The Philadelphia golf community lost another giant. Stanley Zontek, the U.S. Golf Association’s top agronomist for the Mid-Atlantic region, died of a heart attack last Tuesday. He was 63.
Zontek’s name might not be that familiar to ordinary golfers. He didn’t win tournaments. He didn’t own courses. He was a behind-the-scenes guy.
But to course superintendents and members of Golf Committees from Scranton down to Southside Virginia, from Atlantic City out to Charleston, W. Va., Zontek was a towering figure.
He was, in fact, the guy superintendents turned to for advice and expertise, especially in a crisis. Zontek knew everything about growing grass, about nursing a golf course through a summer drought or rainy season, or defending against an attack by some mysterious grass-eating disease. And if there was a new or better way of doing something, chances are Zontek had been involved in developing it.
“I got a call from a superintendent yesterday who said, ‘Stan has been visiting me for 25 years and everywhere I look on my golf course, I see something Stan either recommended or helped me get done,’ ” said Darin Bevard, senior agronomist with the USGA, who worked for Zontek for 16 years in the Mid-Atlantic Section, based in Glen Mills.
Zontek’s death was so sudden and unexpected, superintendents in the region have been left stunned and disheartened.
“We all feel a huge sense of loss,” said John Gosselin, superintendent at Aronimink GC and past president of the Philadelphia Association of Golf Course Superintendents. “Stan was more than a consultant; he was a friend. He made a lot of clubs better in the area.”
Zontek was in the hospital at the time of his death. According to Bevard, Zontek suffered from a mild form of leukemia and he was in the hospital for a blood transfusion.
Tony Gustaitis, superintendent at Whitemarsh Valley CC, had exchanged emails with Zontek on Sunday, and Zontek never bothered to mention he was writing from the hospital. Bevard had spoken to him by phone on Monday. He was expecting to see Zontek back in the office on Thursday.
“It has been a tough couple of days,” said Bevard.
Zontek came by all his expertise and his close associations the old fashioned way. He was, in fact, the longest-tenured employee of the USGA, going back 41 years, to 1971. His title, technically, was Director, USGA Green Section, Mid-Atlantic Region. But to superintendents, Zontek was much, much more.
“Stanley was a confidante, an adviser to an awful lot of people in the golf course industry,” said Bevard. “To superintendents, he was everybody’s uncle.”
To me, he was a nice guy and a reliable, quotable expert. Whenever a golf courses were hammered by weather or disease, I’d call a few superintendents to hear the “micro” view of their course. Then I’d call the USGA office, hoping to reach Zontek or Bevard for a sense of the big picture – the “macro” view.
In all the times I called, I caught Zontek in the office maybe three times. More often than not, Pat Stairiker, the administrative assistant, would say, “Stan’s not in; he’s on a site visit.”
An annual site visit from Zontek – he did 100 to 130 a year – was a big deal for a golf course. Zontek would make a day of it. He’d be met by the superintendent; they’d hop in a cart and tour the course, checking out anything and everything. They’d discuss problems, kick around ideas and solutions, then eventually head back to the clubhouse to clean up for dinner.
Dinner would be a with the club’s Golf Chairman, the Golf Committee and the Board of Governors, usually highlighted by an address to the group by Zontek. That’s when the room would get quiet.
Nobody knew this ritual better than Gustaitis, who had known Zontek or 30 years and hosted his visits to Whitemarsh Valley for 25 years.
“When he would visit my club, I would just sit back and watch him talk to our board members and green committee members about things like turf grass and insects,” said Gustaitis, marveling.
Such was his respect and affection for Zontek that it did not bother him that Zontek’s opinion often carried more weight with his bosses than his own.
“It’s funny,” said Gustaitis, “I could say, ‘I think we need to do this,’ and a lot of times it would fall on deaf ears. But when Stan would come to visit and say the same thing, the next day they would say, ‘Let’s get this done.’ ”
Away from the office, Zontek loved food and wine. He took great pride in knowing the little out-of-the-way restaurants that were favorites with the locals. He also had passions for Civil War history and for Shelby Cobra Mustangs, of all things.
“He had a Mustang for as long as I’ve known him,” said Bevard.
But golf, the golf business and the USGA were at the center of Zontek’s life.
“He ate, drank and breathed it,” said Bevard.
Gustaitis chuckles at the memory of some of his dinners with Zontek.
“Our dinner conversation would be 10 percent turf grass management and the rest about wine or traveling or the golf courses he visited in strange places,” he said. “He visited golf courses in Latvia – both of them.”