Uncle Tony

Our Golf Heroes

From relatives to club pros to local legends, FPC staffers salute those who have made an impact on our lives

Inspired by Michael Bamberger’s ode to his golf hero Michael Murphy, we asked Fire Pit Collective staffers to write about their own idols. The sentimental responses were proof of the many ways the game touches us.

Matt Ginella: The lovable Uncle Tony 

My golf hero? It was and still is my Uncle Tony (above).

Not only did he teach me the grip and the swing, but he also taught me about the hang. And let’s be honest, that’s the best part of a game that has taken me all over the world, from fairways that are out of my league to tables at which I don’t belong featuring wine I could never afford. It is golf, and the hang, that has given me memories more valuable than any dollar figure. 

Sure, Uncle Tony wanted to win. And hated to lose. A scratch golfer in his teens, he chose a better-paying profession and Aunt Joan, not necessarily in that order, but he was damn good at golf well into his 70s. In spite of his physique—he often referred to himself as “portly,” or “pleasingly plump”—he was a remarkable ball-striker. I was in awe of the sounds that would come from his irons. He’d scrunch up his face on his backswing, and like Hideki Matsuyama, often pause at the top. Uncle Tony had great touch for a big man. Nicknamed “The Dog” or “Tone Dog,” he was often accused of being a sandbagger. “Hey, I don’t care what your handicap is,” he’d say. “You still have to get the ball in the hole. And some people are better at that than others. If you lose, shut up and pay up. It means you needed to play better.”

Fair enough. I paid him a lot. And he loved beating me. 

Uncle Tony and I often went from playing the course to playing the ponies. Or we’d hunt ducks in the morning and play nine holes in the afternoon. As the youngest of five kids, and having lost both of my grandfathers before I was 3, Uncle Tony (my mom’s brother) served the role of a granduncle, if you will. “Belt buckle to the target,” was a common swing tip. “Slow it down.” “Stop trying to kill it!” And he often complimented my putting. “You always could putt,” he’d say. Those are four words I’ve held onto to this day. 

Uncle Tony meant so much to me that I started an annual buddies trip in his honor, while he was still alive. And I’m so glad I did. The Uncle Tony Invitational, which is usually at Bandon Dunes, was my gift back to him. He loved that place, the planning that went into the event and the people we invited. He especially loved the porch of the Puffin restaurant, off the back of the main clubhouse. He’d sit there, with a cup of black coffee, smoking a cigarette, watching as we all came up 18. Although he has been gone since 2017, I still look for him as I turn the corner of the dogleg and get a view of the clubhouse. I can’t see him anymore, but I sure like knowing he can always see me.

R.J. Harper

Alan Shipnuck: The charismatic swing whisperer

I started working as a cart boy at Pebble Beach Golf Links in the spring of my senior year of high school. I had been introduced to golf about six years earlier by my mom’s boyfriend, but they broke up a short while later; I played here and there after that but never took the game too seriously. On my second weekend at Pebble I had an opening shift: Arrive before dawn, clock out at 2 p.m. After work I decided to hit some balls at the range. When I got there I was stopped dead in my tracks by the swing of my boss, head pro R.J. Harper (above). He had been a star running back in college, and R.J.’s action was the perfect mix of power and grace. I already felt intimidated by R.J., who was brutally handsome and oozed Southern charm. I tried to veer to the other end of the range, but he spotted me and waved me over.

“Let’s see what you got, kid.”

Strangling the club, I uncorked a series of wild shots. I could feel my cheeks flush, but R.J. was kind and encouraging. He gave me a few pointers and went back to his pile of balls. Every time I flushed a shot, which wasn’t often, he muttered, “That sounded sweet.” I’ve never concentrated so hard in my life.

These informal range sessions continued across three summers, and R.J. occasionally invited me to tag along for rowdy skins games that featured a half-dozen or more fugitive shop hands in the twilight. I loved watching him swing, the way he carried himself, listening to his gentle trash talk. R.J. made me want to be a better golfer. 

