Editor’s note: This story on Ernie Sabayrac is the first in a series of special GGP/Biz pieces during the week of the PGA Show in Orlando, Florida.
Wherever Ernie Sabayrac went, whether it was strolling the floor of a convention center, a golf shop, or weaving among the gallery at a championship, folks stopped in their tracks to pay homage to the man who was the “Father of Golf Merchandising.”
A mighty mite at 5-feet, Sabayrac cast a large shadow over an industry where golf professionals had previously limited their shop to sales of balls, tees and a few stocked shirts.
Through his 40-year career, up to his retirement in 1980, Sabayrac changed hearts and minds by his dynamic personality and vision. Elected to PGA membership in 1939, he recorded a bagful of milestones.
The first salesman to offer golf shoes directly to PGA professionals, he is credited with designing the first spiked golf shoe through Field and Flint, the forerunner of FootJoy, now the world’s largest golf shoemaker. Before Sabayrac, many golfers bought street shoes in retail stores and added their own spikes.
“He would say ‘Morning!’ whether it was day or night.” –Sabayrac’s daughter Sally Laskey
“Dad would enter a golf shop, introduce himself, and say, ‘I’m here to help you sell golf shoes,’” said his son, Bill, now a semi-retired apparel sales representative living in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. “Pros used to tell him, ‘But we can’t sell golf shoes,’ and he used to say, ‘That’s right, you can’t, because you don’t have any.’”
Sabayrac earned a nickname that he would carry for a lifetime, and it became part of his signature greeting to PGA members and friends.
“My dad was so tan, his skin was so dark,” Bill said. “One of the caddies at Houston Country Club (where Sabayrac once worked) said, ‘Ernie, you’re so black, you’re blue.’ ”Those caddies, black and white, endeared themselves to the man with the megawatt smile and booming voice, greeting him, “Morning, Blue.” The nickname was coined, and Ernie would let out a big, “Morning, Blue,” wherever he went.
“He would say ‘Morning!’ whether it was day or night,” laughed his daughter, Sally Laskey of Siesta Key, Florida.
Sabayrac was the first to make soft goods available to his fellow PGA members, bringing color and modern lighting into the golf shop. Suddenly, the golf shop transformed from a hardware look to a showcase.
He was just getting rolling, suggesting that golf professionals display their club’s logo on those soft goods. Before his career ended, Sabayrac had developed a nationwide staff of 50 salespersons working for Ernie Sabayrac Inc., catering to the golf professional. The Sabayrac energy rubbed off, and professionals who were the closest to him benefited at a faster pace.
“He had a very open personality, was a wonderful speaker and was an engaging person,” Sally said. “He had a vision for what things should be around a golf course.”
In 1951, at Dunedin (Florida) Country Club, Sabayrac broke new ground again by introducing product lines from the trunk of his and a few associates’ cars. This happened three years before the official birth of the PGA Show.
That humble beginning was the forerunner of a PGA Show that by the 1990s commanded nearly 1 million square feet of contiguous exhibit space in the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando.
“Dad was a bit larger than rice,” Bill said jokingly. “At the PGA Show, when he walked the aisles, people took notice and wanted to shake his hand.”
Bill recalled how he saw his father take over a crowd by accident.
“When I was 12, dad took me to the Masters,” Bill said. “After golf ended one day, we made our way to the parking lot. Dad was wearing a hat, tie and a sport coat, looking his beautiful self. We heard whistling and cheers directed at us. We couldn’t figure it out until one guy yelled, ‘Hey, it’s Bob Hope!’ Others chimed in, ‘Hey, Bob, good to see you!’”
Born Jan. 2, 1915, in Houston, Texas, Sabayrac was the youngest of four sons in a family of eight children of immigrant parents – father, Uriel Sabayrac, a vegetable farmer of French descent, and mother, Vera, a Russian. His parents had met at a Houston immigration office and struck up a romance.
Wee Ernie didn’t enjoy working the vegetable fields with his brothers and was instructed to stay home and prepare lunch. The story is that when his father returned, Ernie was practicing a golf swing, not setting lunch on the table.
Sabayrac graduated from high school, caddied at Houston Country Club with Jimmy Demaret (five years older than Ernie), advanced all the way to caddiemaster and became an assistant professional there. He earned PGA membership in 1939 and had his first career break while working under PGA of America treasurer Willie Maguire, the head professional at Houston.
