Jay Golden: Golf's true renaissance man
Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the March 2010 issue of Golf Digest.
One of the charms of the Florida Swing is running into more people who truly live the game than you will any other place on earth. And I've never met anyone as lovingly immersed as Jay Golden.
Golf pours out of the 65-year-old Golden, a native of Brooklyn who followed his passion to Winter Park outside Orlando 16 years ago. The game has kept him looking young—lithe and tan, with a face that can evoke Jerry Lewis in "The Caddie." If the term "golf Renaissance man" has any meaning it all, then it has to apply to Golden.
Over the last 40 years, he has been a tournament player, instructor, trick-shot artist, long-drive competitor, emcee, stand-up comedian, cartoonist, journalist, children's-book writer, screenwriter, poet, inventor, painter and singer—all with golf as the prefix.
To my mind—with particular deference to art critics—Golden fulfills all these roles very well. But even as he's found the process fulfilling, he's acutely aware that the results haven't led to wide acclaim.
"I've made 5,000 pitches, and prob- ably gotten 100 yeses," he says with a faint trace of resignation. "Could have had a professional represent me, or may- be my things just aren't good enough. But I keep going, and it's OK. I believe in the idea of 'Do something great, and something great might happen.' "
I thought Golden did something great -- at least in the small world of golf writing -- when I first became aware of him in the early '90s. His "Swing Thoughts" series in PGA Magazine featured incisive questions and candid answers from the game's greats on exactly what was in their heads when they hit a shot. "You're only as good as your swing thought," says Golden. "And you're only one swing thought away from playing your best golf."
Golden had that turn of mind as a boy in Sheepshead Bay, where "I lived in the schoolyard and was obsessed with anything that had to do with a ball." After a neighbor began hitting a Wiffle ball with a club, Golden designed a course that crossed streets with the "greens" patches of grassless dirt on the sidewalks. He loved watching Arnold Palmer, to whom he would one day give lessons, on television, but "I watched every swing by every player, comparing, looking for patterns, analyzing."
Although inexperienced in formal competition, after college Golden won the Woodstock (N.Y.) Open, turned pro and became an assistant at Dyker Beach in his native borough. Unsuccessful on a California mini-tour, he returned home to try standup, and then become an assistant pro at Grossinger's Resort, where he doubled as an emcee at night, introducing comedians such as Jackie Mason, David Brenner, Rodney Dangerfield and Dick Shawn. Eventually, he struck out for Florida, hoping his skills in the year-round golf mecca might lead to the big time.
It hasn't happened. Despite a lot of Jay Golden instruction on YouTube (check out the Windmill swing), and much close work with touring pros and aspirants, his teaching gig at the very public Winter Pines GC only garners a fraction of what most well-known instructors charge. He's written a book with Kathy Whitworth and emceed a steady stream of outings and dinners, but a lot of Golden's efforts—like three finished screenplays, and auditions for golf movies and television shows—have brought no remuneration.
Golden's oils of golf holes and famous players hang on the walls of his ranch-style home and have a Van Gogh influence so obvious that Golden sometimes markets them under the pseudonym "Vincent Van Golf." He estimates he's sold about 300 over the years, most of them for less than $25.
But Golden doesn't get down. He and his wife of 32 years, Robin, an elementary school teacher and mother to their three children, laugh a lot, even when it's just another rendition of Golden's dead-on Dangerfield impression. When asked about his poetry (which has the approval of his friend Billy Collins, the former Poet Laureate of the United States, who teaches at Winter Park's Rollins College), Golden will break into a lively recital of all 26 stanzas of his poem, "Every Golfer's Dream."
One of his songs, "Moe Knows," based on his time with Moe Norman, is sung in a decidedly Dylanesque style and includes the following line: "Moe knows, Moe knows. Learn to make yourself happy."
Jay Golden has done that. For all the ways he has spliced golf, he's followed Curly's advice in "City Slickers:" "Just one thing." It's a very Florida story.