Bob Toski is a teaching golf pro, a man who can explain why your three-wood has chronic hiccups. He has given lessons to rich touring pros and to poor housewives with vacuum-cleaner hands and he earns $100,000 a year for $50-an-hour practice-tee lectures that are a combination of Aristotle's philosophy and Mick Jagger's showmanship.
The man is as popular with the stars as this week's hairdresser. You can find him changing the grip of a duke, presiding over an instructional school at some exotic resort or holding a free seminar at a public course. He also designs courses, clubs and clothes, writes books and occasionally even plays the game.
Toski is a student as well as a teacher, and at tournaments he haunts the locker room, asking players what they think of before they hit a shot. On the practice tee they ask him how their swing looks. His insight is acute, his advice welcome.
Recently he was lecturing at Palmetto Dunes Golf Club, a resort on Hilton Head Island, S.C. that is dedicated to the proposition that old golfers never quit, they just keep flailing away and buying fairway villas. Toski is the director of golf at Palmetto Dunes, and he spends quite a bit of time there, giving clinics, private lessons, even flying in special students for up to a week of concentrated instruction, complete with tape-recorded tips. On this particular day several touring pros clustered about, among them Ben Crenshaw and Tommy Aaron. The Heritage Classic was being played at nearby Harbour Town Golf Links and "Dr. Swing" was in for the week and available for consultation.
Toski already had given a mini-clinic, hitting shots with the club turned backward, helped several resort guests and expounded on the latest swing theories. He looked incongruous, a small man wearing a big white hat. He weighs only 127 pounds, but he is able to hit the ball as far as most pros. Now he was examining the swing of Aaron, a former Masters champion. "He really loves this," said Gary Groh after he had been watching Toski's frenzied work for several hours. Groh, who won the Hawaiian Open in February, once worked for Toski in his golf shop. Jane Blalock, an LPGA star, also worked for Toski. The young players performed such chores as cleaning clubs and picking up practice balls from the driving range for the opportunity to have Toski nurture their golf. The time was well spent.
Their mentor has the reputation of being "a pro's pro," but he prefers to think he can teach anyone to swing a golf club in, as he puts it, "the proper manner." Toski's forte, like Sherlock Holmes', is that he can solve complex mysteries, and there is no greater mystery than the golf swing.
He often says that he has a "gift" for teaching, speaking of it almost mystically, as it he was chosen by some divine being to cure golf's versions of the halt, the lame, the blind. Toski's lexicon is that of an academician. The hole is "the target." The club is "the implement." The golf ball is "the sphere." "Striking action," "reaction to an action" and "application of force" are favorite phrases. When Toski speaks to an audience, the effect is that of political-science students listening to Thomas Jefferson reading the Declaration of Independence.
Bob Toski was 27 years old when he sank a seven-foot birdie putt on the last hole to win the Tarn O'Shanter World Championship in Chicago in 1954, beating Earl Stewart Jr. Despite his size, Toski was not the sentimental favorite that steamy day. Stewart's young son walked with him every step of the tournament and the large gallery was rooting for the baby-sitting father. Nonetheless, before the final round Toski told George May, the tournament promoter who sat on the first tee wearing a Hawaiian shirt, that he was going to win, and then he went out and did it. It wasn't easy. A seven on the sixth hole appeared to ruin his chances and several times he was heckled by the huge crowd. But when Stewart himself met with disaster on the 16th hole, taking a double bogey, Toski had the lead and, soon after, the victory. First prize was $50,000. It was more than Toski had made since he turned pro nine years before. It changed his life dramatically.
Toski was one of nine surviving children of a mother who bore 13, then died when Bob was five. His youngest brother was retarded. The family lived in Haydenville, Mass., in the western part of the state, and Toski's father struggled at whatever jobs he could find. Toski painfully remembers not wanting to attend school because he had to wear a pair of secondhand knickers given to the family when it was on relief.
He always was small and was given to lying about his weight, and he couldn't become a Class A caddie because he was too tiny, although he played five sports in high school, excelling in basketball. In 1943, his senior year, he was the third-highest scorer in New England, using a sidearm shot that was difficult to block.