He died years ago, taken too soon by pancreatic cancer, but I still carry one of his head covers on my 4-wood. Every time I use that club I see his embroidered initials: RJH. It has become my favorite club. 

Michael Bamberger

Laz Versalles: The effortlessly cool colleague

Move over, Seve. Step aside, Mr. Trevino. Sorry, Bill Spiller…My golf hero is Michael Bamberger (above), proud son of the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia, Pa. 

Find me a man over the age of 40 who carries only two woods in his bag! Find me one who carries a 2-iron! Find me one who still plays Ping Eye 2 beryllium copper irons. Find me someone who unironically uses a Jones carry bag. 

Would you like to know how cool Michael Bamberger is? I crafted my 2022 late-summer wardrobe after his style (untucked Oxfords, preferably a light cotton, chambray acceptable, but never linen, sleeves rolled up twice) and my dating life was never better. That’s how cool Michael is. 

Speaking of dating, if you ever get a chance to dine with Michael, clear your calendar and do so. I can guarantee three things: 

  1. You’ll be sitting at the server’s favorite table
  2. Dessert is happening 
  3. 95 percent of the questions will be about you because he never talks about himself 

Did you know Michael invented a golf club? He did! Did you know he still uses an AOL email address?! He does! Do you know people who buy shoes because “they’re comfortable” but the shoes are hideous, and yet they somehow look cool on certain people? That’s Michael’s REI-inspired footwear look. (I have far more stylish shoes than Michael.)

The greatest realization that I’ve taken from Michael in 2022 is that it’s just golf. We make a lot of the game, but it’s just golf. Yes, a business revolves around it and we are a part of it, but it’s just a gig built around a silly game. 

Michael knows golf, obviously, but he’s so much more than that as a writer. I cried when I read this Father’s Day tribute. He’s also got some other fun stuff you can find on the internet about movies, music and other topics. 

Michael is my golf hero, but he vacillates on my Bamberger top five between three and four, behind Dr. Ib Nathan Bamberger and Bjorn Bamberger and sometimes behind his son, Ian, a cider connoisseur. 

You never know what gifts are going to enter your life. Getting to know my golf hero Michael has been just that: a gift. 

Golf Heroes

Ellen Cannon: The caddie who became a noted teacher 

It won’t surprise anyone who knows me that my father, Joe, is my golf hero. Dad (above, handing me one of his trophies) grew up in Troy, N.Y., during the Depression. His father lost his job and times were hard for a family with seven kids. Around age 12, my dad began caddying at Frear Park, a muni in Troy where he learned the game from the men he caddied for. 

Besides being able to bring home money for the family, Dad found a sport that suited his personality and curiosity. A natural lefty, he learned to play right-handed because those were the only clubs available. He liked to experiment with a club to see how the ball would behave if he opened the face or closed it. He figured out what caused the ball to hook or fade. He learned to play so well that he won the Troy Caddie Championship three years’ running.

Dad also learned the other aspects of the sport: honesty, sportsmanship, abiding by rules, respect for people, hard work. Those are traits he passed on to his four children. 

The game changed his life, taking him and my mother, Bev, from a working-class town in upstate New York to the greatest golf courses in the world, meeting celebrities, golf icons, royalty, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. And he never tired of teaching people to play the game. Most importantly, golf gave him the ability to raise his children, educate them, and see them flourish in life.

Bill Peterson

Ryan French: The scrappy legend and mentor

Bill Peterson (above, left) won the Alpena City Open 19 times. Nineteen. He swore (a lot!), he played angry, and he was, as his trophy case attests, damn good. I was a teenager at the time he was dominating our scrappy little northern Michigan championship, but I was good enough to be invited to play with him once in a while. You might be old enough to remember —and I do because of my parents—that if a stand-up comedian performed well enough on The Tonight Show, he or she got invited to sit on the couch next to Johnny Carson. That’s what it was like if you got invited to play with Bill. It was validation that you were good enough. 

