He descending footpath curves gracefully past the 18th green at Milwaukee Country Club and winds beneath 100-foot-tall hardwoods, stopping at a shaded practice tee tucked into the hillside. It is a jewel-like setting for forging callouses, and for 50 years it has been the workplace of one of Wisconsin's hidden treasures, Manuel de la Torre, a courtly 79-year-old teaching pro who's often called the Harvey Penick of the Midwest. The Greater Milwaukee Open is being held a two-iron down the road, at Brown Deer Park, but de la Torre, the beloved elder statesman of the Wisconsin PGA, has no plans to rub elbows with the flatbellies. He has more important matters to attend to—a full docket of lessons, beginning with one for a six-year-old boy.
"Swing the club from one side to the other and brush the grass," he tells Joey Mahler, who's been taking lessons from de la Torre since age three. The cost? Fifteen dollars for a half hour, a price the club's board mandated in an effort to keep up with the times. When de la Torre retired as the club's head pro in 1996 after a run of 46 years and became its teaching pro, he was still charging children $3 per lesson. Caddies and tour pros—now as ever—are free. Adults pay $35. He could charge triple that and be solidly booked, but de la Torre is the anti- David Leadbetter. "I'd rather make $1,000 teaching 50 people than $1,000 teaching 10," he says. "I've always felt that lessons were a service. If I could help golfers play better, they'd play more, use caddies more, use the club more. Golf has been terrific to me, and this lets me give something back."
De la Torre sets a range ball at the boy's feet. "Do you see a ball there?" he asks. Joey, quite reasonably, nods yes. "I don't," de la Torre says gently, "and neither should you. All you should see is the grass." The lad takes a rip and tops the ball. The old pro puts down another. "Don't hit it," he says. "Swing the club. The ball is the club's responsibility. Your responsibility is the club."
So it goes. The message is the same whether de la Torre is teaching a six-year-old or a PGA Tour player like Jerry Smith, who will walk down that winding path later in the day, or 73 Masters champion Tommy Aaron, or the LPGA's Sherri Steinhauer, who's driving in tomorrow from Madison, as she has done on a regular basis for 14 years.
De la Torre's philosophy hinges on one simple concept: The swing should be just that, an effortless, continuous motion back and forth in a line toward the target—back with the hands, forward with the arms. There are no platitudes about keeping the left arm straight or pushing off with the right foot. Nor are there pleas for good posture or hips that move out of the way. In fact, there are no demands on the body at all. "Everyone's body is different, so everyone's movements are unique to that individual," says de la Torre. "Having set the club on a true swinging motion, the golfer must then allow the body to respond to the motion of the swing itself."
This is the message he has been delivering for a half-century, one refined from the teachings of his father, Angel, a six-time Spanish Open champion and Spain's first golf pro, and Ernest Jones, the renowned British instructor and the author of Swing the Clubhead, an out-of-print 1952 instructional book that has a cult following. De la Torre's own foray into this arena, Understanding the Golf Swing (Warde Publishers, $27.95), was years in the writing and published this month to high praise.
"The simplicity of his theory is what attracted me," says Steinhauer, a two-time winner of the Women's British Open. "I'm not a very mechanical person, and Manuel takes all the mechanics out of it. I'm not thinking a lot of thoughts when I'm swinging. With him, it flows naturally. We worked from day one on getting the suppleness and flexibility in my swing, and the club flows when you're doing it right. I had tried other teachers, and on the range their advice worked, but when it came time to tee it up on Thursday, it didn't work. Thank God I met Manuel. He's an amazing man."
De la Torre was literally born on a golf course in 1921, in his parents' apartment above the pro shop of the Real Club de la Puerta de Hierro, near Madrid. His father was personal instructor to the Spanish royal family and a touring pro in Europe. While playing in a tournament in England, Angel was befriended by Jones, a promising player until he lost a leg in World War I. The two of them would discuss the swing for hours, often in front of young Manuel, who had been given his own set of short wooden clubs when he was 14 months old. The gist of Jones's theory was that if you wanted the ball to go to the target, you had to swing the clubhead to the target. Perfect swings led to perfect shots. Simple as that.
Jones eventually settled on Long Island and was teaching at Women's National Golf and Tennis Club in 1936, the year the Spanish Civil War broke out. Angel de la Torre happened to be visiting at the time. "Mr. Jones wouldn't let my father go home to get us, because if he had gone back he never would've been allowed to leave Spain," Manuel says.
Instead, Angel was hired as a teaching pro at Jones's club, which under the immigration laws of the time enabled Angel to send for the rest of his family. There was fighting in the streets of Madrid—at one point Manuel and his younger brother, Luis, missed a bus that minutes later was machine-gunned, killing every passenger but one. "We've had some good fortune in our lives," Manuel says. Leaving everything behind but the clothes on their backs, Manuel, Luis and their mother, Juana, were reunited with Angel in New York City in October 1936.