How a rock ’n’ roll writer and a man twice his age bonded over golf
By JIM SULLLIVAN
I have a group of golf friends here around Boston. But when my mother was alive, I’d often vacation in Sarasota, Florida, where she, a Maine transplant, was a snowbird. I’d play virtually every day. Most of my golf friends there were impermanent – and that’s fine, the nature of the game when joining a group – but there was one who was not.
His name was Wilton Villetto and he exited this world on Sept. 26, 2010, five-and-a-half years after I last saw him. He was 85 and his heart and kidneys failed him.
I met Wilton when I was 37 and he 68. Most of our time together was spent at the now defunct Forest Lakes Country Club. It was built in 1964 – the late pro QB Otto Graham, a
co-owner, lived off the course, as did my mother. It snakes its way in and around a condo association. But it was razed in 2008 after the economic crash – it became this overgrown wasteland – and was refurbished under new ownership only a few years ago as The Palms Golf Course at Forest Lakes.
My mother lived just off the first green, so I was a walk-on. Wilton and I both aimed to tee off around 1 p.m. We met by that happenstance and, in that opposites-attract way, took a liking to each other. He liked what might be called my “potential” and maybe saw himself as my golf mentor, which he became from the early ’90s through the mid-aughts.
Over our time together, the man consistently shot under or around his age. I talked with his son, Jack, recently and he said Wilton was shooting in the high 70s the year he died, sort of the golf equivalent of dying with your boots on.
Forest Lakes was a well-groomed, semi-private, par 71 course. I played it so much I can walk the holes in my mind, taking virtual shots, even now. It was Florida-flat, but it had no gators lying in wait by the ponds, unlike some of the other courses we played.
While I could generally drive the ball past Wilton, I was playing catch-up the rest of the hole (or for that matter, round). I’d be scrambling to break 90 and he’d be heading for another round in the high 60s or low 70s. He could still do that the last time we played in March 2005.
Why all this skill in a wiry, little old man?
We got to talking, as players will.
I learned he had been a New York State Amateur champion in the late ’70s, and he had the best short game of anyone I’d ever played with. He might drive the ball 225 yards, but it was
always on the short grass, down the middle. An approach shot, a chip and a putt – up and down – simple as pie.
Wilton was a gregarious, gruff-voiced fellow. He was short (maybe 5-foot-5), bowlegged (scurvy), tattooed, with a little gray mustache and a mischievous twinkle in his eye. He was a former sailor who had lied about his age to join the Navy to fight in World War II. He about built and owned a golf course in Fishkill, N.Y. He owned a wallpaper factory in New Jersey, too. If this meant he had money, it never really factored into our world. He knew I was a writer with the Boston Globe and covered music and pop culture, but work talk wasn’t much part of what we did.
I could hit the ball straight and long (ish) – sometimes. I could chip and putt like a demon – sometimes. But I didn’t play every day year-round and thus suffered the vagaries of most golfers with “potential” – inconsistency. I was, and remain, a bogey man, give or take a few shots. Broke 80 once. Broke 100 more than once. I’m happy in the low-mid 80s. Wilton never intruded with advice on my swing, but he paid attention and when I’d hit some particular rut I’d look to him and he’d generally know what I was doing wrong – not shifting weight, stance, grip, follow-through, whatever and make suggestions. He was a model of consistency in his game and he tried to impart that to me.
Sometimes, I’d curse myself and go into an end-of-the-world funk. Wilton would ever-so-gently remind me: “Every day above ground is a good day.” (I think a lot about that now, with him gone.) As crappy a day as you might be having, it was golf. What did it matter in the grand scheme of things? You loved the game. You weren’t at the office. You’ll be back at it tomorrow. You’ll probably even work out the slump later in the round. (This was often true.)
He’d get mad at himself, too, sometimes. He had higher standards than I. He wanted to break par every time out. He’d mutter “Wilton!” or “You old fool!” on the rare occasion that he chunked one. Golfers compete, yes, but they always play against themselves, too. Wilton was a perfectionist. He’d accepted that he wasn’t a long hitter anymore, and he worked relentlessly on his short game. But he wasn’t a machine and I suppose I secretly enjoyed it when
he briefly got off-track, never for long. Probably the worst game he ever played might have been in the high 80s.
I went through a short period of shanking – the most damnable of golf maladies, where on a short chip you inexplicably hit the ball off the hosel and it scoots way right, on the ground. It’s an ugly, score-killing shot. It’s embarrassing and humiliating. It’s also insidious. You do it once; it gets in your head next time you line up that short shot. After a couple of days of this, Wiltondrove me to a nearby course’s chipping area. He worked with me tirelessly for a couple of hours, getting me physically and mentally in sync. When we went back out, I repeated good shot after good shot.
We almost always played for something – usually match, with the loser buying the post-game beer. He always gave me strokes. We’d always try to balance it fairly – how I’d been playing vs. how he’d been playing – and I’d say, even given that, I lost four out of five times. But I had a hard time paying for drinks. He’d just about always pick up the tab against my futile protests.
I felt his presence last summer. I’d be out on the fairway, on a par 5 with a long wood shot to the green. For some reason, this was the kind of shot he steadied me on and I would keep my
head down, repeat this silent “Wilton” mantra in my head, and swing through. I hit those shots pretty well now, and at some level I think Wilton’s right there with me.
Do you have a mentor from golf who made a difference in your life? Please let NS Golf editor Bill Brotherton know at bbrotherton@essexmediagroup.
com and your story might be
featured in a future issue.
Jim Sullivan covered pop music and culture for the Boston Globe for 26 years. He’s been playing golf since age 12, never shying away from it, but publicly coming out as a golfer in a Globe story in 1996. (Once, golf and rock ‘n’ roll were considered “uncool”
together.) He tries to play once or twice a week in-season, mostly at Newton Commonwealth, a hop, skip and jump from his Coolidge Corner home. He has been 3 inches from the cup on a par 3 several times, but never had a hole-in-one. He currently writes for WBUR’s ARTery, the Cape Cod Times and BestClasicBands.com among others and hosts
the video/podcast show Boston Rock/Talk.