Peterson owned a bar, had a perpetual 5 o’clock shadow, smoked, drank and ran hot at all times. None of that was censored when he played with me. He was also a caring person who took seriously his responsibility as the best golfer in Alpena. Every Monday morning in the summer, Peterson ran the junior clinic. After the clinic, he would find time for a quick lesson on the bump-and-run (does anyone use that shot anymore?) or work on someone’s hand position. Bill helped Brent Idalski, the second-best golfer in town after Bill, secure a golf scholarship to the University of Michigan. I wouldn’t have played community college golf if it wasn’t for Bill. 

I played with him last summer for the first time in 20 years. A bad back and old age have robbed him of some distance, and he can only play once a week, but his hands are forever young. On the first hole we played together, I ripped one, maybe 280 yards, leaving myself with a short wedge. Playing from the forward tees, Bill hit a poor tee shot and had 230 left. He made par, and I made bogey. Some things never change. 

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Mark Godich: The man who sacrificed everything

I’ll be brief. My hero is my father (above, on my wedding day in 1986), the man who introduced me to the game and to Arnold Palmer and to Ping irons and gave my sister and me everything we needed to succeed in life. I wrote about Dad in 2014 and again on Father’s Day last year. Hard to believe that this October will mark the 30th anniversary of his death. I will toast him with a Johnnie Walker Blue. That’s how I honor and celebrate my hero.

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Colt Knedler: The unexpected advocate for junior golfers 

I can remember her name but only vaguely recall her appearance. I can hear the tone of her voice but don’t remember the words. Long socks. That’s right…knee-high socks! A clipboard with the tee sheet snapped to it. Am I making this up?

A lot of questions and fractured memories surround my golfing hero, Mrs. Gomard. After a quick Google search, I’m no closer to confirming the spelling of her name. What I do know is that she was in her 60s (maybe 70s?), had military ties, and sponsored any civilian kid in Honolulu who wanted to play the Hickam Air Force Base par-3 on Saturdays. Who would do that? Who would take the time every weekend to round up the rowdy local kids, line ’em up from 100 to 150 yards out, and persuade the course management that this was a good idea? She must’ve had a deep love for the game. She must’ve played herself. She must’ve understood what we didn’t at the time—this opportunity to play the game with other kids our age would provide memories that last a lifetime.

I remember some things in fine detail. (That’s me above, far right.) The crispy basket of chicken strips, with fries and ketchup. A chip-off with Zach Primavera to decide the week’s champion. Bronson Maluenda beating me on the 9th hole by making a five-footer…while looking me dead in the eye. Stephanie Kono asking what I shot (and vice versa) after every round. Kaira Martin beating the boys. The disintegrating Winn grip on my putter. Uncle Fred asking, with a laugh, if I had clubs, because my cut-down Ping Eye 2s didn’t breach the top of my Hoofer bag. Sean, the older kid, with a deep yellow oil rag tucked into his gray Scotty headcover.

Mrs. Gomard probably saw that putt on 9, scored the chip-off, and knew what clubs we played. I’m 32 now and have been fortunate that the game has touched every aspect of my personal and professional life. I hadn’t thought of her in years but as these memories come flooding back I have only one thing to say to Mrs. Gomard: Thank you!

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Bennett Kohut: The grandfather who taught me the game

I’ve been blessed to have multiple people I can call my golf hero, from my dad to my uncles to my grandfather to the pros I watch everyday. All of them have inspired me to better myself as a person and a golfer. Yet the individual who stands out over the others will always be my grandfather Bill Salmina, known as Popo (above). He has been a role model for my entire life. He has taught me to work hard, be disciplined, care about your loved ones, and give it your all in everything you do. Popo introduced me to the game at a young age by putting plastic clubs in my hands that I would use to smack around small plastic balls in his backyard.

One of my favorite things to do when I go home is to play 18 with him. The old man can still play: last year, at 81, he shot his age. I’m forever grateful for all that he has taught me in life and in golf. 

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