As a teen, Vince Yanovitch hitch-hiked nearly 60 miles to get a job that ultimately led him to golf. The name may not be household, but the 83-year-old of many hats at Great Bear Golf Club in East Stroudsburg, Pa., has created an A-list of memories
There is a certain charm octogenarian Vince Yanovitch evokes that takes a listener on a mirthful journey. The storytelling pervades a carefree nature.
While he recollects his past, the mind’s eye sees a sepia-toned 8-millimeter reel flickering images of a past gone by. Cue the doo-wop and bubble gum rock. Simpler times. Innocence laced with determination to make something of himself in a golf industry that has, quite honestly, never felt like a job.
You see, life doesn’t generate many like the 83-year-old Yanovitch anymore. The PGA teaching pro conveys old-school charm mixed with an undercurrent of properness. He says please, sir and thank you as he speaks, diction straight out of a “Leave It To Beaver” era. It is no façade. To think he is stuck in that generation would be inaccurate. He’s adept at technology, text messaging like a virtual concierge, ensuring that the banquet of his life has sated the information compiler.
This is the person Yanovitch has always been: Hospitable and selfless at the core.
For 60-plus years, the Pocono Mountains region legend has worn many hats. He has figuratively rubbed more elbows with glitterati and industry leaders than a masseuse on a Tommy John-repaired pitcher’s arm. Since 1998, he has lent his wares to Great Bear Golf Club in East Stroudsburg, Pa., adopting a whatever-needs-to-get-done mindset.
It has been a lifelong mantra.
“He's the last one to pat himself on the back for any accomplishment that he might have,” said son Ron Yanovitch, 51, director of golf at Shangri-La Resort in Afton, Okla. “His mentality is ‘That’s just what you do.’ I think that translates into his relationships at work, and everyone loves working with him because of that. They know they can rely on him and he doesn’t want anything for it. He has a sense of appreciation and gratitude for the position he’s in.”
Said Keith Snyder, 66, Great Bear superintendent: “I met Vince in 1971 at Tamiment Golf Club when I was a 16-year-old kid and he was the golf pro. He was the nicest person to deal with back then and the same can be said today. He is the most even-keeled, likable person I have ever met. Nothing phases him, nothing rattles him. He is the ultimate ambassador to golf.”
Therein lies the foundation of a monumental career. Golf emissary. He got bit by the golf bug as an 11-year-old, caddying at Fox Hill Country Club in hometown Exeter, Pa., and thought maybe he could one day pursue a living in the sport.
It had all the makings of a self-fulfilling prophecy although the path almost deviated.
While in high school, a friend convinced him to hitch hike from Pittston, Pa., to Stroudsburg to visit an employment bureau. Ambivalence briefly crept in. He almost backed out.
“Otherwise,” Yanovitch said, “I never would have been in golf.”
Pursuing A Dream
He got hired to work in the kitchen of a family-owned placed called Sunset Hill Resort, located at the top of Mount Nebo in East Stroudsburg. During breaks, he’d bound outside and squint at a Spanish colonial revival building as it shone on the horizon. That mystical far-off place was Shawnee Inn and Golf Resort, known for attracting the likes of Alex Smith, Ted Ray, Harry Vardon and the course where Jackie Gleason took up the game.
Yanovitch got hired there the next summer. He did it all: washed dishes, worked in the dining room, as a bellhop and elevator operator. He also thought it might help if he learned to play golf.
So he darted off to an entryway by the course, along a meadow, and taught himself. The golf pro soon took notice, driving by on his way in and offering tips from his car window. During his senior year in high school, Yanovitch nabbed a job for the pro washing clubs in the back room. Desiring more, he asked if he could work in the pro shop.
“It was more like a haberdashery than anything else,” said Yanovitch. “And the pro said, ‘I have a budget’ and I responded, ‘Don’t pay me.’ People would come in after dinner. Wealthy people came there. They’d come in and I’d say, ‘Look at these new shirts or these new clubs.’”
His sales acumen landed him permanently in the shop, except there was an issue that ate at him: all his co-workers were accomplished golfers — but him. He didn’t know it then, but a Scottish teacher there from St. Andrews started him on a metamorphic Ph.D. golf odyssey. Over the next couple of years he learned a series of valuable lessons, stitching them together into a mosaic of knowledge.
“There were five of us who lived together in an apartment and all we talked about was the swing,” Yanovitch said. “The teacher would put a plastic ball on a string, hold it up in the air and we would hit it as he told us stories about St. Andrews.”
It was about this time that Yanovitch crossed paths with Dick Farley and Harry Obitz, creators of the “Swing’s The Thing,” a popular late 1950s and early '60s instructional Shawnee Inn show that had mass appeal beyond the Poconos. The weekly trick-shot clinic with Broadway-like flair focused on fundamentals and also had a traveling version, seen by millions. Farley and Obitz were dignitaries. He learned from them.
