Goodbye to the consummate pro

April 14, 2009

A few years ago Gene Borek and I got to talking about death. This was when Gene was preparing to step down after 25 years as the head pro at Metropolis Country Club in White Plains, N.Y. and as the golf writer in town, I stopped by the club to write a story detailing his career.

At that point, Borek was four years into a battle with kidney cancer. When I asked him how much the disease weighed on him, his tone remained as even as if he were talking about a case of the yips.

"I'm going to live until I die," Borek said that day. "My philosophy is, the time and place of your death is determined by the sovereignty of God. You can't concern yourself with things out of your control. If I was going to die tomorrow, I'd still live today the same way."

Borek indeed squeezed the most out of his life before finally succumbing to cancer this morning at age 72. He leaves behind a wife, three children, and a legacy as one of the great club pros of his generation.

Golf doesn't allow for figures like Gene Borek anymore, guys who would spend their summers working dawn-to-dusk at their club, then hop on a plane to compete in a major and serve as more than stage props once they were there.

Although never a full-time touring pro, Borek still managed to win some 40 tournaments worldwide, and compete in 38 majors. In 1971, while working at Pine Hollow Country Club on Long Island, he was fourth in the PGA Championship heading into the final round before stumbling late. Two years later, he had both the distinction and misfortune of shooting 65 in the U.S. Open at Oakmont -- distinction because it broke a course record that had lasted 20 years; misfortune because it was eclipsed just two days later by Johnny Miller's 63.

Borek wasn't one to trumpet that Oakmont round, but he didn't shy away from it, either. He loved to tell the story of a youth clinic a few years back, when Miller was brought in to address the group, and Borek lurked in the back of the room.

"See that guy in the back there?" Miller told the kids. "He shot 65 before I shot 63."

He was a promising enough player to leave the club life behind and venture out on tour. But much like Claude Harmon, who won the Masters in 1948 while working down the road at Winged Foot, Borek still relished his role as a teacher -- both to the doctors and investment bankers who comprised his clubs' memberships, and to a growing stable of assistants who worked under him.

In contrast to the modern pros who are guilty of hyperanalysis, Borek was a minimalist. That was encapsulated by the book he co-wrote with Carl Lohren, "One Move To Better Golf," which focused on the role of the left shoulder in starting the swing.

"Most good teachers know when to teach and when not to teach," Borek told me. "I believe if you have the correct address and position, the action should take care of itself. There are exceptions, but more or less, you should be able to swing the club and then hang on for the ride."

His genius was in keeping the game simple, which was fitting because he wasn't a very complicated man. Soft-spoken, with a prominent jaw and sun-beaten skin, he looked like he arrived at the golf course straight off the set of a John Wayne movie.

If he was born 20 years later, Borek would have surely been forced to choose between competing with the best in the world, or refining the swings of everyone around him. Borek was one of the last of the pros that was able to do both.

-- Sam Weinman