That spring he won the state scholastic golf championship and from that moment on, the sidearm shot was forgotten. During a hitch in the Army he won the All-American G.I. Open in Calcutta, and when he returned to the States he decided to join the pro tour.
But first he went to work as an assistant to his brother Jack in Northampton, Mass., using his spare time to hone his game. By the winter of 1948 he felt he was ready and out on the tour he went.
His real name is Algustoski, but he had the prescience to shorten it after it gave a first-tee starter an attack of the stutters in his debut on the pro tour. Toski traveled with Ted Kroll and another pro, Milon Marusic, during those first years, three in a Studebaker. At motels, Marusic would check out the room to ensure its cleanliness while Kroll bargained a rate with the manager and Toski slumped in the back of the car. Toski usually slept on a cot, and the trio was charged for only two occupants.
Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead were the big names at the time. Toski was just a Polish joke, a small one at that. He went broke twice, and his diet, sleeping habits and nerves disrupted his metabolism so much that even today he cannot put on weight. But after six years he won his first tournament, the Insurance City Open. "A lot of kids I teach today are pretty sound fundamentally," he says, "but they can't make a score when it counts. I could. Call it Polish tenacity, but I could do it."
In 1954 he was the leading money-winner with $65,819, topped the Ryder Cup standings (but did not play because of a technicality) and in a six-month stretch won four tournaments. In one of them, the Azalea Open, the first-round leader was a brash young amateur from Wake Forest, Arnold Palmer, who fired a 65 and eventually finished tied for seventh. A few years later, still in his competitive prime, Toski retired to the instruction tee, deciding he would rather be a weekend golfer than an off-season father to his four children.
Golf has had many renowned teachers. Tommy Armour was one. But Armour never taught a high-handicap player. Ben Hogan is generally conceded to know more about the golf swing than anyone, but he does not teach at all. Toski instructs anyone. He once played golf with then Vice-President Richard Nixon and found that "he lacked good arm flow. His rhythm was poor."
As a teacher he demands total attention and patience and when he doesn't get them he has been known to throw his pupil's clubs. Toski claims that the old, dour Scottish teachers lacked personality, style and imagination. He has all three and they have served him well as a television commentator and seminar lecturer. At 48 he still competes in an occasional tournament and is looking ahead to being a senior player in two years. "I'm going to cut up a few cats," Toski declares. "I told Snead that."
Toski often can be found on the practice tee at tournaments, dispensing his brand of medicine. He never charges a pro for a lesson, whether he be a star or an obscure club assistant. The pros respect him because he has been a winner, but his special aptitude is his ability to communicate with club players, the businessmen and housewives. His size helps him as a teacher. People relate to it. During his week-long stay at Palmetto Dunes he gave two clinics, one at 9 a.m. on the practice tee, the other an evening lecture that ran for almost two hours. The room was packed with mesmerized fans, many of them carrying copies of Toski's book, The Touch System for Better Golf, or scribbling notes, and not a one of them left early.
On his last night at Palmetto Dunes, Toski was on his way to dinner with a man who had been designing and manufacturing a clothing line for him. His Chevy hummed down the road, its path lit by a bright moon and bordered by pine trees. Frank Sinatra was singing It Was a Very Good Year on the tape deck, and Toski hummed along, occasionally breaking into song. He was dressed in a suit made by his French custom tailor. He looked good and felt the same way.
"You know, I look back at my career in golf and it's amazing," he said, tapping the steering wheel softly. "I've been toasted by kings and heads of state. I've won. I've been in the winner's circle and I have had all the accolades. I don't need that anymore. I'd rather have people say. 'You're a great man and a great teacher.'
"I've found one thing constant in the golfers I teach. They all want to be appreciated and recognized. Sometimes I think of myself as a psychiatrist, and teaching as therapy. There are failures. I can help people, but some people can't help themselves. They just use me as a pacifier. But you know something, I love it. The Lord gave me this gift, and all I can do is try to share it with people."
Toski talked on about how late in life he finally has acquired self-confidence, how well things seem to be going for him now. Then he smiled. It was the grin of a boy who never again would wear secondhand knickers.