A club assistant soon befriended Yanovitch and requested that he regularly hit balls at 5 a.m. with him. More important, the assistant ingrained social graces — how to treat people and behave around them.
That first winter in the pro shop he headed to the then posh Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine, Fla., to work as a bellhop. The head pro worked for Obitz and took a liking to Yanovitch. That, more than anything else, helped shape and perfect his game the old-fashioned way.
“I would take a city bus — because I didn’t have a car — from the hotel in the middle of St. Augustine to where it would drop me off one mile from the golf course and I would carry my red golf bag the next mile to the course, play golf, walk back and get the bus later,” Yanovitch said. “It was nuts and I don’t think you’d see too many kids today doing that.”
When he returned to Shawnee, the “Swing’s The Thing” had been in full throttle. The show took place at 5 p.m. every Sunday. One time, while working in the pro shop, he heard the show announcer via a PA system say to his utter shock to “send the club’s new assistant, Vince, out with a 5-iron.”
In front of a packed crowd, Yanovitch was asked to hit three 5-iron shots. Nervous beyond comprehension, he promptly shanked the balls that never took flight. After it was over, a steaming Obitz walked into the shop and told Yanovitch that if he couldn’t hit three balls into a bucket to never go out again.
Another lesson learned. Carpe diem. Instead of wilting, Yanovitch took it as a challenge, improved and became a regular in the show.
The Next Step
Shortly after receiving his PGA teaching pro card in 1960, Farley and Obitz, who ran a concession stand at nearby Tamiment Golf Club, would send Yanovitch there to spell the pro on his day off. By 1961, he became the head pro at Tamiment as golf was making an uptick.
“I remember the owner didn’t know much about golf and he’d stand in the shop and watch what was going on,” Yanovitch said. “One day he chuckled and said, ‘Vince, I can’t believe people would pay $4 to play golf.’”
Yanovitch seized upon the opportunity, moving over into sales and running outings and corporate events. His business cards said PGA golf pro and sales rep, but he was more immersed on the sales side then.
Oh, he did find time to give lessons. Thousands of them. He stayed there 37 years, starting as a 24-year-old and leaving at 60. Endured five owners. Met his wife, Marlies. Had his four children — Vince, Annette, Jeff and Rob, who gave him 19 grandchildren. The crucible of his life. Even his brother, Gene Yanovitch, would embrace golf and become a PGA pro member — a head pro, in fact, for 50 years at Lords Valley Country Club in Lords, Pa.
“Marlies was the rock in raising the family,” Yanovitch said of their 57-year marriage. “Without her support, I couldn’t have done much at all.”
Said Rob Yanovitch: “What I probably learned most from my dad was how to treat people, and the work ethic. My dad has never been one to shy from doing anything, from any part of the job that needs to be done. Whatever needs to be done, you just do it. There is none of this ‘It’s not my job,’ he’d say.”
Doors to the famous opened. In the winter of 1958, he taught at the Obitz-Farley Golf School at the American Hotel at Miami Beach, giving an hour-long putting lesson to Dean Martin. The next day an ebullient Martin sought him out to say he shot 73 at Miami Springs Golf Course.
While at Tamiment, he gave lessons to or played rounds with Gleason, Frankie Avalon, Joey Bishop, Jerry Lewis, Mickey Manners and Trini Lopez. Sometimes he did both. Bishop casually mentioned his name on one The Tonight Show appearance. He crossed paths with Arnold Palmer a few times, and even Henry Picard.
One time, Rodney Dangerfield — at Tamiment to do standup show pre-Caddyshack — stood as a silhouette figure at dusk as Yanovitch hit balls off the back tee on the first hole.
“He’s got no shoes on, wearing a bathrobe and a drink in his hand, you see,” Yanovitch said. “He goes (imitating Dangerfield), ‘You must be the pro here!’ I said, ‘Yeah, I am, but I get noooo respect!’ So he responded, ‘Heeeeey, you’re alright, you know what I mean?’”
He invited Dangerfield to hit balls with him, but Dangerfield confessed he really didn’t know how to play.
Yanovitch’s favorite stories include Gleason and Lewis.
One time at the Shawnee Inn, owner Fred Waring, Yanovitch, another member and Gleason were playing a match. The club was constructing nine new holes and marked off where a pond would go. Gleason shanked his ball into the dirt where the pond would be. When Gleason went to retrieve his ball, Waring let him have it.
“Fred said, ‘Come on, Jack, what are you doing? It’s a water hazard. We’re playing a match. See that red line? Give me a break.’”
“Jackie looked at him and said, ‘Geez, I’m sorry, Fred.’ He didn’t pick the ball up. He started rolling up his pant legs to his knees and then did an outrageous tippy-toe walk like he was walking through water, high-stepping in and out.”
