The sign out front that extols a soft drink also, as a concession, identifies the place as the HOMER "SNEAD" GOLF RANGE, leased and run by. painted, repaired and wired for electricity by, grass cut and pampered, cookie jars filled, machinery nursed along by, golf balls cleaned and striped by, golf lessons, advice and stern admonishments (throttling ball thieves and heaving them over the back fence) administered by Homer Charles Snead, who has a kid brother named Sam. Sam is famous, but Homer can hit a golf ball farther. Authorities on this are Welford (Pete) Snead, another of the Snead brothers, and Homer Snead. "When I get one on the screws," says Homer, "it's 15 yards past Sam on the fly. Straight as a string." Sam, on the other hand, does not encourage the comparison. "After all," he says, "Homer is 65 years old now."
The Homer "Snead" Golf Range (the quotes are the sign painter's) is five and a half acres of coral rock cushioned, barely, by diehard St. Augustine grass—a thin green drop cloth on a terrazzo floor—and located off the Palmetto bypass in Miami. It fronts on Coral Way, which is the beeline to the high-frippery shops of Coral Gables' Miracle Mile. On one side of the range is a new gas station; on the other, across a narrow road, are a Royal Castle hamburg emporium and a high school football stadium. It is, if you forget Homer for a moment, the epitome of America's 4,500 driving ranges, those right-by-the-concrete sport complexes where membership dues are zero, where no shot is out of bounds and where—very likely—more golf balls get hit than at all the private country clubs from Miami to Waikiki.
"And where more teaching gets done, too," says Homer Snead, "the real teaching." He says his head might be turned by the offer of a good club pro job but, as a rule, "there ain't nothing lower than a club pro. Worst job there is. I've tried it. There's always about four old ladies trying to tell you what to do." And for that matter, he says, only a handful of teaching pros know their four-iron from their forehead and some of the instructional gimmicks people fall for are "just ignorant, just plain ignorant." Homer Snead is not a man to let his opinions loll around in the shade.
On a recent Miami evening, Homer propped his elbows on the counter of the little white blockhouse that serves as office and catchall room, slid his straw hat down to his eyebrows and looked out over the tee line. All of the stalls were occupied, 20 rubber mats on a concrete strip, divided by red fences, shin-high. The vapor-mercury floodlights Homer had put up illuminated the progress and contorted faces of the dubbers, nubbers and missers, the common sufferers of hook-and-slice disease, and the driving-range jockeys who can hit a ball a mile—in any direction. The worriers were there, too, the respectable golfers and the near-to-its who tomorrow would be striving in crucial $2 Nassaus at Miami Springs or the Biltmore. And also the nonworriers, who do not care or appreciate that the little white rubber tube rising from the mat offers the equivalent of a tee shot and the little green scrub brush next to it approximates the fairway, because they only want to get up there and hit something, get it?
July 4, 1965
A driving range has this peculiar kindling effect on people's courage. They will try it, even when they discover the treachery involved in attempting to forcibly direct a stationary ball, and they come either steeled to the embarrassment that would ordinarily inhibit them or safe in the assurance that the big fellow on the next mat is going to hit a few grounders himself. They come in Bermudas, in tight skirts, sneakers, business suits, bathing suits, zoris and barefoot, in fashionable golf outfits, in shirtsleeves, in high heels, in Capri pants. Some come intoxicated. "I don't pay no attention," says Homer. Some are a menace with a club in their hands. But at the moment they were all keeping the ball in front of them and no one was violating Homer's "No Swinging Behind the Tee-Line" sign—he yells at them when they do—or his "No High Heels on the Putting Green" sign. So Homer was relaxed in the office.
He fished into the Lance cooky jar, the one he keeps operational with masking tape, and dug open a package of chocolate cookies. "What a bunch of hackers," he said, grinding down on the first syllable. It is his favorite noun, hacker, and he switch-hits with it—delivering it with scorn, and then again with affection. The catch is to know the difference. He sometimes refers to himself as "the world's worst hacker." That's affection.
