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.