Amateur / Senior

Tumlin, 66, named Yancey Ford Award winner

What’s a golfer without a nickname?

Ronnie Tumlin will answer to almost any name. Poking fun at Tumlin, you might call him Short Knocker or Hands of Stone. Or, in a complimentary mood, you could call him Birdie Boy or the Palatka Pirate.

But please don’t call him Ron. His is a good old boy named Ronnie, reflecting the homespun attributes that Florida golf often has to offer — small town roots, hospitality, generosity, friendship, sportsmanship, intense competition and a palette of remarkable courses.

As of Monday, January 18, you can also call Tumlin the recipient of the Yancey Ford Award for contributions to senior amateur golf in the United States. The ceremony took place at Adena Golf & Country Club in Ocala, Fla., at the conclusion of the Golfweek Senior National Championship.

The 66-year-old Tumlin grew up in Palatka, a hardscrabble North Florida community of about 10,000 residents. The key for Tumlin and other junior golfers was Palatka Golf Club, one of many classic Donald Ross courses scattered throughout the Sunshine State. Over his 50-year Ross-inspired golf career, Tumlin became something of a legend by winning more than 150 tournaments in seven states, by his count. Included in that victory total was the 1985 Florida State Mid-Amateur Championship.

What Tumlin does best, though, is spread the golf gospel wherever he goes.

“Ronnie’s a personality,” said his friend John Benson of Punxsutawney, Pa. “Love him or hate him, the world would never be the same without him.

“I met Ronnie 25 years ago at Oak Hill (Country Club) in Rochester (N.Y.). He told me, ‘You’re gonna come to Palatka, Florida, and play in a tournament called the Azalea. You’re gonna buy a house in St. Augustine at Marsh Creek (Country Club).’

“I didn’t know where Palatka was. I had never heard of the Azalea tournament. Looking back, there’s nobody else in the world besides Ronnie who could have made me do any of those things. I even bought a house.”

Despite his role as Florida’s unofficial ambassador of golf goodwill, Tumlin probably is best-known for organizing and running the Florida Senior Azalea Amateur. The field for the 2006 event, to be played in March at Palatka Golf Club, filled up in November 2005. Players come from across the country to compete on a city-owned municipal course that is barely 6,000 yards in length.

Tumlin was something of a savior for the layout he had played since he was a boy. “I got angry at how the City of Palatka was bleeding the golf course to death back when it was profitable, so I decided to do something about it,” Tumlin said.

What he did was encourage two of his friends — Benson along with golf course architect Bobby Weed — to get involved. Benson recalled a meeting with the city: “I was ready to buy the course, but I said to them, ‘You people are crazy if you don’t keep it and have Bobby Weed refurbish it and run it.’ That sealed the deal. They turned it over to Bobby.”

Today, thanks to Weed, the course is in magnificent condition. Furthermore, the highest rate all year is $31, which includes greens fee and cart.

Weed was motivated by the demise of another Ross design, Ponce de Leon Golf Course in St. Augustine. Opened in 1916, it closed in 2003.

“I have deep regrets about Ponce de Leon Golf Course,” Weed said. “I watched it shut down, and I didn’t do anything. When I heard Palatka was in trouble and might shut down, I knew I had to do something. These old classic golf courses need to be saved.”

Behind the scenes, Tumlin was smiling. Observed longtime member Douglas Miller, “No question about it. They saved the course, and Ronnie was right in the middle of it. How many of us can say we prevented a golf course from closing?”

Although Tumlin likes to joke about his A average from the School of Hard Knocks, he earned a degree from the University of South Florida in 1971. The same year he married his high school sweetheart, Suzanne Mangum. Today they own and operate Crescent Beach Realty.

Medical issues aside, Tumlin remains a ferocious competitor. A short time before his 65th birthday in 2014, he won the Florida Senior Azalea. Keep in mind that his primary rivals were closer to 55 (the minimum age for senior eligibility) than 65.

Do not underestimate a guy named Ronnie.

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