Friday, June 18, 2010

SPORTS>>Veteran pro played Hogan, still active

Leader sports editor

When his all-expenses-paid government vacation ended, Tom Hanson had just about had his fill of the great outdoors.
Just about.

Hanson, 81, is still helping out at the revamped Greens of North Hills Golf Course in Sherwood, where he was head pro from 1962-1985. Hanson is as happy on a golf course as the day he left the U.S. Army and 21 miserable months in the field in the early 1950s.

“After that, the only outdoors I liked were on a golf course,” Hanson said. “They talk about camping and fishing and hunting and I was like ‘No thanks, I’ve been through that.’ ”

Hanson assists his one-time apprentice Dawn Darter, who hasreturned to the now-public North Hills as head pro. It’s a way for Hanson to stay connected to the game he has loved since his amateur success in pre-WWII Kansas.

Hanson was born in Emporia, Kan., and began caddying in Wichita in 1940.

He said a golfer’s education came primarily through caddy training programs, which allowed the young men to play on Mondays but also taught them the rules and etiquette they would need when working for their 75-cent fees the rest of the week.

“If you knocked yourself out and didn’t lose a ball you might get a dime tip,” said Hanson who worked his way up through a pool of 60 or so “boys,” many of them grown family men and veteran, first-list caddies.

The war soon siphoned off the military-aged men and gave Hanson a chance to earn money.

He also recalled a 1944 exhibition by the legendary Byron Nelson, who paid a princely $50 for a dozen pre-war Spalding Dot balls, whose production had been suspended for the war effort.

For perspective, the suggested retail price of a dozen of today’s Titleist Pro V1 balls is approximately $50.

Hanson won the Kansas high school championship in 1945, played in the men’s state amateur in Salinas in 1946 and won the state caddy tournament that year. He played a year at Wichita State and then embraced the life of a club pro when he began assisting head pro Gene O’Brien at Wichita’s Rolling Hills Country Club in the spring of 1948.

Hanson remembers O’Brien for his teaching ability and people skills.

“One of the best club professionals there ever was,” Hanson said.

Hanson’s stay at Rolling Hills ended in November 1950 thanks to the U.S. government.

“I worked with Gene for about two years and then Uncle Sam invited me to spend two years with them and I graciously consented,” Hanson said.

The Korean War had been under way since June, but Hanson took his chances in the draft in November and two years in the Army rather than volunteering for three years in the Air Force.

The Army assigned him to a topographic engineer battalion and Hanson spent 21 of his 24 months outdoors dealing with map-plotting problems and, for one summer, Alaska’s Jeep-swallowing mud and clouds of mosquitoes.

Yet Hanson knew he was lucky not to be in Korea. A bout with the measles put him in an Army hospital in San Francisco in 1951, and Hanson saw hundreds of war casualties, many of them frostbite victims.

“These boys had all lost either one or both feet to frostbite,” Hanson said. “It was a very sobering experience there and again I was extremely lucky to get by like I did.”

Hanson returned to Rolling Hills after the service and on July 13, 1954, he teamed with O’Brien in an exhibition to play PGA legend Ben Hogan and Roland Harper, one of Hanson’s former high school opponents and an assistant pro.

The four teed off in 114-degree heat before a crowd of 1,500, and 18 holes later Hanson and O’Brien finished 8 under, two strokes better than Hogan and Harper.

“We tried for a month to get a bet and they just laughed at us,” Hanson said.

However, Hogan — coming off his Masters, U.S. and British Open victories of 1953 — didn’t disappoint as he shot an individual 5-under 67 to flirt with the course record.

Hanson thought about becoming a touring pro but didn’t think he could find the financial backing. After working at or operating courses in Oklahoma, he arrived in Arkansas in 1962 as head pro at North Hills Country Club.

He started a popular pro-am, then became head pro at Pleasant Valley in Little Rock from 1985-92. Hanson has since bounced around teaching and giving lessons, and he was happy to return to North Hills to do whatever he can to help out Darter.

“I’m in awe of that girl. I just stay out of her way,” Hanson said.

Hanson gives lessons, supervises the volunteer starters and still tries to provide the quality care he learned from O’Brien.

“You give them a little service, you take care of them and give them a smile,” Hanson said.