plastic mats, people from all walks of life, batting cages—my kind of place and just about as I had remembered it.

There was a man on the range chatting up the patrons and giving lessons named Pancho, a Merion caddie in his early 60s, clearly steeped in the game and charging an unconscionably reasonable hourly rate, ranging from free to $20. It was his way, he said, of giving something back to the game and getting him out of the house. (Talk about your win-wins.) Pancho wore gold sunglasses and a gold necklace with a gold pendant that depicted Hogan in action. Sharp!

Merion is dark on Mondays. In the warm wind of Monday afternoon (May Day), Pancho and I reconvened at Long Knockers. I bought a Double Bubble, $15 for a bright-blue five-gallon bucket with about 180 balls in it.

I asked Pancho (Haston Thornton on his driver’s license) if he could be my eyes and tell me if I was doing what I (per Mark Anderson at the Cricket Club) wanted me to be doing. Pancho was happy to oblige, but he didn’t just use his eyes. He used his ears. “Man, that one there was solid,” Pancho said. “I heard pure.” I’m not going to be falsely modest here, and pardon the grammar: I was hitting it good.

Here’s how it went. I told him about my circa 1988 Davis Love visual. He told me about caddying for Davis at Merion on June 26, 1985, when Love was still an amateur, and how he shot 64 playing from the back of every tee. His partner, Pancho said, was Davis’s friend Peter Persons, who shot the easiest 69 he had ever seen. I told Pancho that Davis used to tell me about how good Peter was when they were playing junior golf in Georgia and that Peter’s father was nicknamed Pink and that he drove (I think I remember Davis telling me long ago) a pink Cadillac. Multiply that for the hundred or so people we knew in common and you have a long visit.

Pancho hit some beauties, employing a seemingly effortless swing that produced long straight shots from all sorts of lies. He didn’t overdo his instruction. When I hit a bad one, he’d barely say a thing. He encouraged me, on my path to uprightness, to get my left shoulder under my chin in the backswing. After many shots he’d say, “Can’t hit it better than that.”

He told me how he learned golf from his father, a bartender, and the club his father was a member of called Fairview Golf Club. In that era, in the 1950s and ’60s and ’70s, Fairview was an association of black golf-loving men who played all around the city at public courses, most especially Cobbs Creek, designed by Hugh Wilson, who also designed Merion. “They had a clubhouse,” Pancho told me. “Three stories. The first story was for drinking. The second floor was for gambling. The third floor was an indoor range.” But you had better be clean and straight by tee time. Manners counted for everything with the Fairview members, Pancho told me. Big bags, shiny clubs, pressed slacks.

“I like golf,” Pancho said. “I loved basketball.”

I was surprised. He was so dedicated to the game. He won a city junior title and played two years at Ohio University in Athens.

“Golf for me was a way to be with my father and beat him at something,” he said. I had the feeling golf kept his father, long passed, alive.

Somewhere along the line, maybe from his dad, Pancho picked up this gem: “If golf had emotions, it wouldn’t like anybody.”

He was precise in all things. He told me about his side business, selling things on eBay, often for Merion members. (They get 75% of the sale; he keeps the rest.) One member had him pick up 166 retired clubs with the instruction, “Keep what you want, sell the rest.” He set three aside, sold 163. There’s a market for most everything.

Another thing from him: “You have to have an honest-to-God target.” He hit a shot not at the 100-yard marker but at the second zero of the 100-yard marker.

He told me about caddying for Matt Every in the 2005 U.S. Amateur at Merion and losing in 19 holes to the eventual winner, Edoardo Molinari. About working as a photographer’s assistant at the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion. He’s known every head pro Merion has had. I kept hitting good shots. It took us three hours to get through the bucket.

Two days later, I was playing a very difficult course in New Jersey. (Like, very difficult.) I drove it in play 12 times, got a greenie at the long par-3 5th. O.K., it was Pine Valley. (My definition of “in play” is having the opportunity to advance my ball to the green or somewhere near it.) A vast improvement.

I did not make a par. Conditions were trying. Still.

Improvement with one club. Thirteen remain. The season is young, and I have two new phone numbers in my contacts: one belonging to Mark Anderson, the other to Pancho Thornton. I hope they will take my calls.

Michael Bamberger may be reached at [email protected]