In Their Words is a weekly feature appearing Sundays in The Blade's sports section. Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg talked with Don Kotnik, the head golf professional at Toledo Country Club who is widely recognized as one of the best golf teachers in the United States.
In a profession where names and locations change on a fairly regular basis, Don Kotnik found a home in 1972 and never left.
Kotnik, a PGA Master Professional, has headed up golf operations at Toledo Country Club for 36 years.
Earlier this year, for the second time, he was named one of Golf Magazine's Top 100 teachers in the United States. Another magazine, Golf Digest, has listed Kotnik as one of Ohio's top five teachers for each of the last five years.
Kotnik, 64, is a member of seven halls of fame, including the PGA National Golf Professional Hall of Fame, into which he was inducted in 2005. Twelve years earlier, he was named the nation's top club pro by the PGA of America.
Kotnik made a cross-state move from Barberton to play football and golf at the University of Toledo in 1962. Shortly after marrying in August, 1967, Kotnik and his bride, Rochelle, moved to Hawaii for nine months. He then relocated to Jackson, Mich., for his first golf pro job at Jackson Country Club.
He returned to Toledo in 1970 as an assistant at Toledo CC, became head pro at Highland Meadows early in 1972, and returned to Toledo CC for good as head professional in November of that year.
In 1973, Kotnik and a former assistant, Greg Fish, co-founded the Toledo Junior Golf Association, one of the top organizations of its kind in the country to this day.
Kotnik became the 17th Master Professional in the United States in 1980. That group numbers about 245 today.
And, from 1974-91, Kotnik served as the UT men's golf coach. He said he's proud that all but one of his players during those 17 years earned a degree.
Don and Rochelle Kotnik have three children - Michael Don, the PGA head pro at Orchid Island Club in Vero Beach, Fla.; Lisa Lynn, a blues singer who lives in New Orleans, and Amy, an educational fund-raiser in Chicago.
"BEING IN THE same job at the same club for 36 years, 38 if you account my two years as an assistant, seldom happens in the modern era of this profession. One of my predecessors, Marty Cromb, was here for 40 years, but it wasn't that unusual back then. When I first came here there were two philosophies. You'd stay eight to 10 years and then leave for something fresh. Or you put down roots and raise a family. I didn't want to be one of those guys who retires at age 60 to spend more time with his family because it seems like that's too late. They're grown and gone by then. So I stayed put. One of the great things about my job was that my daughters and son, who started caddying when he was 8, all worked here. It allowed me to take a negative aspect of the profession, the hours and the demand on your time, and make it a real positive.
"MY LONGEVITY is the product of great relationships with great people. I have several more years on my contract and, yeah, I'd like to break Marty's record of 40 years. I've had great lines of communication with our golf committee chairmen and the club presidents. I think you have to see into the future a little bit and realize what members would like to see improved before they ask for it.
"I'M VERY proud of the number of former assistants and former players of mine at UT who are now head professionals, directors of golf or owners/general managers of golf clubs. My goodness, there must be 30 of them, at least. David Graf (Inverness) and Steve Mulcahy (Lima Shawnee) both played and worked for me. Greg Fish (South Toledo) and Nick Myers (Highland Meadows) are former assistants. Those would be the guys still in the area.
"GREG WAS MY first assistant, and he and I co-founded the junior association. My goal when I work with kids is different than with more advanced players. I'm not necessarily trying to teach championship players. I'm trying to keep them interested in the game and try to help create a life-long experience for them. I try to help everybody learn the game well enough to shoot in the 90s. With the handicap system, if you shoot in the 90s you can play with anybody and you can enjoy the game for a long, long time.
"JACK MURPHY was the [assistant] coach who recruited me to Toledo in 1962. It was the only college that agreed to let me play two sports. I thought it was the greatest learning experience of my life, especially when Clive Rush, my first football coach, was fired and Frank Lauterbur came in. Then it was a true test of will. You saw the Bear Bryant movie, what was it, Junction Boys? Well, FXL made Bear look like Mother Teresa. We didn't have enough guys left for a full travel squad my sophomore year. The guys who made it through that, well, we really made it. We became great friends and really forged a bond. Not just the players, but the coaches too, like Frank, Murph and Mario Russo.
"The biggest I ever got was 6-foot, 223 pounds in 1963. I played both ways at linebacker and then either fullback or center on offense. We didn't platoon then. Today, some quarterbacks are 6-5, 250. I can't see myself playing linebacker in this day and age. No, absolutely not.
"GOLF MAGAZINE'S Top 100 panel is about the highest honor a teacher can receive. You have to be able to teach the entire game, but if I have a specialty or a strong point I think it's in understanding how people learn. The three basic ways people learn are from past experiences, from failures and from self-discovery. I think understanding that and knowing how to approach it is more important than knowing how to teach.
"My son and I are going to introduce a new method of teaching next December at the PGA Teaching and Coaching Summit. It has taken us quite a while to come up with it and it's designed for teaching younger people and beginning players. We take the concepts of failure and self-learning and try to make it fun for players to discover how to make themselves better. We think it's a concept that will really help increase participation in golf.
"It's sort of a new chapter in my career and it's something I'm very excited about."
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