The descending footpath curves gracefully past the 18th green at
Milwaukee Country Club and winds beneath 100-foot-tall hardwoods,
stopping at a shaded practice tee tucked into the hillside. It is
a jewel-like setting for forging callouses, and for 50 years it
has been the workplace of one of Wisconsin's hidden treasures,
Manuel de la Torre, a courtly 79-year-old teaching pro who's
often called the Harvey Penick of the Midwest. The Greater
Milwaukee Open is being held a two-iron down the road, at Brown
Deer Park, but de la Torre, the beloved elder statesman of the
Wisconsin PGA, has no plans to rub elbows with the flatbellies.
He has more important matters to attend to--a full docket of
lessons, beginning with one for a six-year-old boy.
"Swing the club from one side to the other and brush the grass,"
he tells Joey Mahler, who's been taking lessons from de la Torre
since age three. The cost? Fifteen dollars for a half hour, a
price the club's board mandated in an effort to keep up with the
times. When de la Torre retired as the club's head pro in 1996
after a run of 46 years and became its teaching pro, he was still
charging children $3 per lesson. Caddies and tour pros--now as
ever--are free. Adults pay $35. He could charge triple that and be
solidly booked, but de la Torre is the anti-David Leadbetter.
"I'd rather make $1,000 teaching 50 people than $1,000 teaching
10," he says. "I've always felt that lessons were a service. If I
could help golfers play better, they'd play more, use caddies
more, use the club more. Golf has been terrific to me, and this
lets me give something back."
De la Torre sets a range ball at the boy's feet. "Do you see a
ball there?" he asks. Joey, quite reasonably, nods yes. "I
don't," de la Torre says gently, "and neither should you. All
you should see is the grass." The lad takes a rip and tops the
ball. The old pro puts down another. "Don't hit it," he says.
"Swing the club. The ball is the club's responsibility. Your
responsibility is the club."
So it goes. The message is the same whether de la Torre is
teaching a six-year-old or a PGA Tour player like Jerry Smith,
who will walk down that winding path later in the day, or '73
Masters champion Tommy Aaron, or the LPGA's Sherri Steinhauer,
who's driving in tomorrow from Madison, as she has done on a
regular basis for 14 years.
De la Torre's philosophy hinges on one simple concept: The swing
should be just that, an effortless, continuous motion back and
forth in a line toward the target--back with the hands, forward
with the arms. There are no platitudes about keeping the left arm
straight or pushing off with the right foot. Nor are there pleas
for good posture or hips that move out of the way. In fact, there
are no demands on the body at all. "Everyone's body is different,
so everyone's movements are unique to that individual," says de
la Torre. "Having set the club on a true swinging motion, the
golfer must then allow the body to respond to the motion of the
This is the message he has been delivering for a half-century,
one refined from the teachings of his father, Angel, a six-time
Spanish Open champion and Spain's first golf pro, and Ernest
Jones, the renowned British instructor and the author of Swing
the Clubhead, an out-of-print 1952 instructional book that has a
cult following. De la Torre's own foray into this arena,
Understanding the Golf Swing (Warde Publishers, $27.95), was
years in the writing and published this month to high praise.
"The simplicity of his theory is what attracted me," says
Steinhauer, a two-time winner of the Women's British Open. "I'm
not a very mechanical person, and Manuel takes all the mechanics
out of it. I'm not thinking a lot of thoughts when I'm swinging.
With him, it flows naturally. We worked from day one on getting
the suppleness and flexibility in my swing, and the club flows
when you're doing it right. I had tried other teachers, and on
the range their advice worked, but when it came time to tee it up
on Thursday, it didn't work. Thank God I met Manuel. He's an
De la Torre was literally born on a golf course in 1921, in his
parents' apartment above the pro shop of the Real Club de la
Puerta de Hierro, near Madrid. His father was personal instructor
to the Spanish royal family and a touring pro in Europe. While
playing in a tournament in England, Angel was befriended by
Jones, a promising player until he lost a leg in World War I. The
two of them would discuss the swing for hours, often in front of
young Manuel, who had been given his own set of short wooden
clubs when he was 14 months old. The gist of Jones's theory was
that if you wanted the ball to go to the target, you had to swing
the clubhead to the target. Perfect swings led to perfect shots.
Simple as that.
Jones eventually settled on Long Island and was teaching at
Women's National Golf and Tennis Club in 1936, the year the
Spanish Civil War broke out. Angel de la Torre happened to be
visiting at the time. "Mr. Jones wouldn't let my father go home
to get us, because if he had gone back he never would've been
allowed to leave Spain," Manuel says.
Instead, Angel was hired as a teaching pro at Jones's club, which
under the immigration laws of the time enabled Angel to send for
the rest of his family. There was fighting in the streets of
Madrid--at one point Manuel and his younger brother, Luis, missed
a bus that minutes later was machine-gunned, killing every
passenger but one. "We've had some good fortune in our lives,"
Manuel says. Leaving everything behind but the clothes on their
backs, Manuel, Luis and their mother, Juana, were reunited with
Angel in New York City in October 1936.
