Pat Rielly PGA

Requiem for a Pro’s Pro

Pat Rielly, a former PGA of America president, was a pioneer in every sense

By Michael Bamberger

The funeral mass was announced for 11 a.m. The congregants were seated well before then, of course. They had gathered to remember the pro. That is, to celebrate the life and consecrate the afterlife of Patrick John Rielly. No casket. Many flowers.

If you know something about this culture — the Catholic Church, its funeral Mass, club-pro life out of an old and Irish East Coast tradition — you can guess when the priest’s first words, the hint of Ireland in his amplified voice, reached the congregants.

The mourners had already signed the guest book as they entered the church, Holy Family in South Pasadena, Calif., a grand, stone building. Yes, Pat Rielly’s life ended far from where it started in Sharon, Pa., in 1935. Golf takes a person places. More than a few lines of the registry had prime examples of Palmer Method penmanship, learned at St. Cecilia Grammar or some other school with nuns who held high standards.

The men, a good number of them, carried handkerchiefs in the pockets of their suit jackets, because that’s a way of life for men of a certain age and a certain background. Some of the women, experienced in these matters, took a tissue — perfumed and heavy — from a box near the sanitizer beside an entry door to the church.

Tissues are no place to save money, if you don’t have to. However, the unusual spelling — Rielly — can be explained by a certain forced frugality. When Rielly’s father was born, the printer got the spelling wrong on his baptismal certificate, and Pat’s paternal grandfather did not want to endure the expense of another printing. The Depression.

Rielly started caddying as a kid. Sharon Country Club. Sharon High came later. Penn State football came later. He met his future wife in State College, Pa.

One wife. Four children. Six grandchildren, golf running through all of them.

There were 300 mourners, a half-dozen former PGA of America presidents among them. Rielly had been a PGA president, during the Shoal Creek debacle and the square grooves mess. Nobody was confused about where Pat Rielly stood.

Shoal Creek, get yourself a Black member or you’re losing this PGA Championship; USGA, allow these square grooves for regular golfers. The game is hard enough.

The priest meets with the bride and groom prior to their wedding. This is not a setup for a joke. The groom is a club pro. The priest says to the bride, “Your husband will be working on Sunday mornings. Church life for your children will fall to you.”

The funeral was on a Friday. The Friday before the 2022 PGA Championship. Rielly played in the ’67 PGA at Columbine. His funeral was on Friday the 13th. He hated Friday the 13ths. Superstitions die hard. Golfers are often superstitious, Irish golfers most particularly.

Claude Harmon of Winged Foot had club-pro sons. His successor, Tom Nieporte, had club-pro sons. Patrick Casey at El Niguel in Laguna Niguel, Calif., is the son of a club pro from Hornell, N.Y. Pat Rielly’s son, Rick, is the director of golf at Wilshire Country Club in Los Angeles. There are hundreds of other examples.

This tradition won’t go on forever, but it exists for now, a sort of living, historical tribute from American golf to the game’s English-Irish-Scottish origins. The church and the golf and the golf and the church — you’d need to be a sociologist to uncover all the links and similarities, but they are there.

Rielly had a great head of hair. Great teeth, great eyes, great voice, despite his childhood stutter. Great heart, great empathy, great sense of order and propriety. Great children who grew up in the game. The game was their church as much as church was their church. Great wife.

Sue was Presbyterian. Pat and Sue eloped. It’s a window into their time and place. Pat and Sue, Pat and Sue, Pat and Sue. Everywhere you went at Annandale Golf Club in Pasadena, the members talked about Pat and Sue. Sometimes beauty is more than skin deep. Pat and Sue.

If Pat Rielly said it once, he said it a thousand times: “There’s a right way and a wrong way and the Rielly way.”

The nods to golf were here and there and throughout the service. The nods to Ireland, to golf in the British Isles. The Annandale members were on display like spring birds, the males of the species wearing their crested club coats and their orange club ties. The past PGA presidents wore their PGA of America blazers. Joe Steranka, the former CEO of the PGA of America, flew from Florida for the funeral. Deane Beman, the former PGA Tour commissioner, did the same, and delivered the second reading.

A grandson, from the pulpit:

We pray that heaven is a place with wide fairways and green grass, where Pa hits it long and straight and makes every putt.

Then, with the congregants:

Lord, hear our prayer.

The preparation of gifts. The eucharist. The eulogy. The final commendation.

In translation, on the program should you need it:

“May the sun shine warm upon your face; the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.”

The priest’s first words were spoken a couple minutes past 11. Patrick John Rielly is going home. Going home. Those words have been said forever, and they are open to interpretation, of course. Some Riellys had the Old Course in mind. In a manner of speaking, that’s where Pat Rielly’s life began.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests . . .

. . . kids and golf, kids and golf. Pat Rielly was always looking in that direction, looking at his own life’s path, when you get right down to it.

Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at [email protected]

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