Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. – Not many people know that before we were introduced to golf phenoms such as Tiger Woods and Michelle Wie, there was a youngster from Columbus, Ohio, who had the sports world buzzing.
Dr. Anthony Rejent knows. He recalls walking onto the first tee in the early 1950s for a state high school championship to find that he had been paired with Jack Nicklaus, with an accompanying gallery far larger than any he had ever encountered.
“By this time, Jack had already burst onto the national scene,” said Rejent, who grew up in Toledo. “I remember that I birdied the first hole and he parred it, but he ended up beating me by about a dozen shots.”
Rejent, who began caddieing at famed Inverness Club at age 10, went on to earn a basketball scholarship to St. Louis University (later switching to golf), and after medical school at Creighton University, he became a renowned pediatric pulmonary physician in the St. Louis area, working with children with cystic fibrosis for four decades.
When Rejent found out that Nicklaus would be the featured speaker at the fourth USGA Member Education Series event at PGA National Resort & Spa, he signed on and brought a copy of a nearly 60-year-old newspaper story and photo from a state junior tournament that featured the pair. Jack had won, of course, and before participating in a question-and-answer session on Nov. 14 at the exclusive USGA Member event, he renewed acquaintances with Rejent and signed the press clipping for him.
“When we played together, we talked about golf, we talked about basketball,” said Rejent, 72, of their long ago competitive round. “He was never aloof. He was a kid like anyone else, just one with enormous talent. He could hit a 3-iron like you or I would hit an 8-iron, so high and land it so softly.”
Rejent was among 120 USGA Members and guests who attended the three-day USGA event, which was highlighted by the 90-minute, Q-and-A featuring Nicklaus and Rich Lerner of the Golf Channel. The schedule also included a panel discussion on the state of the game with industry leaders from the USGA, The PGA of America and the LPGA; a behind-the-scenes look at the staging of the U.S. Open with USGA vice president Thomas J. O’Toole, Jr.; and two rounds of golf at PGA National, which hosts the PGA Tour’s Honda Classic each March.
Rejent wasn’t the only Member with a Nicklaus vignette. Phil Poletti of Kenosha, Wis., was bitten by the golf bug after he caddied for his father in a pro-am before the Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio, Nicklaus’ home course.
“It was June 1979, right after I graduated from college,” said Poletti. “I was taking lessons and trying to play every day. The assistant pro at Muirfield Village sent me out on the 10th hole because there was a couples’ tournament on the first nine. I was playing alone, and when I got to the 14th hole, there was Jack on the tee with [longtime teacher] Jack Grout, and Angelo Argea, his caddie, was out on the fairway. It was a couple of weeks before the U.S. Open, and Jack was trying to hit the green with his driver on the short par-4 hole.
“Jack invited me to play through … I could barely talk – I did my best Jackie Gleason “humana, humana” impression, and finally got out that I had just started playing the game. Well, I went up to the tee and hit a 4-wood, and Jack took about five minutes to give me a few pointers. After that, I asked if he would mind if I stayed; I watched him hit balls for about a half-hour. I remember he hit one into the creek in front of the green and yelled to Angelo to go in and get it.”
Poletti’s late father, Tom, was a charter member at Muirfield Village who worked on the scoring committee for the Memorial. The 55-year-old Poletti is an associate director of the Wisconsin State Golf Association, and he acts as a Rules official for seven or eight state events and USGA qualifiers each summer.
“When I chatted with Jack, he said that he remembered my dad,” said Poletti. “For someone who is as crazy about the game as I am, this has been a great event. I’m so thankful it wasn’t a 400- or 500-person type of deal. I was able to speak with [PGA of America CEO] Joe Steranka about volunteering at the Ryder Cup next year [at Medinah C.C.], and I bounced some ideas off Tom O’Toole from the USGA. My friends who I told about it could appreciate what we were exposed to here and were really jealous.”
David and Kevin Risch were ruminating on a 70th birthday gift for their father, Gerry, when David received an e-mail about the Member Education Series event. The subscription to a wine club they were discussing quickly went by the boards.
“When we saw what the package included, we said why not do this,” said David, 36, of Chicago, who also attended with his brother and their mother, Judy. “We let him know on Oct. 29, two days before his birthday. Even without the events, we got to play two topnotch courses, and it was great to interact with the other Members.”
Dennis Muron of Greenville, S.C., has a son and daughter he is introducing to the game, and he appreciated the morning panel discussion on the game’s future. “I was really pleasantly surprised by how thorough it was, and how deeply involved it was. And Jack wasn’t in a hurry last night; he listened to everyone’s questions, and he was so free-flowing that I was amazed.”
Rejent wasn’t surprised at all. “Jack has always been a friendly, engaging person,” he said, then pointed to Nicklaus standing nearby. “It was really exciting for me to be able to say hello to him. That’s the world’s greatest golfer right there.”
Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for USGA Communications. E-mail him at email@example.com.