2004: Perspective - For club pros, it’s truly Valhalla

Louisville, Ky.

With a nonchalant wave of the metaphorical scepter, Jack Nicklaus utterly dismissed golf’s “Big Three” on the eve of the 65th Senior PGA Championship. “It’s a promotion,” the Golden One said. “We don’t add anything to the tournament. Arnold (Palmer), Gary (Player) and I going out and fighting for 50th place . . . that’s not any fun.”

The kings are dead. Long live the kings.

Pompano and snook, not pomp and ceremony, are what drive Nicklaus these days. A week fishing in the Florida Keys was, after all, how he prepared for the Senior PGA, his 209th major.

But if soggy Valhalla Golf Club was the beginning of the end for golf’s grand threesome, it seemed wonderfully appropriate that an eclectic trio of anti-heroes could be found quietly savoring the scraps of stardom. In an age filled with gilded golfers this group of low-profile pros showed how endearing it can be to punch a time clock and pursue a dream.

Leave the “Big Three” to the headline writers; this Senior PGA was about hoisting a mint julep to honor a trio of club pros. Let’s call them the “Blue-collar Three.”

John Brott, Bob Giusti and George Newbeck earned their way to Valhalla via top-35 finishes at the 2003 Callaway Golf PGA Senior Club Pro Championship, and all three represent a grass-roots goodness often lost in today’s player-eats-world game.

At 54, Giusti is the youngest of this trio of wide-eyed interlopers, a New Englander to his core who didn’t start playing the game seriously until 1989. For Giusti, the trip to Valhalla was the culmination of four years of dreaming.

“It’s unbelievable just being here,” Giusti said in between weather delays. “Getting a chance to play with David Graham, J.C. Snead – the guys you grew up following and wishing you could play with . . . This is like the Masters to me.”

Winner of the New England PGA Senior Championship three out of the last four years, Giusti missed the cut in his first Senior Club Pro (2000) and narrowly missed earning an invitation to the Senior PGA in 2001. “In 2001 I said, ‘I can do this. I can do this,’ ” Giusti said.

Committing to play the Senior PGA is one thing. Finding a spot in an already overcrowded appointment book to pencil in practice time is something else.

When he’s home, Giusti works seven days per week running The Country Club of Halifax (Mass.). His week includes about a half-dozen lessons along with seemingly endless hours in the pro shop. For good measure, he doubles as the club’s starter on the weekend.

“It’s a busy place. We’re always running something,” said Giusti in his thick New England accent. And if his schedule wasn’t busy enough, Giusti has been a volunteer firefighter for the last 32 years. So much for idle hands.

“Practice to me is when I’m teaching,” said Giusti, who herniated a disc in his neck in April and almost didn’t travel to Valhalla. “I’m there (his club) seven days a week because it’s not a job to me, it’s something I love to do. My day off is going to a golf tournament.”

Brott is not quite the workhorse Giusti is, but his schedule is no less congested. He can be found most days giving lessons on the range at the Ben Sutton Golf School in Sun City, Fla. When he’s not fixing someone else’s swing, he’s testing his against the area’s best. Brott is a tournament director for the Florida Senior Tour, a regional mini-tour, and when he’s not helping run the events, he’s playing in them.

“It’s great to come up and see how it would have been if I’d have been lucky enough to qualify (for the Champions Tour),” said Brott, who has attempted Champions Tour Q-School three times but never made it past first stage. “It would have been a really nice life.”

Valhalla was Brott’s fourth trip to the Senior PGA and Valhalla’s steep hills proved too much for his 57-year-old legs. An opening-round 87 left him near the bottom of the field, and back spasms forced him to withdraw.

“It’s not any fun at all playing like I played,” Brott said. “It’s got to be like child birth. (Women) go through the pain of it and swear they’ll never do it again, and then they forget how bad it was and there they go again.”

For Brott the Senior PGA is a classic love-hate relationship, a melancholy glimpse at what could have been. For Newbeck, his Kentucky odyssey was all love.

Newbeck’s is a story straight out of “South Pacific.” Raised by grandparents who taught him to work hard and treat others with respect, the big Hawaiian with the inviting smile relished every rain-filled moment at Valhalla.

In Round 1 when his opening drive sailed some 50 yards left of the fairway he beamed and joked with the gallery. When he advanced his ball a mere 10 yards from knee-high rough at No. 9 he wisecracked with the marshal.

His time in Louisville was limited. Rounds of 80-78 left the 59-year-old far outside the cut. No worries. Above all else, Newbeck is patient. He waited 35 years to pick up his first golf club (“That first hit . . . that first hit was it,” he said) and more than two decades to reunite with the love of his life.

He met Carol, his future wife, on the beach at Waikiki in 1971. The pair dated for two years before going their separate ways. About nine years ago, she took a second chance to find her first love.

“Found him in our frequent flyer program,” said Carol, who works for a prominent airline. “It was a name I never forgot.”

With Carol by his side, Newbeck traversed Valhalla’s 6,990 yards with a purpose, and didn’t appear in any hurry to return to life on the other side of pro golf’s grass ceiling.

Compared to playing partner Bobby Walzel, a Champions Tour member and a mere pup at 54, Newbeck’s gait was slow, almost leisurely. Maybe he was soaking up the atmosphere of his first Senior PGA. Or maybe he was just trying to conserve his energy. On Monday, like the other members of the “Blue-collar Three,” he was headed back to the office in Maryville, Tenn.

Back to his day job and all those daydreams.

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