Golf pro to the stars

HARRY PEZZULLO WAS THE GO-TO GUY WHEN GOLF GAMES NEEDED FIXING

The Providence Sunday Journal, 06/05/05, by Bill Reynolds

Maybe it was the time he watched Al Capone play golf outside Chicago, on a day when the legendary mob boss wore a monogrammed silk shirt, had diamonds in his belt buckle, a flask in his pocket, and numerous caddies who all had guns in their bags.

Maybe it was the time in the early ‘60s when he got a call for golf lessons late at night from Chicago crime boss Sam Giancana.

"Get your ...down to the club," Giancana said.

"Now?" he asked.

"Now," Giancana said.

So soon afterwards he found himself in the middle of the night on a darkened golf course. A caravan of cars arrived, Giancana in a nondescript one, the better for protection from would-be assassins. The headlights from cars lighted the practice tee, someone threw 80 balls on the tee, and he started looking at Giancana’s swing.

Or maybe it was the time he was giving golf lessons to Katharine Hepburn in L.A. while Howard Hughes kept buzzing the course in a plane.

Or maybe it was the five presidents he played golf with, or the movie stars he was on a first-name basis with.

But somewhere in the incredible story that his life had become, when he was being called the "professional to the stars," Harry Pezzullo must have realized that he had come a long, long way from the dirt road virtually tucked in the middle of the Rhode Island Country Club-Horatio Alger with a 5 iron.

"No one could have made up Harry’s life," says his brother Jim. Or the Pezzullo family, either.

There were 11 kids, growing up when the 20th century was young. The seven boys all grew up caddying for 50 cents a bag, learning to play by watching the members, then sneaking on the course to play in the summer twilight with their hickory shaft irons. Their father did landscaping for Henry D. Sharpe, one of the owners of Rhode Island industrial giant Brown & Sharpe, at his summer home at Nyatt Point, about a three wood away from the Pezzullo house. Every summer he would buy two pigs, and feed them garbage until the winter, when they were shot. Then the family would live off the pigs through the winter.

Golf was the family game.

All the boys played. All the the boys got good. Real good.

Italian kids in Barrington caddied at Rhode Island Country Club then, a tradition that continued through the ‘60s anyway. Almost all of them. They caddied during the week and the only time they were allowed to play on the course was Monday morning, caddy day. Then in the spring the best ones played for the Barrington High School golf team. During Jim Pezzullo’s tenure there in the ‘30s, Barrington won four straight golf titles, and he says if you couldn’t shoot 75 you weren’t making the golf team. By his count eight kids from the Italian neighborhood near Rhode Island Country Club became professional golfers.

But Jim Pezzullo wasn’t the best golfer of the Pezzullo brothers.

In 1929 his brother Joe came out of nowhere to win the Rhode Island State Amateur title, a victory for egalitarian democracy. For golf was the rich man’s game then. Either that, or the poor kids who caddied, learned the game fromthe ground up.

"The night Joe won my father opened up the wine, some of the members came over, and they drank all night," Jim Pezzullo says.

In that same time, Harry won the State Publinx title, but even then he was described in the Journal as a golfer with a temper. In 1940 the two brothers were the only Rhode Islanders in the New England trials for the U.S. Open.

So who was the better golfer? "For nine holes Harry could beat anybody," says Jim Pezzullo. "Then he would blow up. Joe was better."

Joe stayed around here and became the pro at Louisquisset, a public course in North Providence. Harry took off for the stars. Literally.

It’s interesting now to go through the Journal’s clip file on Harry Pezzullo. Most of the clippings are old and yellowed, some as far back as 1935. Like the time he flew from California to New Jersey to attend the Lindbergh trial, flying with Hollywood star Carol Lombard and the gossip priestess of the time, Louella Parsons. Or two years later when a headline read, "Rhode Island Golfer Teaches Film Stars."

"In the beginning he would tell us all these stories and we wouldn’t believe him," says Jim Pezzullo, who went on to be the manager at Rhode Island Country Club, as well as other clubs. "Then we came to understand that it all happened.

Harry Pezzullo’s main guy was probably Bing Crosby, the old crooner of "White Christmas" fame. He began working with him in California in 1936 at Crosby’s course, Rancho Santa Fe, called him "The Bing." That became Pezzullo’s entre into the Hollywood set. Perry Como. Bob Hope. Harry Pezzullo dealt with all of them. When he was given a testimonial in 1958 at Rhode Island Country Club, honoring the former caddy who had virtually grown up on the course, two of the telegrams read were from Dean Martin and George Gobel. That was the year he was named the PGA’s professional golfer of the year. He was 47, and said that to be honored by many of the men he once had caddied for meant as much to him as being honored by the PGA.

In 1982 he became the pro at Ballenisles Country Club in Florida’s Palm Beach Gardens.

By that time he had been the pro at Mission Hills outside of Chicago for decades, was in the Chicago Sports Hall of Fame, would sit in the Florida sunshine and tell his war stories about the old days. How Capone always would have about 25 of his guys watching him play golf, guys with names like "Banjo Eyes," "Killer," and "Golf Bag." How he was a decent player, could shoot in the 80s. How Giancana was a gangster, sure, but he always treated him well, and could shoot in the 70s.

For 15 years Ballenisles hosted the "Harry Pezzullo Invitational," a charity event that always attracted big names. By this time he was a certified character, the old guy with all the stories, someone who once had caddied for Bobby Jones and whose life seemed to mirror so much of golf’s growth in the 20th century. In a sense, his whole life was on the walls of his office, the innumerable pictures of himself with athletes and entertainers: Bob Hope. Dan Marino. Sam Snead. Perry Como, whom Pezzullo used to play matches with, giving him a stroke a hole.

"I knew them all," he once said. "I was the kind of guy who could get along with all of them."

Last week it all ended, Harry Pezzullo dying in his sleep in Florida at 94.

There was a long obituary in The Palm Beach Post. It called him a "golf icon and friend to famous," and said he was many things to many people-PGA club professional, a raconteur, teacher, trick-shot artist, and quite a singer, to name a few.

Or who else had holes-in-one in competition both right-handed and left-handed, something that got him into Ripley’s Believe It Or Not?

Then again, Harry Pezzullo’s whole life was a believe-it-or not one.

A life no one ever could have envisioned when he was a little kid growing up on a dirt road in Barrington, one that backed up into the 11th green at the Rhode Island Country Club, back in a different time, a different America.

"No one would have ever believed it," says Jim Pezzullo. "A little kid from Barrington who grew up in borrowed shoes."

Editor’s note: A 2003 Golf Digest story by Dave Kindred and a March 27 article in the Palm Beach Post were used as resource material for this story.

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