Remembering my teacher

The man who gave me the gift of golf is gone.

Gene Borek, master professional at Metropolis Country Club in White Plains, N.Y., for 25 years and teacher for more than 50, died on April 14 after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 72. He was laid to rest Friday.

Golf was a gift he learned in the caddie yards. A talented player, Borek shot a then-course-record 65 in the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont. Borek harkens back to the days of Jack Burke Jr., Harry Cooper, and Claude Harmon, when club pros jumped from the lesson tee to the top of a leaderboard with regularity.

Every one of Borek’s lesson books would show he gave a full slate of lessons leading up to a tournament, yet he still played in 10 U.S. Opens and 11 PGA Championships and more often than not made the cut. At the 1971 PGA Championship, he was in fourth place heading into the final round until his putter let him down.

“There’s no mystery about the majors,” Borek told me. “If you don’t hit the first shot in the fairway you don’t need to know anything else.”

With a steady fairways-and-greens game, Borek won the Met PGA three times and was Met PGA Player of the Year twice. On the national level, he won both the PGA Stroke Play and Match Play Championships. For all his success playing at the club pro level, Borek’s greatest satisfaction was teaching. He gave an estimated 40,000 lessons and was regarded as one of the New York Metropolitan area’s most able instructors. When asked why he never played the tour fulltime Borek answered, “Why? I’m already happy.”

So many of us owe thanks to golf pros for imparting their wit and wisdom on the game. Mine happened to be the consummate pro. He gave me my first lesson when I was eight. The first mat at the range was reserved for Borek’s lessons. I always practiced in sight of his steady gaze so he could steal a furtive glance my way. After a lesson, Borek would wander over and whisper in my ear that I was dropping my left shoulder or that he liked my turn. During a bad spell in college or after I moved away, he did phone consultations. From a brief description of my ball flight he offered an easily understandable diagnosis. Problem (usually) solved.

Borek got me my first job at a golf shop. When I broke my trusty driver, he slipped a new grip on his own and presented me with the Great Big Bertha I used for a decade. He never sent a bill. The week I tried out for my college golf team he surprised me with a care package: 96 brand new Titleist Professional golf balls side-stamped with his name. The enclosed handwritten note said I had enough game to make the team. “You’re going to need the artillery,” he wrote. This was the way he treated his students.

Borek was the club pro who held court everyday during noon lunch and in the men’s locker room while watching the final round golf broadcast. He was a master storyteller. I always angled for a seat close to him, especially during a major.

Every year he gathered with his brethren for a reunion at the PGA Merchandise Show. He let me tag along and I’d drink in every word. On the eve of this year’s show in late January, I called him to see when we could get together. Borek had just checked out of the hospital. The cancer was back though the fight in his voice hadn’t changed.

Instead, it was my voice that broke as I said goodbye at the end of our conversation, my eyes that filled with tears and my mind that replayed the last shot I saw him hit wondering if it might be his last I’d see.

Last summer, I visited Metropolis during the British Open. We planned to watch the final round together there. When I met him in the dining room wet with perspiration after hitting balls, he shot me a look of disappointment and said, “Why didn’t you tell me you were going to practice? I would’ve watched you.”

As soon as Padraig Harrington was crowned champion, he turned to me, a smile rousing creases in his sun-weathered face, and said, “Let’s take a look at your bunker game. Sounds like you’re having trouble.”

Was I ever. I bladed a few shots and slumped my shoulders in resignation. He gestured for my wedge and hopped in the bunker despite the pain he suffered. First swing, his ball bounced once and checked inches from the cup. Borek handed me the club and said, “Let’s see you get inside (that).” Then he winked.

That’s how I will remember my pro.

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