News From Terre Haute, Indiana

May 2, 2009

Rub of the Green: Valley legend Gene Verostko was a man for the ages

By Bob Arnett

TERRE HAUTE — For the first time in nearly seven decades the local golf scene will be without the persona of one of Terre Haute’s most distinguished athletes. Superbly talented Gene Verostko earned three varsity letters in each of four sports. He excelled in golf, baseball, basketball and football while a student at Gerstmeyer Technical High School.

After graduating from Tech, Gene served a stint in the U.S. Army and was stationed in Germany. After being discharged from service, he soon became the dominant golfer in nearly every tournament he entered. Gene had once made the statement, “The first time I saw a golf ball flying through the air, I knew golf was the game for me.” That remark was certainly prophetic as he went on to win more that 150 golf tournaments, including 18 Terre Haute City Championships during a 25-year span. He was a charter member of Terre Haute Golf Association’s Hall of Fame.

On multiple occasions area businessmen approached Gene in regard to financing him on the professional golf circuit. Each time he refused. He would explain, “I had four children at that time. I felt my place was with my family, so I really never entertained the idea of playing golf for a living.” That’s not to say that Verostko’s considerable skills on a golf course were not noticed by some of pro golf’s “big guns.”

Several years ago, while playing in an exhibition at the Elks Fort Harrison course, Julius Boros and Cary Middlecoff, both big winners on the professional scene, could be overheard making statements such as, “Where did this guy come from? Who is this guy anyway?”

This writer observed his first pro tournament back in 1953, and not a single member of the professional tour was more impressive than Gene when it came to hitting a golf ball. I’ve never doubted that he could have been a big star had he turned professional. In addition to his prowess with a golf club, he was blessed with “movie star looks” and an athletic physique coupled with enough charisma for a dozen professionals.

Gene was a model of consistency on a golf course, never losing his temper or throwing a club. He never resorted to prancing around the green after a victory as some modern players are inclined to do.

A local attorney once asked this writer to inquire of Verostko if it would be satisfactory if the attorneys’ organization could use a trophy that was inscribed with Gene’s name. Verostko answered with two words, “Absolutely not!” End of conversation. I saw but one trophy at his house and that was a medalist award in the Indiana Amateur, an honor he won twice.

Later in life, Gene would walk at Meadows Center Mall, and it was a rare occasion when he wouldn’t be stopped two or three times by those who wanted to engage him in conversation. Gene would greet them with “How’s it going, babe?” Sometimes, after listening to a rambling story his retort would be “That’s show business, babe.”

Gene enjoyed having some fun on the golf course. On a hot sweltering day back in the early 1960s, he had a three-foot putt on the 18th hole at Country Club of Terre Haute to win another City Championship. About 250 onlookers ringed the green. Gene addressed the putt and the gallery fell silent. All at once he stood up and announced, “Wouldn’t a cold beer taste good about now?” While the gallery was still laughing, he leaned down and stroked the putt squarely into the center of the cup.

At another time, Gene might walk up to you on the putting green and place a ball about three inches in front of the cup and then put another ball about 10 inches behind the ball in front. Of course the hole was completely blocked by the first ball. Then he’d say, “I’ll bet you a dollar I can make this putt without touching the ball directly in front of the hole”. Of course the bet was accepted. Then he would simply step down on the ball he was putting, and that made a slight depression. When he hit the putt, it popped up and over the ball in front and dove into the hole. Then he would announce, “Give me my dollar.”

I don’t think he ever stayed around to collect his buck, but he had a good time with the trick.

Another time Gene was playing in the 36-hole championship final of the McMillan’s Terre Haute Match Play Tourney. His opponent’s wife had just joined the gallery as the match reached the 27th hole at which time Gene advised her, “Jim is playing some great golf. He has me seven down with nine to play. She followed her husband into the pro shop where he was buying a soft drink. His wife slapped him on the back and said, “Keep up the good work, I think you’ve got him this time.” At that, her husband turned to her and replied, “What do you mean I’ve got him? I’m seven down and the match is nearly over!” Gene could be seen in the corner of the pro shop with a sly grin on his face. Of course, most golfers didn’t mind finishing second to Gene Verostko in a golf tournament in that first place was usually reserved for Gene.

It always seemed that Verostko had the ability to follow an occasional poor shot with one that was spectacular. Players at Rea Park back in the 1960s posted their scores on a board in the clubhouse. I observed Gene’s 18 hole totals for 13 straight rounds, which went from a high of 69 to a low of 63.

During a round back in the late 50’s I watched Gene hit his approach shots directly at the flagstick 18 straight times. Not once did the ball travel left or right of the pin. In 60 years of golf, I’ve never seen that feat duplicated. His ability to make the golf ball do his bidding approached the supernatural.

Verostko knew the value of practice and he worked at his game religiously. The last 15 minutes of his half-hour lunch break at Wabash Fiber Box Co. could find him chipping balls at the back of the factory.

Good friend Bill Doan once observed, “You know why Gene won so often?” Answering his own question he indicated, “It was the size of his heart,” and that was the simple truth. Gene combined fantastic athletic ability with the desire to be the best in any athletic endeavor he undertook, whether it was the football field, the baseball diamond, the basketball court and especially the golf course.

To say that Gene Verostko was an athlete for all seasons would fall somewhat short. I’d rather believe that Gene was a man for the ages.

Always willing to give back to the game he loved, Gene served as president of Terre Haute Golf Association and Rea Park Men’s Club. As a longtime member of Terre Haute Park Board, he served as its president on multiple occasions.

Later in life, Gene limited his golf to weekends with his three sons, Gary, Paul and Danny. Gary was an excellent high school divotman at Gerstmeyer and went on to win tournaments where he now resides in Bloomington.

Paul Verostko has played sub par golf at the former Elks Fort Harrison Course now named River Bend at the Landing.

Danny, the youngest of Gene’s sons has shown aptitude for the game as well. Neither Gene’s wife, Joann, who passed away in 1985, nor his daughters, Sandy Dunn and Gayle Fountain have ever shown an interest in playing their father’s favorite sport.

Former Terre Haute golfers, John Trierweiler, Matt Cain and Luke Blank have joined Jake Peacock, a West Vigo divotman, and all are attending the Golf Academy of America located in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Trierweiler indicated that the curriculum includes the history of golf, rules fundamentals of the sport, golf management skills and basics of the short game among many other tenets of golf. The two-year program leads to an associate’s degree.

Jack Owens got his 2009 golf season off to a fast start when he scored an ace on number 12 at River Bend at the Landing. That, of course, is the name of the former Elks Fort Harrison C.C.

Owens used a 6-iron on the 160-yard par 3, a hole that plays much harder than it looks. John Lang witnesses Owens’ perfect shot.

• Tip of the week — Gene Verostko often declared, “If there is one thing that will benefit your golf game, keep your head as still as possible throughout your swing. If you do that you’ll always get something out of the shot.”

Keep your head down and your shoestrings tied. We’ll be back.