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Masters tournament: This Boca Raton man is golf’s greatest instructor


Bob Toski thought he was going out for a quiet family celebration of his 90th birthday at the Ruth’s Chris in Boca Raton last Sept. 18. When son Robert drove past the turn to the restaurant and continued to the Boca Raton Marriott, Toski got his first inkling that something was up.

Moments later, he was greeted by a standing ovation as he walked into the hotel ballroom holding 140 of the friends, relatives, PGA Tour pros and golf instructors who have come to cherish this son of a Polish immigrant who holds the distinction of being a leading money-winner on the PGA Tour as well as the No. 1 golf instructor in the history of the game.

In the hours that followed, Toski sang a couple of numbers, including Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” listened to the hilarious stories told by the dozens of proteges who turned out and heard a congratulatory letter by Arnold Palmer, composed one week to the day before Palmer’s passing.

“I never imagined this,” he said later. “It took me totally by surprise.”

It shouldn’t have.

A ‘mouse’ and a powerhouse

In Bob Toski’s more than 70 years as a member of the Palm Beach Gardens-based PGA of America, he has touched thousands of lives as both player, instructor and, most recently, organizer of the Bob Toski Junior Tournament, which enjoyed its fourth renewal last summer at Seagate Country Club in Delray Beach.

At this week’s Masters tournament, attention will be paid to history’s greatest golfers, including those who played alongside Toski and those he taught. (Toski himself played in five Masters tournaments in the 1950s.)

His contributions to golf also include eight instructional books. But no one had written a book on his amazing life — until his longtime friend John Mason approached me in January 2015 at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando.

A great storyteller, Toski was holding court for about a dozen listeners one afternoon when Mason pulled me aside.

“Bob’s not going to be around forever, you know,” he said. “When he’s gone, all these stories will go with him. Somebody needs to write them down. What do you think?”

That planted the seed. In seven months I would be retiring after 35 years as a sports writer at The Palm Beach Post, and while my wife, Maria, and I had plans to travel, my calendar was far from full. After mulling it over for the next month or two, I approached Toski, and he agreed to do it. 

This January, “The Elegant Mouse: The Bob Toski Story” was published.

Why that title? Toski, who was one of the longest hitters of his day despite his 5-foot-7, 118-pound frame, got the nickname “Mouse” from Sam Snead, who compared him to the TV cartoon character Mighty Mouse.

In 1954, a ‘life-changing’ win

I had gotten to know Bob while covering the golf beat, and he gave me some pointers on my middling golf game — both on the lesson tee and during rounds at St. Andrews in Boca Raton, near Toski’s home, and Sherbrooke in Lake Worth.

As I learned more about him, I came to admire him for many things — especially the work ethic that propelled him out of a life of poverty as one of nine children in western Massachusetts to PGA Tour wins in his 20s to his surprising decision to walk away from competitive golf, to becoming the teacher who molded stars such as Hall of Famer Judy Rankin, Jane Blalock, Sally Little and current PGA Tour pro Ken Duke.

Toski’s mother, Mary, died when he was 5. Little Bob and his older brother, Tommy, 7, were sent off to spend their summers in an upstairs room at the nearby Northampton Country Club, where older brothers Jack, then 21, and Ben, 18, worked as assistant pros.

Jack cut down a chipper and putter for both boys. For years, those were the only clubs they had.

“I learned to control the ball from the green back to the tee,” Toski said. “There are a lot of professionals today who don’t agree with that, but you can’t teach someone to drive the ball any distance if they can’t put the ball in the hole.”

The Toski boys would earn money for the family by caddying, earning 30 cents for nine holes and 60 cents for 18 and bringing the money home to their sister Vicki at day’s end.

Known as Bobby Algustoski in those days, he wouldn’t formally change his name until he started winning big in 1954.

Toski won the Western Massachusetts Interscholastic Schoolboy Championship at 17, was drafted in 1944 following his graduation from Williamsburg High School and wound up a member of Merrill’s Marauders, an all-volunteer unit that was being trained to engage the Japanese in the Burmese jungle when President Harry Truman authorized an atom bomb to be dropped on Hiroshima.

After the war, Toski was ready to try his luck on the PGA Tour. He broke through in August 1953, winning the Insurance Open in Hartford.

Later that year, after winning the non-sanctioned Havana Open, he married his “first, forever and only true love,” Lynn. (Lynn died of cancer in 2012.)

In 1954, he won four more times, culminating in the World Championship of Golf in Chicago in August.

That win would be a life-changer. While most tournaments at the time paid a first prize in the $2,000 range, the World Championship in 1954 paid $50,000 to the winner, and promoter George S. May offered an additional $50,000 if Toski would commit to putting on 50 exhibitions the following year, which he did.

Now financially secure, and feeling a tug to stay home after Lynn gave birth to three boys — Robert, Bruce and Scot — in a span of 44 months, Toski weaned himself off the tour. (Later, they adopted a daughter, Karin.)

He took a succession of club pro jobs in South Florida, culminating in one at the prestigious Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo. It was there the likes of Rankin, Blalock and Little came to learn from him, and his reputation as a teacher began to grow.

Golf Digest took notice, and when the magazine decided to start golf schools in 1971, they chose Toski to oversee them. The schools went national and then international, and Toski became a pioneer in making the role of golf instructor the integral part of the game it is today.

His 19-year run with the Golf Digest schools got Toski recognized as the world’s top teacher, and his footprint expanded further when he accepted invitations to do the same in Japan in the 1980s.

“He has elevated the role of ‘teacher’”

Bob Toski is still teaching and still swinging — and his memory is as remarkable as his golf game (he’s got a 5 handicap).

His stories about legends such as Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead and Jimmy Demaret give insights into their personalities.

“The memories of these people, and what we did,” Toski says, “that’s helped me to stay young.”

Snead, for example, had a personality as big as his game.

“One night, Sam, Jimmy Demaret and I went to a restaurant, and we were on our way back to the hotel in the back of a taxi,” Toski recalled. “I’m in the middle, and Demaret started in on ‘Heart of My Heart,’ and we started harmonizing, me taking the lead and Sam with kind of a gravelly baritone … Most people don’t know that about Sam — that he enjoyed singing when the opportunity arose.”

Snead, like the other pros, came to respect the “Mouse.”

“For more than 60 years, Bob has used his wit, combined with great intelligence, to not just teach the golf swing to every skill level of player, but he is someone who elevated the role of ‘teacher’ to its current level of importance,” Jack Nicklaus wrote in the foreword of the book.

Perhaps Arnold Palmer, in the note read aloud at Toski’s 90th birthday party, said it best: “Your contributions to the great game of golf as a player and teacher are as great as anyone has ever given back.”



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