Maguire convinced the president of Wilson Sporting Goods that Sabayrac would be a great catch as a salesman for the company. Based in suburban Detroit, Sabayrac arranged exhibitions within a year of his hire and scheduled Wilson Staff stars such as Sam Snead, Johnny Revolta and Clayton Heafner to play at courses a few days before the PGA Tour stopped at a nearby area course.
Ernie would ultimately meet MacGregor Golf Company president Bob Rickey, nephew of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Branch Rickey, who had broken baseball’s color barrier in 1947 by hiring Jackie Robinson. Rickey’s office administrator in Cincinnati, Evelyn Collins, caught Ernie’s eye. They would marry in 1948 in Sandusky, Ohio.
For Bill Sabayrac, those generations of PGA and industry professionals who never got to meet his father can learn from his passion for customer service.
“The customer is always right no matter what,” Bill said. “I always thought that was what dad meant to the golf professional.”
At home, Sabayrac was entertaining and would preface meals by saying, “Keep your heads down and swallow through.”
His vision continued in print when he launched The Carriage Trade News in 1966, a quarterly newsletter about merchandising in the golf shop. “It was his example of the upper end of quality, and he would write about advice and opportunity for club professionals to use in golf shops across the country,” Bill said.
In that inaugural newsletter, Sabayrac focused his spotlight on women enhancing the golf shop.
“My dad recognized how important it was to have women in leadership roles in golf merchandising, and now 90 percent of buyers in the industry are women,“ Bill said.
And Sabayrac represented the best of what he was selling. He was “dressed to the nines, and with his size, his closet was all custom-made apparel,” Bill said. “In 1988, Dad said to me, ‘I think there is an opportunity to sell high-end apparel and accessories in the golf shop.’ ”
Timberland Shoes, a casual shoe line, and handmade leather bags were soon among lines marketed by Sabayrac and his team.
“Dad was a real people person and was a fun guy to be around,” Sally said. “He was a total self-made man.”
Sabayrac had been ill and in and out of the hospital since falling and breaking a leg on Jan. 2, 1997, his 82nd birthday, and died on Feb. 6. John Laskey, Ernie’s son-in-law, added his perspective on a man whom he met at age 16, just as he was starting to date Sally. They have been together for more than 50 years.
John, a semi-retired financial adviser, called Sabayrac “the consummate Dale Carnegie man who never took the course. He was beloved. He made everyone feel good. I said at his funeral that I admired him more than any man I ever met. He would never speak about himself. He would be always talking about what is going on and interest about those in the room.”
Sabayrac’s success in breaking new ground in merchandising, Laskey believes, was a combination of a magnetic personality and the skill to gauge his audience.
“The thing that was so incredible about him,” Laskey said, “was that he was extremely charismatic. He could connect with people and get a good reading on them. He had this uncanny ability to whenever you were with him, you would leave feeling better about yourself.
“He was an extraordinarily instructive person. He almost couldn’t stand to be something that could be improved and not be improved. He was somebody who would never ask anyone to do something when he could get up and do it himself.”
In 1994, the PGA of America created the Ernie Sabayrac Award for lifetime contributions to the golf industry and made the namesake the first recipient.
Among later honorees was Jim Vincent Jr., who was honored in 2000.
“Ernie hired his first salesman, Jim Burt, who had worked for my father,” said Vincent, whose family has been represented at every PGA Show. “Ernie was a guy who walked into a room, and you knew he was there. He made a difference.”
Sabayrac is the only PGA member to be presented the honor, and he leads an elite list including such names as Gary Adams, Karsten Solheim, Ely Callaway, Barney Adams, Nancy Haley, Bob Rickey and Bev Dolan.
Sabayrac earned PGA Half-Century membership recognition by 1990. Though the award bearing his name was “sunsetted” in 2013, there are many who won’t forget the man behind the award or how he was a catalyst for the evolution of the PGA Show.
In January 1996, Sabayrac strolled the floor of the Orange County Convention Center for the last time.
“One person after another, many of them PGA members who met Ernie during his cross-country sales stops, stopped him during that walk,” Laskey said. “They would say, ‘I just want to shake the hand of a legend.’ ”
Ernie would later find a quiet perch that day in a third-floor lounge that overlooked the PGA Show floor.
“The expression on his face was absolutely jubilant, seeing what he had worked so hard to achieve,” Laskey said. “It was a wonderful moment for him.”
Bob Denney is the PGA of America’s historian emeritus
All photos courtesy of Bill Sabayrac
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