Don Pepper, Jr. was a heck of a baseball player, one of the hottest prospects coming out of upstate New York when he signed with the Detroit Tigers. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1968 along with Johnny Bench as the “Rookies to Watch.” Alas, the expansion Montreal Expos snagged Pepper from the Tigers and the promise soon faded. Given the choice between a AAA stint in Vancouver and returning home, Pepper packed his suitcase and headed to Saratoga Springs, where he worked on the family turkey farm before becoming an insurance agent and the owner of the area’s only lighted driving range.
In his spare time, he taught his daughter, Dottie, to play golf.
Those stories and more are told in Dottie Pepper’s new book, “Letters to a Future Champion: My time with Mr. Pulver,” a labor of love that the two-time major champion crafted during the COVID-19 pandemic as a tribute to mentorship.
The main character in the book’s 190 pages is a man who came of age during golf’s infancy in America: George Pulver, a pioneer in New York golf circles who served his country in World War I and went on to become a teacher, clubmaker, architect, agronomist and mentor to one of women’s golf’s most captivating figures.
As Dottie put it when I sat down with her at a recent event, “I started playing when I was 7 years old. My grandmother bought me a set of golf clubs and five lessons from a professional at a local driving range. Then I went to the par-29 course at the state park. It turns out Mr. Pulver designed nine of the 18 holes on the big course there. The next step (in my evolution as a player) was to go to Brookhaven, which was a regulation 18-hole course designed by George Pulver. Even being retired by that time, Mr. Pulver was still there (at Brookhaven Golf Club in Porter Corners, NY) most days. I remember him being out on the ninth hole getting soil samples with his wife Martha.
“I was fortunate that they took an interest in me. There was nothing that he didn’t know about or wasn’t curious about. And it wasn’t just golf. It was life stuff. Today he’d be referred to as a life coach.”
The first correspondence Pepper had with a man old enough to be her great grandfather was a letter she hand-wrote on teddy-bear stationary at age 14. It read, in part, “If it’s not too much trouble, I would like to ask a favor of you. With the golf season being announced, I was wondering if you would keep your eye out for any national or state tournaments and qualifiers. I thought that you two (George and Martha) would be the best people to ask to ‘watch out,’ seeing as though PGA magazines and things like that are addressed to you.”
“It’s not like you got on the internet and found tournaments,” Pepper said. “If you didn’t know where to go, you didn’t get in. My earliest contact with Mr. Pulver was trying to work out a schedule. Mr. Pulver pointed me in the direction of the people who had entries.
“That winter (when I was 14) my dad, who was still working with me, said, ‘I can’t take you any further (as a player). We’ve got to find someone else who can help you.’ I said, ‘How about Mr. Pulver?’
“So, I wrote a letter to his daughter, because I was too chicken to write to him. She passed it on to him. Little did I know that his wife, Martha, was four days away from dying.”
“I was lucky to have him in my life. … He wanted me to be a well-rounded thinker. It was a full experience.” – Dottie Pepper
Pulver’s reply, formal and typed, typical of men of that era, read: “Dottie: Madelyn passed your letter along to me, as well as her comments. She scores you as high on maturity and intellect as I do your golf. Thanks for the nice things you said about us. Your aim is far above the target, but thanks anyway.
“Now as to your golf and my tiny help: My plans and routines are in dismay, but I will get back to you later down the road. One day I would like to look at your swing at greater lengths, rather than the heretofore fleeting glance.
“A good golf style is indeed desirable, yet there is more. Your swing has served you well. Do not attempt radical changes. Time will support changes as needed. … Everyone must find his or her own way of attacking a golf ball.”
Said Pepper: “His kids were concerned that when Martha passed, he would slip away because they did everything together. He adored her. It turned out that I was his medicine.”
The book includes hand-written and typed notes between a girl growing into a young woman and a man with far more life behind than ahead of him. The style of writing and the wisdom derived from an economical mastery of language are on full display, along with pictures and summaries of how a talented and at times fiery athlete found herself with an old man’s guidance.
“I was lucky to have him in my life,” Pepper said. “We really started working in the spring of 1981. I went from a fader to someone who could hit the draw. But it was far more than golf swing work. He would give me homework and reading assignments. Some of it was heavy stuff: Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, the history of architecture, the history of the Masters. He wanted me to be more than a player. He wanted me to be a well-rounded thinker. It was a full experience.”
Then Pepper, now one of the most successful broadcasters in the game, looked down a lush fairway, paused for a moment, and said, “The value of mentorship has been lost today. We don’t communicate like we used to. I think this generation is missing so much.
“Maybe they don’t think they need to reach out or they’re hesitant because they don’t have the c0mmunication skills. But it’s a shame. It’s sitting right there in front of you. And most of the time, it’s free.
“You don’t have to take all of it. Pick and choose what you think is important. That was Mr. Pulver’s thing. He was throwing a lot of stuff at me, and he wanted me to choose and learn from what he was saying. He would say, ‘Go watch other players. See what they have in their bags. Look at how they’re playing different shots. Go look for yourself.’ That’s what good mentors do. They give you more skills so you can move yourself forward.
“You just have to be willing to ask. And you have to be willing to listen and learn.”
© 2021 Global Golf Post LLC
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