"Watch that guy over there," he said, On the third mat a tall, lean young man in beach shoes and beltless chinos was demonstrating for his chubby girl friend. The girl wore a red bandanna blouse with a bare midriff. Her dungarees had a tight grip on her. The boy friend was telling the chubby girl to keep her arm rigid! rigid! and to hunch over like so, and Homer said, "Swing like that, and he won't know if it's going to stay in the state or go up his pants leg. Look, he's going to wrap it around his neck and choke himself to death. Damn. He couldn't hit Kate Smith in the fanny with a ton of rice." The lean young man dribbled one off to the right.
Homer shook his head sadly and bit down on his chocolate cooky. It grieves him to see the terrible things he has to see.
"You really 65 years old?" A boy in a University of Florida T shirt had been listening to the conversation, waiting for Homer to rent him some balls. Homer does not always drop everything when a customer arrives. This posture is sometimes mistaken for orneriness, but it is actually disdain. "I don't believe it," said the college boy. "Sixty-five? You don't look 65."
"Uh-uh. A dollar basket you wanted? Or a bucket? Buckets are $1.75." Homer wasn't listening, because he was about to tell a story. He is 65 and he looks 45; great, muscled, Alley Oop forearms; great, square, brick-red face; and eyes, hard eyes; great gnarled hands, with fingers like cucumbers, torn and ripped by things that had not yielded to his gentle touch—a nail, a balky fixture—and thus provoked his temper. When it comes to acquiring justice from inanimate objects, Homer does not overlook the value of temper. The newspaper machine in front of the Royal Castle, for example, is glass-enclosed, with a gate that trips open when a coin is inserted. It digested his dime two mornings straight without dispensing a paper. When it robbed him again the third morning Homer said in a loud voice, "To hell with it," and before the terrified eyes of a little man in a brown suit who had just invested a dime and was there wondering what to do next, Homer lifted the vending machine over his head and smashed it open on the sidewalk. Sensational. Homer then picked up one paper from those scattered around, and the little man grabbed up a dime that rolled to his feet and hurried away. The next day there was a new machine and a sign on it that asked unsatisfied customers to please call the following number before taking matters into their own hands.
"Anyway," Homer was saying, passing a dollar basket to the college boy, who was now trying to get in good with Homer by telling how a branch of his family tree was traced to the Virginia Sneads, "Anyway, this guy comes in here. He's from Georgia. Jawja. He's big around as he is long. Looked like a barrel. He says he's having trouble with his woods, 'but ah can really hit mah ahns.' I tell him O.K., let's go see you swing a club. He had a grip like Ty Cobb. Hands this far apart, all bent over like a washerwoman. I leaned down to look up in his face, because I figured he must be kidding. 'Let me show you,' he says, and he swings at the ball and misses, and swings again and misses again. So I showed him how to grip the club. He stood there about a minute like he was afraid to move, and then he says, 'Hail, Mistah Snead, ah cain't hit it thisaway. Ah feel defohmed. Ah feel defohmed.'"
Everybody was laughing, and the college boy was so taken by Homer's narrative that he just stood there holding the basket of balls. "Say, Homer," he said, getting familiar, "I've been thinking about taking lessons myself. How much would one or two lessons be?"
"Well, they'd be $5 a half hour, but you'd get just as much for your money if you flushed it down the toilet," said Homer. "Can you learn to play the trombone in one or two lessons? Well, it's the same thing, the same thing."
Homer Snead gives as many as 20 lessons a day, but he averages about nine. Some of his pupils drive all the way down from Palm Beach to take his abuse. Homer is a purist. In the teacher-pupil relationship he thinks that the only time for trading ideas is never. One man came out on the tee line for his first lesson gripping the club as if to go to bat with the bases loaded. "You can change anything at all except my grip," he told Homer. "Don't try to change my grip. I won't change." Homer bent over and picked up the basket of balls he had brought out for the lesson and left the man standing on the tee. Another time he refused to teach a bowlegged man because "no bowlegged man can swing at the ball the right way. Just no way. If you're bowlegged you might as well go fishing."
