PALM DESERT, Calif. – “All these practice strokes with a putter,” says a stern Dave Stockton, referring to most golfers, pro and amateur. “You’ve got to be kidding me. No golfer needs a practice stroke.”
To say Stockton is opinionated is to say political muckraker Rush Limbaugh talks loudly. From the beginning, it is an obvious understatement.
Here at Stone Eagle Golf Club, the Coachella Valley stretches out in front of us. The Santa Rosa mountain range is magnificent in its autumn earth tones.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Stone Eagle, designed by Tom Doak, is one of the four or five most beautiful golf courses in the world. The panoramas are stunning.
Stockton is here not because he is a two-time PGA champion or because he won 10 times on the PGA Tour and 14 times on the Champions Tour. He is here because of these mountains and the animals that live on them.
Now 68, Stockton has emerged as a major benefactor for the endangered Peninsular bighorn sheep. He has helped raise millions of dollars for protection of the sheep. He is executive vice president of the Bighorn Institute, which has successfully introduced captive-reared yearling rams back into the mountainous sheep habitat around Palm Springs, Calif.
On this day, at an outing to benefit the Bighorn Institute, Stockton conducts an extensive putting clinic and then stands behind the 12th green for more than five hours while golfers come through. He putts for each group in the scramble format, and he gives personal putting tips to many of the players.
As if that weren’t enough, he stays for food and conversation. It is almost a 12-hour day devoted to the preservation of bighorn sheep. Pretty good for a guy coming off rotator cuff shoulder surgery in September.
“I was introduced to helping the sheep by President (Gerald) Ford,” Stockton relates. “Ever since, I’ve been doing whatever I can. It’s been about 20 years. If you get a chance to do something important, my belief is that you should do it.”
There is more than a little irony here, because Stockton is a hunting and fishing fanatic. This time of year, he religiously hunts ducks and geese two days a week in an area south of Palm Springs called the Salton Sea.
“I’ve hunted all my life,” Stockton said. “My dad took me duck hunting when I was 10. I follow the rules. If something is endangered or in trouble, I try to help.”
And help he has, whether it is bighorn sheep or Phil Mickelson or Michelle Wie. Stockton’s profile has been raised significantly because of short-game advice he has given recently to Mickelson and Wie.
A man walks up and raises his voice in praise: “Dave, this is a great thing you are doing.”
Stockton is grateful, but is not comfortable with such public recognition. He wants the spotlight to shine on the sheep and the Bighorn Institute, so he deflects the tribute by telling a story.
“I kept Al Geiberger’s scorecard when he shot 59,” Stockton says of the record-breaking round in the 1977 Danny Thomas Memphis Classic. “I shot 77.
“Afterwards, a woman came up to me and said, ‘This must be one of the greatest days of your life.’ I wanted to kill her. I’m a two-time major champion, and I just played with a guy who beat me by 18 shots. Try that sometime.”