Tom McQueeney Jr. is 80 now, his golf in abeyance as he waits to have his right hip replaced. Tall and regal, he likes to give junior golfers lessons on the putting green, and he chips a bit, but his main pastime is keeping the grill room at Race Brook Country Club in Orange, Conn., alive with jokes, gossip, wisecracks and tales of yesteryear. The centerpieces of his best storytelling, shared only after he has placed his drink order—(“Beefeater on the rocks with olives, please”)—has to do with the Blakeslee Memorial Cup, the club’s three-day member-guest. McQueeney and his partner, the late Clem Miner Jr., dominated this tournament. Over the course of three decades, beginning in 1960, they won it 14 times and finished runner-up another eight.
“TMac,” as he’s known around the club, is Exhibit A for the case there is much to be learned from crack amateurs. He was a school teacher his entire adult life: He taught Greek, Latin, French, U.S. history and was a high school basketball coach. Thus, a pro career was never on the table. But his zeal for practice and competition, combined with having a chunk of the summer months off, made him one of the most skilled and shrewd players around. His acquired knowledge is often fresh and always helpful to those he shares it with.
McQueeney and Miner individually were superb players, TMac at his peak was a 1-handicapper, Miner a scratch. Together they played as though conjoined at the brain stem, not speaking much but performing precisely on the same wavelength. From the order they played, to the way they read putts together, to club selection, it was a clinic, neat to watch and a little mysterious.
It being the heart of the member-guest season, I suggested to TMac he would be doing readers a favor by passing along some four-ball advice. For McQueeney, the list flowed easily. Herewith, some collected member-guest wisdom, according to TMac:
• Remember, meden agan. “That’s Greek for nothing in excess. It really applies to booze, but applies to food, too. Having said that, I’ll eat a hot dog if I feel like having one. This isn’t the Olympics. You’ve got to live a little.”
• Go easy during the warm-up. “Find your rhythm and try to hit the ball solid, nothing more. Hit mainly wedges through the 7-iron. Don’t hit more than a few drivers. End by hitting a few of the harder shots you know you’re going to face.”
• Play a side game with your partner. “Clem and I always played $5 birdies between the two of us. The times we each made bunch of birdies, it didn’t work out too well for our opponents.”
• Have a secret skepticism about your opponents. “We always quietly held the other team in playful contempt. We joked about them. It lifted Clem and I up, helped us bond and play hard for each other.
• Farthest from the hole putts first. “If your partner has a three-footer for par, and you’ve got six feet for birdie, don’t ask him to ‘clean up’ the three-footer. If he misses, you’re going to lag the six-footer instead of trying to make it. Don’t get cute. Don’t overthink it.”
• Putt aggressively. “In general, be much bolder than if you were playing individually. If you hit a putt long, well, that’s why you’ve got a partner, to cover you.”
• Keep the course in front of you. “I just told you not to be short, but having said that, on almost all courses, it’s better to be short than off to the sides. That’s where the bunkers and trouble are. Always try to keep a clear route to the hole for your next shot.”
• With the irons, take one more club. “Even good amateurs tend to miss short. Coming up short puts pressure on your partner. The sweet spots on those irons are small, so give yourself the benefit of the doubt.
• Don’t talk too much. “Be friendly, but don’t get too distracted. There’s time to discuss your opponents’ family and job after the round.
• Compliment your opponents. “Maybe to a fault. I was never big on gamesmanship, but when we played against a guy who swung hard and hit it a mile, I couldn’t help but mention it. ‘I’ve played with long hitters before, but you’re very long,’ I’d say. They loved the praise. They also tried to swing even harder, and you know what happens when they do that.”
• Thin beats fat. “Always err toward hitting shots a little thin, especially under pressure. There can be a temptation to dig, especially from bad lies, which you seem to get more of in tournaments. Don’t give in. Fat shots are demoralizers.”
• Redefine the gimme putt. “It’s shocking to me how many two-footers are missed in tournament play. I’ve missed them, too. Don’t be too quick to give short putts, and expect to putt them all yourself.”
• Never change putters during a tournament. “Metal doesn’t change, you do. If you’re putting poorly, do your best to work it out. If you switch to another putter, nine times out of 10 you’ll putt even worse.”
Sated by his most recent round of tip-sharing, McQueeney takes you to the parking lot to show off his new car. He pops the trunk and points to a lone club inside. “Last thing, always keep a driver in your car. You never know when you’ll pass a driving range.”