Homer starts his pupils off with a nine-iron and a backswing no longer than a couple of feet. They are told to stand perfectly flat-footed—no movement other than that forced by the natural swing of the club head. This goes on (and sometimes on and on) until "tempo" is achieved. Homer is flat-out insistent that the tempo never change, that an increase in distance be gained only through the lengthening of the back swing. He never proceeds until things are right. He will not yield to pressure. "Everybody wants to get out that driver and hit the ball a ton. Well, that's ignorant. You can't hit the ball a ton until you learn to hit the ball." Some of his pupils progress more rapidly than others. One woman who lives in an apartment across the street comes over almost every day and is now on her third six-lesson series and is still using a six-iron. She says she is getting anxious. But some achieve inspiring results. One ecstatic pupil called Homer from Chicago the other day, a big man in real estate who insisted, over Homer's mild objections, on paying $20 a lesson. The man said he had played his first round of the summer and wanted to credit Homer for taking 19 strokes off his game.
Homer's assistant pro and most frequent antagonist is Lucille Belanger, a sturdily built blonde with a Boston accent and a wide selection of colorful golf clothes and matching hats with pompons on the top. Lucille has been teaching a year. She, too, claims a devoted clientele. When she was younger she used to study Sam Snead's how-to books line by sacred line. "Sam's my idol—everything he does with a golf club is perfect," says Lucille. Homer says that's Lucille's trouble, "she thinks everybody oughta swing like Sam. Well, Sam's Sam and Joe's Joe and you're you and everybody is different with different equipment." Lucille says she'll match her pupils against Homer's any day. Homer says oh yeah, well how come she knows so much in a year? And it goes on and on.
Now, down on the tee line, Lucille had finished a lesson and was standing back with an empty basket, talking and gesticulating. "Yak-yak-yak," said Homer at the counter. "She stands there yakking, and here we got only three baskets filled. Damn. What we need is a thousand new balls. I'm going to get a thousand balls tomorrow. We buy good balls, but the coral rock chews them up in no time. We try to keep five or six thousand in play."
"Homer's got the best driving-range balls in the country," said a man who had joined the group, a tall wavyhaired fellow carrying a bag of left-handed clubs. He was dressed all in black. "Look at me, Homer," he said, "a fat Gary Player."
"The world's worst hacker is what you are, Ed," said Homer, chuckling.
Ed said he had taken a few lessons from Homer, but Homer said Ed was hopeless, because "he listens to everybody—every hacker who comes along. He's got himself to the point where he could stand up on that tee until he dies of old age and not hit the ball. I could take a rotten lemon and a pop bottle and beat him."
It was a sad story, Ed said. There was a time not long ago when he could hit the ball a ton, but now Ed's Saturday foursome was calling him Gladys because he hit nothing but pop flies. "Homer's getting me out of it," he added.
Ed swears by Homer. He says Homer is "tough on the outside, but underneath is a heart of steel."
Homer went around back and got out the beat-up old yellow International truck with the ball-fetcher in front to make a pickup. Across the range he went, bouncing along, crisscrossing in the line of fire despite an unprotected windshield. He will pick up as many as 3,000 balls at a time, then a 14-year-old neighborhood boy named Tony Alexander helps sort them out and put them into the baskets. Tony takes lessons from Lucille, but Homer says he likes him anyway.
"Trouble with Homer," Lucille was saying to Ed, "is he has no patience with people. The law is we have to have the lights out at 11. One night I had a lesson out there, and it wasn't even 11 o'clock. Our light bill is about $70 a month, and Homer never forgets it. There I was giving my lesson, and he turned out the lights. Can you imagine? Once he turned the lights out on a $10-a-week customer. Homer just doesn't have a sense for public relations."
Homer had returned from his pickup and was now on the tee working with a man in Bermudas, one of his regular students. Each time the man swung, Homer bent over and put another ball on the scrub brush for him to hit. At 65 balls per basket, he figures he bends over at least 600 times a day. He calls it "making a living as a yo-yo."