In 2000, that incident was chosen as one of the best stories of the last century by the U.S. Golf Association’s Golf Journal.
Then there was Lewis. Scheduled to do a July 4, 1974 show, Lewis rolled up in a limousine, bought four medium-sized golf shirts from Yanovitch in the pro shop and asked him to play a round. Vince Yanovitch arranged to have a ranger clear the course so Lewis could play through and get done in time for rehearsals. Midway through, he gave Lewis — an accomplished golfer — a quick tip about his 3-wood he had no faith in. The tip clicked and fully won over Lewis.
“We were moving through people and he was very congenial,” Yanovitch said. “When we got to the 10th hole, he said he was having so much fun that he wanted to start over again, so we went back to No. 1.”
Later at the show, Lewis put the spotlight on Yanovitch and lauded him. The next day Lewis invited him to play another round near Mount Airy. Yanovitch told him no one could hit the third green, a par 3, on his first try at Pocono Manor Golf Course because of the 40-foot drop. Lewis did.
“I’ll be darned, he hit it. He said, ‘What do you think about that?’” Yanovitch recalled. “I have no idea where this came from, but I said, ‘I am not surprised you hit that shot because golf’s not about brute strength. It is a touchy, feely sport. I know you have that in you because of the telethon work you do. He stared at me for the longest time and said to the person driving the cart, ‘Did you hear what that man said? That was the finest golf compliment I ever received.’”
Ten days later, a baffled Yanovitch received a call from Western Union.
“They said they had a message from Kansas City and I told them I did not know anyone there,” he said. “It was from Jerry Lewis. It said, ‘I am your biggest fan; you are the best partner; can’t wait to see you again.’ At the end, the operator goes, ‘Oh my gosh, Jerry Lewis!’ I still have the telegram.”
As Vince Yanovitch’s career progressed, he dabbled as a player when he could, winning several pro-ams. He also became the Pocono Professional Golf Series Match Play champion; was the co-winner of the Danny Kaye Invitational; and took a Philadelphia PGA pro tournament. Philadelphia Golf Magazine bestowed a high honor, calling him the Dean of Pocono Professionals circa 1987.
Moreover, he started the Poconos Junior Tour in 1970. And, oh, so many committees served, including PGA-related tournament, nominating, golf show and executive committees.
In 1998, on the analogous 18th hole of a sterling career, he holed out and decided he’d walk away from golf to help his wife run her travel agency. Little did he know, his career was about to go to extra holes. A mutual golf acquaintance reached out to see if he’d be interested in getting the business side of Jack Nicklaus’ new design, Great Bear Golf Club, up and running.
Eventually he acquiesced and agreed to help. They called Yanovitch the director of golf, but he made it clear the course should hire a younger golf pro who could grow with the club.
“It was tremendous to have him come here,” Snyder said. “We probably have had 10 to 12 golf pros over the years and Vince has been the one constant. When people come here, if they want a lesson or learn how to play, they ask for Vince. They don’t ask for anyone else on the golf staff. I’ve never seen him get flustered; I have never heard him raise his voice. You watch one of his lessons and he is the definition of patient.”
His teaching philosophy eschews convoluted technology that has permeated golf the past 30 years. He unpretentiously instructs by the naked eye, astutely analyzing a swing and identifying the issue. It’s a lost art.
“I like a good beginning, a good position, proper position at the end of backswing and a good turn through,” he said. “The No. 1 thing I look at in the beginning is posture. The biggest thing I see in today’s golf is they bend down too much. Bending and leaning. In every lesson I give, I have to correct that.”
At 83, he’s pulled back on the number of lessons he gives but still opens the pro shop at 7 a.m. most days. He does it because the club is short-staffed. He hangs around because it gives him a place to hang his hat, he said. Asked when he might call it quits for good, he wouldn’t commit other than to say when he can’t do it anymore.
“From where he came from, golf gave him his opportunity and I do think he has a loyalty to the business itself and to the golfers who he serves in what he does, too,” said Ron Yanovitch. “He has a loyalty to them for what golf has done for him … and what opportunities the golf business and PGA provided him in life.”
Said Snyder: “He is the king of golf here. He’s like the Energizer Bunny, where he just keeps going.”
To that end, no one would disagree. The career may be winding down, but no one can erase the impeccable imprint he has left on the game.
Had he decided that fateful day not to hitch hike from Pittston to Stroudsburg to land the first golf job, something says the life of many riches would still be fulfilled — for good things happen to good people.
It should be noted that over a three-week period, in response to this story, Yanovitch sent 88 text messages following an hour-long phone interview. One of the last texts perhaps illustrates that old-school graciousness that has defined him.
“Could we please note that whatever I have done in golf is a copy of what I have learned from my mentors and fellow PGA members,” he wrote. “I have them to thank.”
Golf in the Pocono Mountain area is a better game because of that hitch-hiking thumb.
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