Manuel became a fine golfer in his own right, finishing second in
the '42 NCAAs while at Northwestern (he graduated with a degree
in finance in 1944) and winning five Wisconsin Opens and five
Wisconsin PGAs in addition to the Illinois Open and four
Wisconsin PGA Senior titles. In 1950 he led the PGA Tour's Tucson
Open for 3 1/2 rounds before coming in third, and in '51, the year
he became head pro at Milwaukee Country Club, he finished second
in the Lakewood (Calif.) Park Open to Cary Middlecoff.
It's as a teacher, though, that de la Torre has made a lasting
mark, by repopularizing the theories of Jones. "Everything goes
back to Carol Mann," de la Torre says of his LPGA Hall of Fame
pupil, who first came to him in 1962. "If she hadn't started
winning, I wouldn't have the recognition I do today, and the
Jones system wouldn't be as accepted as it is. For many years
golf pros and organizations told me the game couldn't be taught
that way, that it couldn't be that simple."
Mann read Jones's book when she was a raw 20-year-old and sought
out de la Torre after learning that he taught Jones's methods.
Says Mann, "I hit some balls for him, and he asked me, 'What are
you trying to do?' I told him seven or eight things, and Manuel
said, 'How can you do all that in the time it takes to make a
swing?' It was as if the heavens parted and all the dark clouds
That was the beginning of a relationship that lasted 15 years. De
la Torre had Mann buy a piece of plywood on which to practice, so
she would get used to brushing the grass on her swing rather than
gouging the turf. "You're supposed to be swinging in the
direction of the target, not digging graves," de la Torre says.
"The divots pros take today are embarrassing."
"Learning from Manuel was like learning from the finest professor
at MIT," Mann says. "He was always saying stuff like, 'If a body
is in motion, it must come to a complete stop before reversing
direction. Think of a pendulum in a clock.' After working with
him a week, I bought a copy of Physics Without Math. He was the
most gentle, caring, fun teacher, serene and calm and solid."
The night before she won the 1965 U.S. Open, Mann called de la
Torre, a night owl who still keeps office hours until midnight.
"I wanted to win so badly for my parents, for me, for my
teacher," Mann says. "Talking to him, I remember feeling I wanted
to crawl into his pocket and rest there until it was over. Then
I'd be safe. He was reassuring me gently, and I finally said in
this meek voice, 'I love you, Manuel.' It wasn't dirty or the
least bit sexual. It was terribly high-plane and sweet. I think I
shocked him, but I wanted to thank him for all the things he had
done for me. My heart was so full, and my being was so scared."
Mann would win 38 LPGA tournaments. Her success slowly allowed de
la Torre's theories to gain national recognition. In 1997
two-time Greater Milwaukee Open winner Loren Roberts came to
Brown Deer Park dissatisfied with his game. After a session with
de la Torre he tied for second, then won the CVS Charity Classic
two weeks later.
De la Torre, who with wife Joan has a daughter, Lynn, and four
grandchildren, was the first winner of the PGA of America's
Teacher of the Year Award, in 1986, and has been one of Golf
magazine's Top Teachers since that publication began the ranking
10 years ago. "I never felt unappreciated," says de la Torre, who
can still shoot his age and has no plans to cut back on the long
days. "I thought that the Jones system was unappreciated."
"People who grew up in this club developed natural, aesthetically
beautiful swings that last a lifetime," says George (Skip)
Simonds, a former caddie who was taught by de la Torre and
succeeded him as head pro at Milwaukee Country Club. "They stay
sound without a lot of practice. That says plenty about his
concept of the swing."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER Starter set Milwaukee Country Club demanded that de la Torre hike his fee for a half-hour lesson to kids like Joey--to $15.
COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL
B/W PHOTO: MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL From day one in Milwaukee in 1951, de la Torre's mantra has been, Back with the hands, forward with the arms.
Built to Last?
Some see Hogan in Sergio Garcia's swing. You'll never guess whom
Manuel de la Torre is reminded of
Like Sergio Garcia (left), Manuel de la Torre was taught the
game by his father in Spain. De la Torre's dad, Angel, was that
country's first golf pro but moved his family to the U.S.
shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, in 1936.
Garcia's father, Victor, is the head pro at Club de Golf
Mediterraneo in Castellon and this year made his debut on the
Senior tour. Here's Manuel's take on Sergio's swing.
"Everyone talks about his swing being like Ben Hogan's, but he's
got more of a loop in it, like Jim Furyk's. The question I have
is, Does a swing have longevity? There are too many changes of
motion in Sergio's swing. A lot of things have to go right for
him to repeat it time after time. The results are great now, when
he's quick and flexible, but when he gets older and heavier, will
he still have the agility to pull it off?"
Steinhauer was attracted by "the simplicity of his theory. I'm
not a very mechanical person, and Manuel takes all the mechanics