"Tempo, tempo," Homer was saying. "Attaboy, see that? Straight as a string. Oh, no, now you're rushing it. Let the club head do the work. Club head and arms. Separate the arms from the body. Ain't no way in the world you can hit that ball with your body. Keep that left heel on the ground. No, now you're trying to muscle the ball. Swing like that and everybody'll want to play you. It'll take you a week to go nine holes. Might as well go fishing. Palmer muscles the ball and he gets away with it, but not much longer, because he's getting old. Nicklaus will go on forever, because he uses the same swing, nice and easy. Tempo, tempo. All right, see that? You can hit the ball with a croquet mallet if you swing right. Keep your feet flat-footed. This ain't no dancing course. Everybody will be hitting flat-footed one of these days. It's common sense. When you start lifting and jerking around you couldn't hit it in the ocean off a ship."
At 11 o'clock Homer turned out the lights (on no one), lowered the counter window and secured it by pounding in a nail at each end and, with Lucille and Ed, drove down Coral Way to the Westward Ho Restaurant for coffee and cheesecake. Homer does not go to bars. "Bars make me nervous," he says. And he does not drink. "I can't stand the smell," he says. "Liquor stinks. And it's ignorant to drink it."
"None of us boys ever did drink much," he continued, suddenly reflective. "Sam may take a beer or two, but not much else. There were five of us, you know. Lyle, the oldest, died last year. Then me and then Jesse, Pete and Sam, and Jeannette in between. Pete has the pro job at the Pittsburgh Field Club. What a bunch of guys we were. We had the best parents that ever lived. The best, I don't care who it is. Wasn't nothing they didn't do for us. That stuff about Sam running around barefoot is just to make it sound better for the writers. We all had shoes.
"And did they love us. Hugging and kissing us all the time. I was my mother's favorite, I guess. My daddy was strong as a bull. When he talked we listened. If he said to be in at 9 we didn't come straggling in at 9:05. And I'll never forget something my mother told me. I guess I was about 13. She sat me down and said, 'Bill.' She always called me Bill. I don't know why, she just did, that's all. Anyway, she said, 'Bill, no matter what you do, be true to yourself. Be true to yourself.' I never forgot that."
Ed wanted to know why Homer hadn't gone on the golf circuit like his kid brother Sam.
"When I started playing golf," Homer said, "the circuit was nothing. No money in it. We used to caddie at The Homestead, and we played in a damn field there in Hot Springs, Va. Sam, Pete, all the boys copied me, learned from me. I could hit that ball a ton. And I could tell exactly what I did when I hit it. That's why I can teach.
"I was always strong. I could hit a baseball a mile. I played on those Honus Wagner All-Star teams around Pittsburgh when I was going to the University of Pittsburgh. I could throw it like a bullet and run like a deer. No one ever taught me how to field, though. My hands were so muscled up the ball would bounce off. I played third base and pitched, but I was everywhere. You were liable to see me going behind second to get a ball. They wanted me to turn pro, but there was no money in baseball, either, and I had to make a living. I boxed some, too. I could really hit."
Ed said he knew it was true Homer could hit, because he heard an eyewitness tell of the night Homer caught a 25-year-old ball thief by the back fence. The guy gave Homer some lip, and Homer laid him out cold and went back to giving a lesson. Finally the man who was taking the lesson hinted that Homer might be in for trouble if he didn't go out there and revive that fellow. So Homer went back out and threw a bucket of water in his face.
"I'll never forget a bout I had with a guy named Red Ranger in McKees Rocks, Pa.," Homer said. "Red was tough, but I really caught him a good one. Almost killed him. Scared me to death. Anyway, a fellow came to the driving range just the other day. He was wearing a brace on his neck, like it had been there a long time. He said, 'Do you remember me, Homer?' I said I couldn't really place him, but there was something about him. Then I remembered—Red Ranger. I never fought again after I hit him that time.
