By Clay Henry
Bill Connors hired me at the Tulsa World to cover college football and basketball in 1978. But he promised that the golf writer would probably be retiring soon and I could add those duties at some point. When he called me to the sports editor’s office after two years, there was only one suggestion.
"Sometime soon, drive over to Miami," said the veteran sports editor. "Meet Marshall Smith. I think you two will hit it off. I don’t know much about golf, but I’m told by people who do that Marshall would be great for a column now and then."
Connors and Smith were already good friends. It was Smith’s ability to hook Connors up with the great Mickey Mantle, his best friend, that sparked that relationship. I met Mantle through Marshall, too. But that didn’t have anything to do with also becoming best friends with Smith.
I was quickly added to a list of thousands that called Marshall his best friend. It’s like that when a golf instructor knocks about 10 strokes off your handicap.
The Quawpaw Methodist Church overflowed Tuesday for Smith’s funeral. Built by his father just before his birth, it was where Marshall worshiped for 87 years. It was packed 45 minutes before the service to no one’s surprise. I was there 46 minutes before the start and got the next-to-last seat, with Golf Oklahoma editor Ken MacLeod grabbing the final seat shortly after. There was a good crowd outside where folding chairs surrounded two sets of speakers.
GOLF magazine editor David DeNunzio, who flew in from Los Angeles to deliver the eulogy, had everyone who believed he was Marshall’s best friend raise his hand. Mine went up along with one hundred others.
DeNunzio helped Marshall publish several books, including my favorite, Hit Your Second Shot First. It spoke to Marshall’s belief that you planned your round from the green back to the tee. DeNunzio had the place roaring when he speculated that Marshall is now God’s golf instructor.
"Everyone knows that not even God can hit a one-iron," DeNunzio said. "Marshall is getting that fixed with a warning: God, hit your second shot first."
Smith lived his whole life within eight miles of Quapaw, mostly in Miami where he welcomed some of the game’s great to his practice tee for lessons. He gave Hale Irwin his first lessons. He also worked with Mickey Wright and Luke Donald. Those three were all at one point tops on the PGA Champions Tour, LPGA or PGA Tour circuits, respectively. Wonderful players like Craig Stadler, Chi Chi Rodriguez, Gary Player and countless others flew to Miami for lessons with Smith.
Hung on the wall in Marshall’s living room are covers of Golf Weekly and other industry magazines with legendary players after their victories with a personal penned message of thanks to Marshall. I covered an Oklahoma City senior event when Rodriguez brought Marshall to the interview room to thank him for Monday tips on the practice tee that led to his victory after a long slump.
"I had forgotten some of my keys," Chi Chi said. "Marshall saw my flaws in an instant and had me fixed."
That’s kind of what my father said 15 years ago when I sent him to Miami to see Marshall. The idea was that he’d come back with a column of interest. He came back with a revamped golf game and a new best friend. When I called Marshall to ask if he’d see him, Marshall said, "Send him. I’ll fix his swing in 15 minutes." And he did. He moved the ball in his stance, changed his grip pressure and his posture. Bingo.
They spent an hour on the range, then the rest of the day in Marshall’s living room talking golf. Just as he did me, Marshall explained that he learned the game from Ky Laffoon, the colorful and sweet swinger born in Zinc, Ark., and a Joplin, Mo., resident for most of his life.
"Ky taught me his fundamentals," Marshall said. "Weight behind the ball. Right hand release to the target. Open the door. Close the door. Right shoulder working under. Turn the club head loose."
It was unbelievable to visit Marshall in Miami. It was like he held the keys of not only the golf swing, but to the town. It was like everyone expected Marshall to be hauling a celebrity around because most of the time that’s exactly who was with him.
Marshall drove his car onto the runway at the city airport to pick up guests. And there was a golf cart waiting at the golf course. It could be that it was the Walmart CEO, a five-star general or anyone else you could imagine. They came from Arkansas, everywhere. He taught them all, and their children, or anyone’s children. And he taught them well. He was great with a raw beginner, or a Tour star.
Marshall called me last year to tell me that a new pupil had shot 59 in competition. Wow.
It wasn’t for the money, although he’d take pay. He was successful in business. He ran the family insurance agency for many years until just concentrating on golf the last couple of decades.
When he found a promising youngster, he’d turn down pay. He wanted them to return without worrying about piling up teaching fees.
"I just told them, when you win – and they were going to win – send me a nice check," Marshall said. "That didn’t always work, but when it did, it was a nice check."
Marshall was coveted as a clinic speaker. He was a regular at many golf expos. He was at the golf show in Orlando, Fla., when he met DeNunzio. Matter of factly, he told DeNunzio that he was Mantle’s best friend and some of the game’s legends were regulars on his practice tee in small town Oklahoma.
"Yeah, right," DeNunzio said Tuesday. "Over the course of a few meetings, I figured out that everything he told me that first day was absolutely true. I was so lucky to have met Marshall. He quickly became my best friend."
I will never forget the phone call the night my father returned from his first visit with Marshall, one of five. You have a lot of memories with your father over 77 years. But this stands out:
"As a son, I cherish our relationship, so don’t think this is above that," he said. "But the nicest thing you ever did for me was send me to Marshall Smith. Thank you."
That’s among the many reasons I went to Quapaw on Tuesday. He was a link to a great moment with my father.
I also remember seeing the sparkle in an old man’s eye after about 10 minutes on the practice tee in my first session with Marshall when a true seven-iron hit the pole 150 yards away.
"Isn’t that great!" Marshall exclaimed, then grabbed my neck for a hug.
No, Marshall Smith, you were great.
Clay Henry is publisher at Hawgs Illustrated, an NWA Media publication in Fayetteville, Ark.