2006: Nieporte, a Winged Foot legend, winds down career
As the best golf professionals in the world gather at Winged Foot Golf Club for the 2006 U.S. Open, one stands out for all he has accomplished.
Not Tiger Woods. Not Phil Mickelson and his ever-growing closet of major championship trophies. Rather, this notable is a tall, white-haired 77-year-old with a smooth swing and ready smile. He is Tom Nieporte, the head professional at Winged Foot since 1978.
Nieporte began his 29th season at Winged Foot this spring, and it likely will be his last as head pro. Nothing official has been announced, but he likely will take on a more symbolic role at the club by next year.
Holding the top job at one of the most prestigious clubs in America automatically puts Nieporte in rarified air. But it is only one of the many things that sets him apart. For one thing, he is an accomplished player, never Tiger-great but nonetheless strong enough to have secured three victories and an equal number of runner-up finishes on the PGA Tour in the 1950s and ’60s. He competed in 13 U.S. Opens, 13 PGA Championships and one Masters.
Perhaps Nieporte’s greatest feat is being the last working club professional to win a Tour event, which he did at the 1967 Bob Hope Desert Classic. He also finished fifth at the 1964 PGA, where he played in the final group with Ben Hogan and Bobby Nichols. His amateur titles include the 1951 NCAA Division I Men’s Championship individual crown and the 1953 All-Army Championship at Pebble Beach.
Then there are his skills as an instructor, including a reputation for being one of the best at teaching bunker play. He also is a warm and gracious soul who always has time for his members and club guests, no matter their ages or abilities, as well as those who work for and around him.
Nieporte often is lauded for the way he has nurtured assistant pros over the years, and many of his protégés have prospered, among them Darrell Kestner, the 2004 PGA Senior Club Professional Player of the Year; 1997 PGA Club Professional Champion Bruce Zabriski; and 1998 PGA Teacher of the Year David Glenz. Last year, the PGA presented Nieporte with the Bill Strausbaugh Award for the way he has mentored his fellow PGA pros.
Nieporte and his wife, Joan, also did plenty of mentoring as they raised nine children – and then helped raise 27 grandchildren. The Winged Foot pro is so admired for his dedication as a parent that the Metropolitan Golf Writers Association honored the Neiportes with its Family of the Year Award in 1997.
“That is his essence,” says Gene Westmoreland, tournament director for the Metropolitan Golf Association and a Winged Foot member since 1983. “Tom is the ultimate gentleman, kind to people and always generous.”
Says Charlie Robson, the executive director of the Met PGA: “There is not a nicer person around than Tom Nieporte, nor anyone more respected and revered by his peers and by the club members he has so faithfully served.”
Nieporte has often been called the most celebrated club pro to come out of the New York area, and only geography casts any doubt on that statement. Though he has lived in the metropolitan area for more than 40 years, he actually is a native of Cincinnati.
One of five children, Nieporte learned the game serving as a caddie for his father, a commercial artist. The son picked up enough to win the Cincinnati Men’s Amateur when he was 17. As a teenager, Nieporte further stoked his growing interest in golf by taking a part-time job at the MacGregor equipment factory, where he relished the chance run-ins with top pros such as Byron Nelson, as well as the opportunity to work with noted player and club designer Toney Penna.
Nieporte attended Ohio State on a golf scholarship, and after graduating served two years in the U.S. Army. Shortly after completing his military service, he turned pro and came to the Met Section to work as an assistant pro at Siwanoy Country Club in Bronxville, N.Y., then at Glen Oaks on Long Island. He began competing on the PGA Tour full time in 1956 and remembers playing the last 36 holes of the ’58 Open at Southern Hills with Hogan (Nieporte finished 16th) and barely missing the cut at the 1959 Open at Winged Foot. Nieporte also recalls winning his first two Tour events in ’59, the Rubber City Open in Akron, Ohio, and the Azalea Open in Wilmington, N.C., and feeling very much like he was on his way.
“But it got to the point that I had to leave the Tour,” Nieporte says. “My wife was pregnant with our fourth child, and we were traveling around the country in a station wagon. That was no way to raise a family.”
So Nieporte gave it up after the 1961 season, taking a job as head professional at Piping Rock Club in Locust Valley, N.Y. But that didn’t mean Nieporte quit playing entirely, and he competed in winter Tour events for several years after that, which is how he came to win the Hope.
Nieporte stayed at Piping Rock until Winged Foot hired him in 1978 to replace the legendary Claude Harmon, who had been head pro at the Mamaroneck, N.Y., club since 1945. Nieporte has been there since.
“It’s been wonderful fun,” Nieporte says. “Everybody knows that Winged Foot is a wonderful job and a great place to work. And that feeling has never changed in all these years.”
Regardless of what title he holds in the future, it is safe to assume Nieporte will continue to be a fixture at the grand old club. And he will continue to stand out, no matter who is in the crowd around him.