"I got my experience in electrical work in Pittsburgh in the early '20s, and opened up a shop in Hot Springs. I was the only one around who knew anything about electricity. Then I met this millionaire, James L. Breeze, and he had me make a radio for him. Biggest radio you ever saw. Nine feet eight inches high, weighed 352 pounds. It could pick up stations all over the country. He had me come to New York, and then he took me on a round-the-world cruise that lasted 18 months. We went everywhere: Rome, Paris, Bombay, Tokyo, Peking, Manila. He bought me two trunks of clothes. It was the greatest experience of my life.
"During the war I put in the big wind tunnel at Langley Field and did the electrical wiring at the Little Creek Naval Base and at Norfolk. Then afterward I went into the electronics business in Waynesborough,and finally I moved to Fort Pierce, Fla. There's where I decided to start teaching golf. It was about 12 years ago. I took a club job in Winter Haven. Shot 61 five times on that course. Then I moved to Long Boat Key in Sarasota with Sam. Now there is a golf course. Long and tough. Nobody could beat me on that course, nobody, and I played the best. Then in 1963 I got the driving range."
Ed said it would take a blow on the head to make him throw everything to the winds to start teaching golf at age 53.
Homer looked at him sympathetically. "Hell, Ed, didn't you ever do something just because you always wanted to? Because you felt you just had to try it?"
Homer's recount of Homer's life deserves a little amplification from other Sneads. They still call Homer "Fuzz" because of a mustache he almost grew as a young man, one of the only unsubstantial things he ever did. In his book The Education of a Golfer, Sam Snead wrote that Homer was his hero and it was Homer he copied as a boy. "Homer taught us in a haphazard sort of way," recalls Pete Snead, the brother in Pittsburgh. "We played in a hayfield next to this church in Hot Springs. Homer dug two holes 150 yards apart and put in tomato cans. I was about 10, and I was playing with Homer and some of his friends. I was trying to swing the club cross-handed. Homer said, 'Put your right hand below your left hand.' I told him I couldn't hit it that way. He told me a couple more times. Then he hauled off and cuffed me on the head. 'Dammit, put your right hand below your left hand!' As you might guess, that settled that."
At one time or another all the Snead boys caddied at The Homestead resort course for ice-cream money. Homer was especially admired for how far he could hit a ball, even when it went through the skylight of a nearby church and rained pieces of glass down on the preacher. "Dad whipped us all for that," says Pete. "But Homer always wanted to see how far he could hit the ball—just wanted to see it take off. I think he can still outhit Sam. He always could when he got it right. If he'd gone into golf early, he could have been as good, maybe better'n Sam. When he was 18 he hit iron shots that looked like a trout going upstream—so fast they quivered. I miss Homer. But I agree with Sam. He's always been too independent. It's his downfall."
Sam remembers that during the war Homer would drive the 250 miles from Norfolk to Hot Springs just to play golf on the weekends. "He'd play 36 holes on Saturday, 36 on Sunday, then drive back. I didn't see much of him as a kid. He was 12 years older and was always working, but I remember people would come into his shop with a wagon-load of radio parts and Homer'd put 'em together. Once he built a great big one with a dynamic speaker. A woman heard it half a mile away and complained to the police. He wired most of the houses in Hot Springs.
"But you know, he needed glasses and was too proud to wear them. Dad was the same way, awfully high-strung. I guess we all are a little bit. When Homer had his country club jobs he never learned to pat people on the butt. You know, butter 'em up a little. You can't be too independent when you're serving the public. Those old ladies used to raise hell. Homer didn't make friends too easy."
Homer occasionally gets into print with comments on Sam's game—"Sam can't win the Open because he uses the putter like it was a crowbar"—but Pete calls this the old Snead razzing, and the brothers remain very close. As it is, Homer refuses—is too proud—to take advantage of Sam's status. There are pictures of Sam, one torn from a magazine, another in an old frame, hanging in the office at the driving range, but someone else put them up. Sam gave an exhibition at the range once, and Homer was exceedingly pleased, for he is truly proud of his kid brother (Sam is 53), but he turned down $5,000 to autograph balls for a manufacturer, because the manufacturer wanted to work Sam's name into the advertisement.
Now, at 2 a.m. at the Westward Ho Restaurant in Miami, the coffee and cheesecake gone, the brief minutes of looking back on his life completed, Homer left for his single room (with bath, $45 a month). And at 6:30 a.m. he was back at the range, following his Spartan routine. (For a year he tended the range seven days a week, 16 hours a day. Eventually he and Lucille decided to take Sundays off to play golf—on a course—and Homer hired a young man to do the tending.) Homer took off his shoes with the tassles, put on a pair with crepe soles, rolled up his pants legs two turns and went out to cut the grass on his little putting green, though he actually hasn't allowed putting on it for 15 months. He says he is saving it for lessons. Then he pulled the water hoses around for a while and stuck an aluminum ladder up into the lights to work on some wiring. He recently constructed a last-a-lifetime frame for an awning that will stretch across the tee line. It required all manner of imposing cables and braces and telephone poles sunk into the ground. "I can do anything," he said. "I can do anything except fly. I can hop up and down, but I can't fly." A little later he was giving a lesson to an 81-year-old would-be golfer from West Virginia who bantered with Homer between shots and reached up and plucked the straw hat off Homer's head. "See that bald head?" the old man said. "He's a Snead all right. But I think he's got more hair'n Sam, and he looks younger, too." When his lesson was over the old man left in a chauffeur-driven Lincoln Continental.
Homer went back into the office and for the next hour ran balls through the striping machine. Each ball came out circled with a thin blue line. The line is for identification. The identification is for a customer who might otherwise be tempted to slip a ball or two in his bag. Then he went through a huge tub of balls, fishing out the bad ones.
It was Saturday, usually a slow day, and in the evening Homer got out his brazier and barbecued Delmonico steaks for Lucille and Tony. He uses what Lucille calls The Homer Snead Quick-barbecue Method: instead of charcoal the secret ingredient is newspaper. "The trick is to light it from the top," said Homer, holding two pieces of steak over the fire as it flared up. He stood through the meal to keep an eye on the comings and goings on the tee-line. The regulars do not usually appear on Saturday night—"buncha strangers is all we get"—so Homer does not always turn on the lights that illuminate the green 140 yards up the fairway. But tonight there was a good crowd so he agreed to turn on the lights.
"What I oughta do is have my invention out there," he said. He pointed behind the office to a huge comic face made of wood and metal and plastic. It is wired for sound and its mouth is a large aperture with a leather throat for catching balls. "I call it the Electronic Head," said Homer. "It's a gold mine. I got it patented. You hit a ball in the mouth and it talks back to you. Only thing I have to do is put my voice on a tape and rig it up. I can make it say anything I want it to."
"He's always doing something around the range," said Lucille. "Always got that ladder up in the lights. I tell him he'll shock himself if he's not more careful, but he says he's positive and it won't hurt him. I'll never forget when Sam came down one afternoon. He couldn't believe it when he saw Homer out there on the tractor. 'What's he doing out there?' Sam said. 'Why don't he get somebody else to do that kind of stuff for him?' Sam was boiling, but Homer kept right on picking up balls until he was finished."
The next day was Sunday, his day for golf, and Homer Snead, who is too busy with the game all week to either play it or practice it, went to the Rolling Hills Country Club in Hollywood with Lucille. Rolling Hills is a difficult 7,262-yard, par-72 course. It has narrow fairways and plenty of water, none of which mattered to Homer. He hit drives close to 300 yards, straight as a string. He putted for birdies on 14 holes. He had an eagle on the 554-yard 13th. He complained constantly. He said he never putted so bad in his life. He shot a 68.
"I'm the world's worst hacker," said Homer Snead, oldest of the golfing Sneads. Lucille rolled her blue eyes toward Heaven.